World Philologies Seminar
Mi 20 Feb 2013 | 15:00–18:00

On Sponges and Lost Love: Three Poems and a Few Comments on Iraqi Jewish History

Orit Bashkin (University of Chicago); Chair: Islam Dayeh (Freie Universität Berlin)

Freie Universität Berlin, Raum J24/122d, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin

In the years 1921–1951, the Iraqi Jewish community thrived. Numbering around 150,000, this primarily urban community figured prominently in Iraq’s culture, literature and economy. In this paper, I raise a few questions relating to the meanings of the Jewish sense of belonging to the Iraqi community through a reading of three poems written by Iraqi Jews. In doing so, I explore the ways in which Iraqi Jews wrote about modernity and secularism, and the manners in which these texts shed light on sociocultural processes occurring in Iraq at the time. The poems were written by Yaqub Balbul (b. 1919) and Sasson Somekh (b. 1933).
The intellectual elite of Iraq, namely its newspaper editors, journalists, short story writers, poets, and publishers included many prominent Jews who wrote in Arabic and about Arab culture and history; these Jews cherished Arabic literature, and contributed much to the Arabic literary scene that came into being in interwar Baghdad. Some even called themselves “Arab-Jews”. As Pan-Arabism in Iraq has acquired a negative connotation in the Jewish context, because of the pro-German stance of some radical Arab nationalists during World War II, the anti-Jewish activities of the right-wing party al-Istiqlal during and after 1948, and the gruesome killing of Iraqi Jews by the Ba‘th in 1968, when we write about Jews who loved the Arabic language and Arab culture, we also need to take into account the fact that these Jews rejected the appropriation of Arab culture by the nationalist messianism of antidemocratic Iraqi parties. We need to separate, in other words, the Arabized cultural practices that were very much a part of a thriving Arab-Jewish culture in Iraq, and the politics that appropriated Arab culture for exclusionist and hegemonizing agendas.
It is with these historical considerations in mind that I will explore the three poems. I will not deal with either Iraqi politics or the diplomatic history that led to the Jewish departure from Iraq. Rather, I will present a reading of the texts and place each of them within the unique cultural context of Hashemite Iraq; I will examine the Jewish, Iraqi, and Arab elements connected to the themes they raise, and highlight some dimensions of their reception in Iraqi society, in order to reflect on the ways in which these texts inform our thinking about Iraqi Jewish identities.

Seminar Text:

Orit Bashkin got her Ph.D. from Princeton University (2004) and her BA (1995) and MA (1999) from Tel Aviv University. Her publications include 20 book chapters and articles on the history of Arab-Jews in Iraq, on Iraqi history and on Arabic literature. She has also edited the book Sculpturing Culture in Egypt with Israel Gershoni and Liat Kozma, which included translations into Hebrew of seminal works by Egyptian intellectuals. She is the author of the following books: The Other Iraq – Pluralism, Intellectuals and Culture in Hashemite Iraq, 1921-1958, Stanford University Press, 2009 (Paperback, 2010), New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq, Stanford University Press, 2012.

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