Journalists and politicians often talk nonsense on the Middle East. I shouted at a newspaper article by Howard Jacobson who claimed the Jews have been persecuted by Christians for 2,000 years, and recently an MP stated that shiites and sunni Moslems had been fighting each other for over 3,000 years.
After the wonderful book by Charles Glass, ‘Tribes with flags’, I hav found another wonderful book on the region, ‘Last Days in Babylon the Story of the Jews of Bagdad’ by journalist Marina Benjamin. Both these books are important as they shine some light on what is happening now, and why. It is part family history, part history of a community that once flourished, but has now been completely thrown into exile.
“After almost a century of Arab-Zionist conflict, it is difficult for those with no direct experience of the Middle East to imagine Jews like my great-grandfatehr as a vital presence in Muslim societies and cultures, or indeed to appreciate the extent to which Arab Jews lived in peaceful co-existence with the rest of the Arab world. In Ezra’s day Jews and Muslims were often friends and neighbours. They ran businesses together, sent their children to the same schools, helped one another out in times of trouble, and held a language and culture in common. whereas Arab-Jewish communities in Yemen and Jerba continued to write primarily in Hebrew, many Jews in Egypt and North Africa adopted French as their lingua franca, the Jews of Iraq spoke a Baghdadi-Jewish Arabic dialect at home and elected to use standard Arabic as their language of culture.
By the end of the 19th century Jews were so thoroughly integrated into Baghdadi society, eating the same food, wearing teh same clothes and cherishing the same local customs as their Muslim peers that often the only way to tell the Jews apart wsa by their headgear: they wore the red fez, while Muslims favoured the turban.
This is not to say that no pecking order was observed. Baghdadi society was religiously and ethnically stratified, with the Sunni minority at the top of the heap, filling all the offices of local government and behaving as if they were representatives of the caliph himself. Many high-ranking Sunnis were Istanbul-educated in those days. They spoke Turkish and were loyal to Turkay, the first stirrings of Arab nationalism still a few years away. What’s more, the ruled as the Ottomans ruled themselves, through nepotism.
The Shia majority had second billng in Baghdadi society. But becuse they had been marginalised politically they were forced to compete with the Jews for power and influence, principaly through trade. the problem was that Shia merchants lacked overseas connections as well as the fluency in french and English that their Jewish counterparts acquired at school, and so they never managed to claim their rightful share of city commerce. For the Shias, the ultimate humiliation was that business life in Baghdad ground to a complete hald on Saturdays, and not on Fridays, whichs is the traditional mMuslim day of rest; the shops were shut, the bazaars empty, the streets were silent….As for the rest of Baghdad’s minotiry groups, the Kurds wer not particularly well represented, prefering to exercise their influence in Mosul, while Christians and Yazidis were generally too small in number to bother with. ”