Orit Bashkin, New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Muftah (M): What inspired you to write this book?
When I was working on my first book on Iraqi intellectual history, I noticed the interesting role Iraqi Jews had played in Iraqi culture more generally. While this role had to some extent already been documented, I was curious to know what in particular had made the Iraqi context so special for the country’s Jewish population, which was so different from the experiences of other Jews in the region.
I was also curious about how Iraqi Jews had established modern Arabic literature in Israeli academia. There were many Iraqi Jews in the 1950s and 60s who were active in the Israeli Communist Party, collaborating with people like Emile Habibi, the Palestinian novelist and communist politician, and writing articles in journals such as Al-Jadīd, the literary periodical of the Israeli Communist Party. So as a result of such collaborations you can find articles by the Israeli academic and writer Sasson Somekh and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in the same journal.
M: You based part of your research on Iraqi literature in the decades leading up to 1948, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Why did you choose to use literature as one of your main historical sources?
The first and second chapters of the book deal with questions of identity and secularism so I felt that the press and literature would be the most appropriate sources for such topics. It is usually in the literary field where people can most openly express themselves.
I was very curious about the way in which Iraqi Jews exhibited their knowledge of Arabic and Islamic literature through the use of citations from the Quran and Arabic poetry. For me, this demonstrated just how integrated they were in Iraqi cultural milieus.
So for the first part, I felt that literature as a theme in itself was very interesting. Of course, whenever I use literary sources I do so with much caution.
On the one hand, I do not want to use literature as the sole source of popular opinion because many of them are layered and very complex. I also do not think historians should turn their backs on such sources, but rather should engage with them in meaningful ways.
There are other documents I used in this study as well, some of which are based on British and Zionist archives. Paradoxically, the extent of commitment shown by Iraqi Jews to Iraqi nationalism is often most documented by Zionist agents or ‘emissaries,’ however one may want to call them, who would come to Iraq to try and convince Iraqi Jews to migrate to Israel. At least initially, this tactic ended in failure.
In the same book, you could find a mixture of social, cultural, and political history. Literature was such an important medium through which people expressed themselves, not only in the Jewish community in Iraq, but also in the Iraqi intellectual context in general.
In the inter-war period, neo-classical poetry was very important. Poets produced highly political poems in the 1940s and ‘50s so it is important that historians of culture do not ignore these bursts of creativity.
Modern Arabic poetry was revolutionized in Iraq and so for me that realm was always a part of the country’s historical fabric.
M: To what extent do you think writers and historians from all sides have practiced revisionism and how did you deal with texts that were clearly biased one way or another?
In general, I did not rely only on literary sources but also used memoirs and official documents.
Whenever I read a document of any kind, I try to distance myself from the ideas or ideologies of the author. Of course I take these factors into account, but I generally try to read against the grain and contextualize the author and the narrative that he or she produces, whether he or she is a colonial official, the Rabbi of Baghdad, a nationalist journalist, or a Zionist of the 1950s.
What I found particularly astonishing were memoirs of Iraqi Jews published in Israel; I do not mean the more established memoirs of leading intellectuals, but rather those that were written by ordinary people often at their own expense or sponsored by an organization called jam‘iyat al-yahūd al-nazihīn min al-‘iraq (Organization of Jews emigrating from Iraq).
People would claim that such memoirs talked about how much Iraqi Jews were persecuted or how good it was to come to Israel but actually, when you read how people described their own lives, their relationships with their neighbors, the music they loved to hear and the landscape of their childhood, you can see how much they actually loved Iraq and how much they felt they were a part of Iraqi and Arab culture and society.
It is in these memoirs that people identify themselves as Arab Jews, even as Zionist, so for me the question of bias is not really there. I simply try to get as many sources as I can about Iraq and try to learn from each one what I can about Iraqi society.
The place of publication, be it Baghdad or Tel Aviv or Beirut or London, matters, but what matters more is the narrative itself.
M: Was it difficult to research the Iraqi Jewish community without generalizing or lumping it into one homogenous category?
The book certainly focuses more on the urban Jewish Iraqi population rather than the rural Aramaic-speaking Jews that lived in northern Iraq, whose histories I am currently working on.
Since I am particularly interested in the literature of Arab Jews, most of the sources come from these kinds of urban populations. Again, I try to take into account the Jews who lived in poorer neighborhoods too who were the main victims of the Farhud and the many other kinds of Jews who called themselves Arab Jews such as communists, monarchists, liberals, and so on.
On the one hand, I wrote this book because I felt it added value to the history of the Jews in the Middle East in places where significant Jewish communities once existed such as Beirut, Damascus, Cairo or Alexandria.
On the other hand, I also wanted to emphasize there is a very specific Iraqi, even Baghdadi context, and that the formulation of the Jewish community in Iraq had a lot to do with specific Iraqi circumstances, such as the country’s ethnic and religious composition. There are certain things that are important to the Iraqi context that I wanted to underline.
So, while I hope people find it useful to conceptualize the role of Jews in Muslim lands more broadly, I also want them to be cognizant of the fact that Iraqi Jews were very different than, say, the Yemenite Jews or other Jews in the region.
Even within Iraq there were big differences between the urban Baghdadi Jewish community and other more rural communities. I was also aware of the tensions within Baghdad itself based on class, as well as other regional tensions.
I really think the fact all these communities are simply lumped together in Israel under the category of “Sephardic” or “Mizrahi” Jews does some injustice to the very rich cultural and social fabric of the Jewish community in Iraq and elsewhere, all the while recognizing the fact they do of course have some things in common, such as the Arabic language.
M: Who is the intended audience of the book?
Like any author I hope everybody buys it! But specifically, I hope Iraqis read it – both those Iraqis from the generation of the 1950s who actually had Jewish neighbors and new generations of Iraqis who may not know there once were Jews in Iraq.
I also hope other people in the Arab world read it and that Israelis read it as well because I think the book is very relevant to the current debate taking place in Israel right now about Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews.
It is an ongoing and very heated debate. What I am attempting to present here is the pre-Zionist context of Mizrahi Jews in the hope that Jews of Iraqi or Middle Eastern decent can learn more about the community from which they came and what life was like before the migration to Israel.
There are many myths about the fact that processes relating to secularity or interactions between Jews of European and Middle Eastern decent only began in Israel. This of course is not true and I hope people read about this and realize that such processes of interaction happened long before what is referred to as the mass exodus of 1950-1.
M: Have you noticed a growing interest in Mizrahi studies?
Yes, I have been very encouraged by the new generation of scholars specializing in Middle Eastern or Mizrahi studies. They come with a particular training in Arabic, Arabic literature or social history, which I think is really useful.
Of course, while very important pieces about the Jewish communities of the Middle East have been written, there is still so much we do not know. I think that finally these new scholars are beginning to shed some light on the truth.
I am also very encouraged that Iraqis who are not necessarily of Jewish descent are coming to the talks I am giving about the book and asking questions, being absolutely open to new ideas and extremely generous with resources.
There is now an anthology of modern Middle Eastern Jewish thought which presents the voices of Sasson Dalal and other Iraqi Jewish intellectuals that I’ve identified in my book. Such works are beginning to interest a wider audience. There are major theoreticians who have written about Jewish Arab identity in whose footsteps I am following, but as a historian I wanted to make a contribution in my own specific field.
But again I can sense other people in the field of Arabic literature and Middle Eastern history are now interested in these types of things and I am very happy about it.
These discussions are not, however, only taking place in academic circles. Take YouTube, for instance. Every month something new is posted about Iraqi Jews.
Songs by popular musicians such as Salima Mourad and the Kuwaity brothers receive much praise from people who remember how Iraqi Jews used to be a part of the Iraqi community.
My book definitely speaks to a wave of nostalgia about an era when nationalist ideologies were dominant and there was a multiplicity of communities who lived side by side in harmony. It is the emotions of friendship and neighborly relationships described in the book that people feel they can identify with. I am glad I was able to make a contribution to that.
M: Are you currently working on any new projects?
I have several projects in the works actually. Specifically, I am working on three projects that are somewhat interconnected.
One focuses more on the Kurdish or Aramaic-speaking Jews of northern Iraq and Kurdistan and the dynamics between their communities and Baghdadi Arabic-speaking Jews.
Because a lot of Jews from the north migrated to Baghdad, there are very interesting moments of ‘self-Orientalizing’ within the Iraqi Jewish community itself and also a lot of class-based differences.
Many Kurdish Jews worked as servants and porters and other low paid jobs in Baghdad so it is interesting to look at what happened in the north and what happened in Baghdad based on this rapport.
Another project I am working related to Iraqi Jews in Israel, their relationship with and contribution to the Israeli Communist Party, their writing in Arabic, and their collaboration with Emile Habibi.
Finally, I am very interested in the notion of race in ‘al-Nahda’, the Arabic cultural revival of the 19th century and how Jewish and Semitic history and Semitic linguistics are seen in this context. I have written and published a couple of articles on historical novels that deal with this issue.
I am not planning on writing a book on each topic but I am publishing articles and constantly moving between these subject areas.
It is a nice mix. When I get tired of the 19th century, I move to 1950s Israel and when that gets me absolutely depressed, because it does, I move to the Jews of Kurdistan. It is a good balance.
While this work is relevant and meaningful for what is happening nowadays in the Middle East, it is undoubtedly also a form of escapism that is sometimes needed, I think.
M: Thank you so much for talking to Muftah. We look forward to reading your future works.
To order the book, click here.
 Farhud refers to the dispossession or pogrom carried out against the Jewish population of Baghdad in June 1941, following the collapse of the pro-Nazi government of Rashid Ali.