Shmuel goes from horrors of Iraq to prizewinning poet

IRAQI Jews are the quintessential exiles. Nobody more encapsulates the exilic tensions between love of one’s birthplace and that of one’s ancestral spiritual home than Shmuel Moreh — a Baghdad-born Israel Prize winning Arabic poet and emeritus professor of Arabic literature at the Hebrew University.

The grandson of a rabbi and the child of integrated professional parents, Professor Moreh explained to me last week how deeply engrained in the psyche of the Iraqi Jew is the ancestral memory of the first exile into Babylon, now Iraq.

Prof Moreh, who was at Manchester University for a conference on the Middle East, said: “Every year on Tisha b’Av Iraqi Jews weep for the Temple as if it happened yesterday.

“They weep when they sing the psalm On the Rivers of Babylon. Every Jewish house had a strip of black paint around its walls to remember the destruction of the Temple.”

He recounted a joke making the rounds in Baghdad in the 1940s about how it was impossible to make a Jew smile as long as the Temple remained destroyed.

He added that his accountant father, before his death in Israel in 1990, had made him sing with him the words of Yehuda Halevi about not forgetting Jerusalem.

“We sang and wept together,” he recalled.

Yet however steeped in Jewish nostalgic tradition Shmuel’s family was, they were “well integrated into Arabic culture”, even though, as in the time of the Cairo Geniza, Jews persisted in writing Arabic in Hebrew script.

Prof Moreh’s academic choice of Arabic literature stemmed from the fact that already, by the age of 16, he had published poems in Arabic newsletters.

Yet as elsewhere throughout the Diaspora, however well integrated Iraqi Jews were in their exilic land, during the 20th century antisemitism raised its ugly head.

It began, he said, with Iraqi officers who had served in the pro-German Ottoman army during World War One.

This was later aggravated by an influx to Iraq not only of German immigrants but also of Palestinians fleeing the British Mandate in the 1930s.

The situation deteriorated drastically in 1941 with the pro-Nazi revolt against alliance with Britain during World War Two by Rashid Ali al-Kaylani, who took over as Iraqi prime minister.

Prof Moreh – then Sami Muallem – had the misfortune to be a classmate of the new prime minister’s son in the top Baghdad primary school they both attended.

When his father had seized control of Iraq, eight-year-old Faisal al-Kaylani turned his attention upon his classmate “Sami the Jew”, threatening to take out his eye with a stick.

But brave Sami fought back. With his back against the wall, Sami boxed Faisal in the eye and the prime minister’s cowardly son ran crying to his Christian headmistress, who threatened Sami with expulsion for the misdeed.

However, the situation was resolved when Sami’s father was called into school the following day and Sami cleverly made a mockery of the reconciliation ceremony he was forced to endure.

Al-Kaylani senior soon suffered a major setback with a threatened British onslaught on Baghdad and he fled to Berlin where he was recognised as the Iraqi government in exile.

However, with the departure of Al-Kaylani, Iraq was left in a power vacuum which facilitated the June 4, 1941, farhud in which nearly 140 Jews were killed in a pro-Nazi pogrom.

Israel Prize winner Prof Moreh has written extensively about the catastrophe and has urged the Israeli government to recognise June 4 as a national memorial day. He has also campaigned for the event to be included in Holocaust education.

But he now claims that present-day Iraqi intellectuals regret the farhud, which led to the eventual escape from the country of most of Iraqi Jewry and with them their important economic and professional contributions.

He got to Israel with just clothes and £50

WITH World War Two raging in 1941, there was no possibility of escape from Iraq.

Professor Shmuel Moreh recalls: “Men, women and children were raped. Around 2,500 Jews were rounded up. Homes were plundered.

“But our family was lucky. Our neighbour was the commander of the Iraqi Air Force and no one dared come near.

“After the looting, Jews came begging to us for food and clothing. There were many orphans.”

Post-war, the economic situation of Iraqi Jews improved with the prosperity it brought. But clandestine Zionist activities were taking place.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, conditions worsened with Jews afraid to go on the streets as people were being arrested and accused of being Zionists and Communists.

Prospects were now bleak. Most of Iraqi Jewry left for Israel between 1950 and 1951. In order to leave they had to renounce Iraqi citizenship and all their assets were frozen.

Prof Moreh recalls: “One minute we were upper middle class. The next we had to leave with our clothes and £50.”

He added: “Many Jews gave the keys of their homes to their neighbours who gave them to Palestinian refugees.”

“There was an exchange of population and property,” he said. “But the Israeli government has never used that argument with reference to the Palestinian refugee issue.”

The professor maintains that many Iraqis are now calling for the Jews to return to help build up the country, saying that he personally is inundated with such invitations.

However, back in 1951 the situation was totally different.

Wanting to take his published poems out of the country, Prof Moreh took them to the Ministry of Interior censor who authorised them with his stamp.

Nevertheless airport officials tore them up, as well as strip-searching him, suspecting him of smuggling out gold.

But undaunted, the professor said: “I took the pieces out of the dustbin and had them republished in Israel.”

“It was a peculiar feeling,” he added. “I did not know where I was going except that it was to Israel.”

At Lod Airport, he and his fellow immigrants were sprayed with DDT.

He says: “Some took it very hard.”

After he was sent to an absorption centre near Haifa, members of his family left separately for Israel.

Prof Moreh recalled: “My father left behind 37,000 square metres of land in Baghdad. He wanted to build a hospital there.

“To compensate, I later became president of Jerusalem’s Misgav Ladach Hospital.” But housed in a tent in the Haifa absorption camp, his first day was devoted to concreting a roof.

Unused to such strenuous manual work, the next day he could not rise from his bed.

Fortunately, he had a brother already at the Hebrew University who arranged for him to study there and Prof Moreh’s glittering career as an expert on Arabic literature took off.

England also played its part in that career. He researched his PhD between 1962-5 at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and describes these years as the “happiest of my life “.

This was “because I received scholarships from the British Council and the Friends of Hebrew University and did not have to earn a living while I was studying”, he said.

He has also had close links with Manchester, visiting as a professor every summer in the 1990s and co-authoring a book on Jews in the Arabic theatre with Professor Philip, Sadgrove of Manchester University’s department of Middle Eastern studies.

Last week, he was at the university for a British Society for Middle Eastern Studies conference on ‘Separation and Conflict in the Middle East’.

So how does Prof Moreh, who continues to love Arabic as his mother tongue and instrument of his art and writes nostalgically about his homeland, feel about the prospects of Middle East peace?

His answers express the eternal ambivalence of the once-exiled Jew.

On the one hand he asserts: “Israel is the only place in the world where a Jew can feel safe and secure.”

But he admits that he only really felt at home there when he received the Israel Prize in 1999.

His poems, published in Arabic across the Muslim world, depicted his mother’s homesickness for her native land.

As a result of the Arabic publication of his memoirs, he receives daily phone calls from Iraqis, begging him to return.

He admits his “yearning for Iraq”, especially to visit the graves of the prophets Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah and Nahum as well as the scribe Ezra.

But he says poetically: “The masts of our ships are broken, our sails torn. How can we return?

“Iraq is no place for us. If the Muslims are slaughtering their brothers, how can we return if we are Jewish?”

Nevertheless, Prof Moreh is hopeful of the Saudi peace initiative and is encouraged by all the scholars from Arab countries who are his friends.

But then he remembers how in his youth, within the space of a week, all his friends became enemies and he had to escape for his life.

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph