London journalist Benjamin (Rocket Dreams, 2003, etc.) recounts her return to Baghdad in 2004 to see what remained of the once-thriving Jewish community that had included her own family.
Before the 1950s, Jews composed about a third of Baghdad’s population, but by the time the author slipped into the war-ravaged city, fewer than two dozen remained. A half-century ago, many of these Baghdadi Jews were so assimilated that they thought of themselves as Iraqis; they were stunned when changing political and economic factors caused those they considered fellow citizens to persecute and even execute them. (Readers may remember Otto Frank, a German who’d fought for his country in WWI and could not imagine the Nazis would ever come for him.) The author’s family had been in Iraq for generations, but Benjamin’s story focuses on her grandmother Regina, born 1905 and widowed in 1942, who endured much deprivation and hostility before finding a way to leave with her three children, in 1950. Regina emerges as a strong, imaginative woman who raised her children in the face of unlikely odds, then planned and executed a tense, but successful, escape. The author pauses periodically to discuss the history of Iraq and its Jewish population. She inserts her grandmother’s story amid pieces of her own. Near the end, she describes her harrowing experiences as a Western Jewish woman in the streets of the world’s most dangerous city. She visits her grandmother’s old neighborhood, interviews the few Jews who remain and has little good to say about America’s motives or behavior in the region. Readers may wish that Benjamin had spent a little more time crafting her sentences; she far too often uses very ordinary language to narrate extraordinary events and describe remarkable people.
A compelling story of a powerful woman, a persecuted people, a tortured time and a granddaughter’s deep respect for her family.