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Samir Naqqash: فراعراقية (Tenants and Cobwebs)

Jews have been in Iraq since the Babylonian captivity in 586 BC. They had, on the whole, integrated well with the Arab population. However, in the 1930s, the situation deteriorated. This was partially because of Nazi propaganda, partially because of rising Arab nationalism, and partially a reaction to Zionism in Palestine. This culminated in the Farhud (pogrom) against the Jews in June 1941. Following this, and further repression after the creation of the State of Israel, many Jews left the country, going to Israel, Iran, North America, Western Europe and elsewhere.

Samir Naqqash’s family emigrated to Israel, like many other Jews, in 1951, though he was never really happy there and lived in many other places, before finally settling in Israel. Unlike many other Iraqi Jews, he continued to write in Arabic and, as a result, his work was often unknown, something he felt bitter about. Only now is his work becoming better known.

This novel is set in Baghdad in the 1940s (after the Farhud). While many of the characters are Jewish, there are quite a few Arabs and the two communities live in close proximity. We follow the stories of several of these people – Jewish and Arab.

The background to the story is the Farhud. While it clearly has had an impact on several of the characters, two in particualr recall it in detail. Selman Hashwah is a religious, one-eyed peddler. He shares a room with Jamil Rabi, a blind Communist musician. Jamil is not an easy person to live with and the pair seem to have a love-hate relationship. Selman was in Karbala at the time of the Farhud and was nearly killed. He was clearly traumatised by the event, and remains so, hearkening back it on several occasions, not least because some of his family were killed. Jamil insists that it was the Communists that save Selman, which may or may not be true.

Atiyah al-Qarawchi is a nearly blind old Arab woman. When the Farhud took place, she stopped the killers coming in. A large man with a sword tried to enter and she pleaded with him not to kill anyone and, eventually, he went away.

Selman has one consolation. He is in love with Sabriyah. Sabriyah came from a fairly well-to-do family. She met Efrayim on a train (he is a train conductor) and they married. However, his job requires him to be frequently absent so she is lonely and therefore not entirely averse to Selman’s feelings for her. Selman is like a stop along your train route, Efrayim. I long to fondle him and tickle his belly.

Atiyah al-Qarawchi is not the only Arab to live comfortably with the Jews. So what if I share a house with Jews? thought Na‘imah. By God, I live at ease with them. Na‘imah is the wife of the barber and seems to be a kind and generous woman.

There are many other colourful characters. Gerjiyi has come from Bombay where she was an exotic dancer and, apparently, a prostitute (as were her sisters). She has a son but even she is unsure of who the father is. As long as I don’t know who made me conceive, all three are his fathers. They were a Jew, a Muslim, and a Hindu. She is planning to marry the much older Khoshi.

Marriage is, not surprisingly, a key issue. Various characters and their parents are eager to promote marriage for themselves or their children. Na‘imah wonders why the attractive Aminah does not get married but, apparently, this is dependent on her brothers. ‘Aziz Ghawi has fallen in love with a nightclub singer and, to satisfy his lusts, he goes to a brothel. He has been encouraged by his father. Go on and have a good time and be carefree. Before I married your mother, I drove the girls crazy and I had a hundred women. His mother is more concerned at marrying off her overweight daughters.

Parenthood remains a tricky issue for many. Lulu, the owner of the house, where some of the characters live, and a widow, is obsessed with the fate of her son, Marrudi. When Atiyah suggests to her son, Joudi, that he should marry, he makes two suggestions – his two sisters. He clearly does have mental health issues: This world is an illusion like a spider’s web enmeshing the trap of their serious sins. Confusing thoughts surround me and hover over and before me like a mirage. This world is a curse. Joudi seems to spend much of his time wandering around saying Da! Da! Da!. Indeed, the book ends with him saying Da! Da! Da!

We continue to follow the stories of a host of characters. There are disputes between parents and children, between spouses, between lovers and between neighbours. There are arguments over money. There is gambling and even drug use (one of the characters is an opium user).

All the while, many of the Jews feel attached to the country where they and their ancestors have lived for many years. This land is made of us, one character says to an Arab. We lived in it before you were born. When you were sperm, we had already completed compiling our Talmud, our Jewish Law.

But they know that things are not what they were. Baghdad was a desert of danger and fright, Baghdad became a wolf ambushing Jews and Hundreds of Jews ran away to Iran because of false accusations against them and the threat of imprisonment and hanging.. They want the plentiful world full, people living in harmony and love, and hearts cheerful and happy without hatred, greed, bloodshed, or sorrow but it is not going to happen.

This is a wonderful but sad story. A community that has existed for hundreds of years is slowly falling apart. Some of the people have their head in the sand, hoping that it will be all right. Others are so absorbed with their own problems that they cannot really focus on what is happening. Others are all to well aware that things are only going to get worse but are not sure how to react, except to panic and retrench.

Naqqash’s skill, as well as expertly portraying a disintegrating society and the effect that this has on the people involved, Jew and Arab, is his first-class colourful portraits of a range of protagonists. All of them are different, with their own problems and their own way of dealing with life and with the crisis, whether it is insanity, head in the sand, concentrating solely on their personal issues or overt fear. Inevitably, the stress of the crisis leads to disputes within the community and, indeed, within families.

As we get closer to the end, more and more are contemplating leaving (and one or two even consider suicide). By 1950 the Iraqi Parliament has passed a law stating that Jews wanting to leave had first to renounce their Iraqi citizenship and we see the effect of this. By 2013, just five Jews remained in Baghdad, down from some 50,000 (a quarter of the population) in 1900.

Publishing history

First published in 1986 by Rābiṭat al-Jāmiʻīyīn al-Yahūd al-Nāziḥīn min al-ʻIrāq, Jerusalem
First published in English 2018 by Syracuse University Press
Translated by Sadok Masliyah