Monday, March 21, 2011

Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation by Marina Benjamin, 2006

"This is a history unknown even to most Jews. Benjamin narrates it fluently and passionately." from a review by Moris Farhi published in the Independent  3/27/07

In this very informative memoir, Marina Benjamin (born in 1964), a British journalist, focuses on the life of her maternal grandmother, Regina Sehayek Levy, whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. Born in Iraq in 1905 toward the end of the rule of the Ottoman Empire, she lived out her last years in England where she died in 1992.

The author divides her story into three parts: The Lost World, Changing Times and Coming Full Circle. In each section she gives us a crash course in the politics that were in play at the time and with that background as context, she discusses how the Jewish community as a whole as well as members of her family in particular were affected by the Iraqi leader of the moment, the shifting British presence, and Arab world politics.

Benjamin starts by recreating old Iraq and Baghdad, giving us a crash course in early Iraq history, both Arab and Jewish. She notes that Jews had lived continuously in Iraq for 2700 years, living most of the time in harmony with their fellow Arab Iraqis. Early in the twentieth century one third of Baghdad’s residents were Jewish. Jewish men were successful merchants and traders and were also well represented in various departments in government offices. The author explains that they were successful because they were multi-lingual and had family and co-religionist outposts around the world that facilitated their business transactions. 

Like the Arab Iraqis, the Jewish Iraqis were culturally conservative. For example, all marriages in the early part of the century were arranged. Dowries were routine. Marina's grandmother Regina Sehayek was betrothed to Elazar Levy, a well-established businessman, who was thirty years older than she was. An only son with a widowed mother, he delayed marrying until he had married off and provided dowries for all of his sisters.

Throughout the decades of the twentieth century life got gradually more difficult for Iraqi Jews. There were many signs of trouble. Iraq, ruled by the Turks who sided with the Germans during World War I, was subsequently occupied by the British. The Iraqi Arabs were resentful when the Iraqi Jews aligned themselves with the British. In addition, Pan-Arabism as a movement became a real force in Iraq at the same time that Zionism was emerging as a movement in the west.

Benjamin then discusses the Arab Iraqi reaction to the creation of the state of Israel and how that impacted the Iraqi Jews. Living in Iraq became intolerable, and in the early 1950’s  325,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Regina Levy chose a different path. Widowed with three children, she managed to arrange passage to Calcutta where her sister Josephine lived. After several years there she became an Indian citizen, obtained passports for her and her children, and left for England.

At the end of her memoir the author writes about the reception the Iraqi Jews received in Israel. She quotes the largely European Ashkenazi leaders who disparaged the Iraqi Jews as hopelessly backward. And she ends her memoir with some thoughts on a visit she made to Iraq in 2004. She mourns the death of a community with a rich, proud and extensive history.

This memoir includes many family photos, notes identifying sources,  a bibliography for further reading, and an index.

To read an abbreviated version of Marina Benjamin's memoir in the form of an essay she wrote for Tablet, click here.

Author’s family on her maternal grandmother’s side
Yehesqail Nissan
    David Yehesqail Nissan – Yehesqail’s son
        Salman Nissan – David’s son
            Salha Nissan – married Ezra Sehayek (son of Shlomo Sehayek, son of Ezra Sehayek)
                Solomon Sehayek – son of Salha and Ezra
                Marcelle Sehayek – daughter of Salha and Ezra
                Josephine Sehayek – daughter of Salha and Ezra
                Nessim Sehayek – son of Salha and Ezra
                Regina Sehayek – daughter of Salha and Ezra; married Elazar Levy
                    Haron – son of Regina and Elazar; married Ann Hewitt
                    Marcelle – daughter of Regina and Elazar; married Sassoon Benjamin
                        Andrea – daughter of Regina and Elazar
                        Marina – daughter of Regina and Elazar; author
                    Bertha – daughter of Regina and Elazar; married Victor Nourallah
            Violet – sister of Salha Nissan Sehayek; married Victor Battat
                Gourji Battat – Violet and Victor's son
            Farah – sister of Salha Nissan Sehayek

Author’s family on her maternal grandfather’s side
Agha Elazar Levy
    Yaeer Levy, son of Agha Elazar
        Elazar Levy – son of Yaeer
            Haron Levy – son of Elazar; married to Simha
                Elazar Levy – son of Haron and Simha; married Regina Sehayek (see above)
                Khatoun Levy– daughter of Haron and Simha
                Habiba Levy – daughter of Haron and Simha
                Farha Levy – daughter of Haron and Simha
                Dola Levy – daughter of Haron and Simha
                Muzli Levy – daughter of Haron and Simha
        Shimoun Levy – son of Yaeer

Lizette Battat – a relative of Salha Nissan Sehayek
Yusef Elkabir – a cousin of Elazar Levy
Goorji Levy – a cousin of Elazar Levy
Albert Levy – a nephew of Elazar Levy
Reuben Zeloof – a cousin of the Regina Sehayek
Friends, Acquaintances, and Sources       
Sion Aboudi
Meir Elias
Menham Salah Daniel
Sasson Hesqail
Elly Kadoorie
Khedouri Zilcha
Claire Dellal
Violet Masri
Farah Nissan
Rosie Fattal
    Louise Fattal – Rosie’s daughter; married Freddy Shohet
Anwar Kedoori
Abraham Masri
Salima Joury
Sion Koubi
Enzo Sereni
Ezra Kadoori
Avraham Mordad
Ibrahim Lawee
Reuben Battat
Shafiq Ades
Heskel Shemtob
Yudke Tajer
Shalom Saleh Shalom
Yusef Basri
Elmer Berger
Sassoon Khedouri
Ezra and Sayeeda Levy
    Emad  and Saleh Levy – their sons
Marcelle Daoud
Samir and Jacob Shahrabani (brothers)
Edwin Shuker
Dora Qashqoush
Tawfiq Sofaer
Violet Tweg
Rachel Zelon
Meir Basri
    Carole Basri - Meir Basri's niece
Eli Amir
Khalida Mouallem
Places and Institutions
Baghdad, Iraq
Rashid Street, Baghdad, Iraq
The Shorja, Baghdad, Iraq
Laura Kadoorie School for Girls, Baghdad, Iraq
Frank Iny School, Baghdad, Iraq
Menahem Daniel School, Baghdad, Iraq
Bataween, Iraq
The Shurah
Baswa, Iraq
Ezra Daoud Synagogue, Baghdad, Iraq
Meir Tweg Synagogue. Batatweein, Iraq
Massouda Shemtob Synagogue, Baghdad, Iraq
Nes Ziona Camp, Israel


  1. Thank you for a very interesting blog. I´m a history-student from Finland that´s writing my masters thesis about three memoirs and the receiving of them in Scandinavia during the 21st century. You´ve written about two of them, the diaries by Mary Berg and Hélène Berr. If it´s okey I´ll refer to your blog in my thesis?

    I also have a blog, but it´s in swedish. But your still very welcome to read it! :)

    Best wishes, Tanja Granlund.

  2. Tanja, I'm glad you have found this blog. Yes, of course, you can use the reviews here in your masters thesis. What is the third book you're writing about I haven't included? I'm surprised you're not including An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum.

    It is interesting to me that you are a student in Finland, but write a blog in Swedish. I guess you're from Sweden.

    Toby Bird

  3. Oh, I hear you don't know about the fact there's about 6% swedish-speaking Finns in Finland (and we are most certainly not from Sweden.)! :) There's some history for you to look up.

    The third book I'm writing about is Mirjam Bolles diary "Let me tell you what a day here is like". It's very interesting, you should review it. I chose the books because they were not to well-known, as Etty Hillesums diary and Anne Franks and so on...

    I'll continue reading your reviews! :)

  4. I will look that memoir up. Thank you for supplying the name. I've never heard of it. You'd probably be surprised to know that Etty Hillesum is not well known in America. Good luck on your master's thesis.

    Toby Bird

  5. Hello. Im wondering whether the Regina Sehayek that is the subject of the memoirs written by Ms. Benjamin might be closely related to a Regina Sehayek whose father was Ezra S. Sehayek and whose mother was Massouda Shemtob?

    Thankyou for any assistance.