Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible
Although we should have been sleeping on the roof as we always did during the summer in Baghdad, my mother had yet to bring up the beds, fit them with mosquito netting, and put the water jug out to cool on the balcony. Perhaps she was loath to acknowledge the change of the seasons or feared the late spring sandstorms that turned the city’s skies red.
My father saw storm warnings too, which had raged like a whirling sword since the hanging of the wealthy Jewish merchant Shafik Addas. Every night the CID, the Iraqi secret service, visited houses in search of weapons, two-way radios, and the Hebrew textbooks distributed by ‘the Movement’, as the Zionist underground was called by us. Hundreds of Jews were dragged off to torture chambers and forced to confess at summary trials staged by the military regime.
Shafik Addas was not a native Iraqi. He was a Syrian who had turned up one day in Basra, the City of Date Palms, and gone into the car import business from which he made a fortune put at millions of dinars. Among the regular guests in his mansion were wazirs, emirs, sheikhs, army officers, even Regent Abdullah. Addas was to Basra what Big Imari, my father’s cousin, was to Baghdad. It was his overconfidence that proved his downfall. Instead of taking – like Big Imari – a Moslem from a prominent family to manage his affairs, deal with government officials and bribe them when necessary, he ran his business himself and acted the equal of any Arab. He was envied and made enemies, and neither his aloofness from his fellow Jews nor the life of a dyed-in-the-wool Iraqi that he led were able to save him in the end.
A hot desert wind blew that night. Lying in the kabishkan, my little attic room, I couldn’t fall asleep. It was asphyxiatingly hot and I was worried. Worse yet, Miss Sylvia had picked the next day to test us on Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ and I wanted badly to outperform George. To be or not to be. What choice was there? I was too young to dwell on death but the fate of Shafik Addas kept me awake. One spin of fortune’s wheel and even a muhtashem like him, a potentate at the height of his career, was just another Jew at the end of a rope. Although I hadn’t seen it, I could picture the screaming mob in the square. Both old Hiyawi and my Uncle Hizkel had been there and told me about it.
It had happened less than a year before, right after Passover, during the wave of arrests that followed the establishment of Israel. The new defence minister Sadik al-Bassam, or Sadik el-Bassam Damn-His-Soul as we Jews called him, had wanted to teach us a lesson. Shafik Addas was a godsend. The editor of the Basra newspaper An-Nas had asked him for a ‘contribution’ of a thousand dinars and Addas had refused to comply. What, he had thought, could a mere journalist do to him when he was friends with everyone in the government and police?
Now, lying in bed, I couldn’t help reflecting how the choice of whether to be or not to be was sometimes made without knowing. Two days later the editor published a vicious article accusing Addas of selling arms to ‘the Zionist gangs’ and spying for ad-dowa al maz’uma, ‘the make-believe state’, as Israel was called. The newspaper demanded an investigation, and as soon as copies of it reached Baghdad there was a clamour for Addas’s head. It was practically a holy war; the whole country talked of nothing else. The only one who seemed unaffected was Addas himself, who – or so it now seemed – had lost his instinct for survival. The night before his arrest he was secretly visited by the provincial governor, Fahri el-Tabakchali, who urged him to flee to Iran in a speedboat that was waiting to take him safely across the Shatt-el-Arab and out of danger in half an hour. Addas wouldn’t hear of it. ‘They have nothing on me,’ he insisted each time the governor quoted the proverb El-hazima ranima, ‘He who runs for his life takes it with him as his loot.’
The next day Addas was arrested. The trial lasted three days. His three lawyers resigned one by one because the judge, Abdallah en-Na’san, a Jew-hating army officer, refused to hear any defence witnesses. Sadik al-Bassam signed the death warrant at once, after which the Regent equivocated for three days. He was Addas’s friend and knew better than anyone what a patriot the condemned man had been. Yet when Addas’s wife went down on her knees before him, he could only stare at the ground and reply that the matter was no longer in his hands.
‘Kabi, my boy,’ said old Hiyawi, ‘what can I tell you? The day before the execution I went to Basra with your Uncle Hizkel to fast and pray with the Jews there as Rabbi Bashi told us to do. On the way I wanted to say a prayer at the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel in Kifl. I was afraid your uncle would refuse – you know what a firebrand he is – but he not only agreed, he said he had been thinking of it too. By the time we reached Basra there were mass demonstrations in the streets. Even small children were carrying effigies of Addas and calling for his blood. And the next day – woe to the eyes that saw it! – he was hanged in front of his home. Once wasn’t enough for them; they actually strung him up twice. I’m an old man and I’ve never seen or heard
the likes of it. The mob went as wild as if the prophet Muhammed had come back to life. There were thousands of Moslems from Basra and the area, and some who had come all the way from Baghdad. Whole families. They waited up all night, dancing and shouting Allah akbar. We were afraid to go out and watched through the cracks in the shutters. Kabi, what can I tell you? We live in a country where judges mock justice and rulers know no mercy.’
In their hotel that night he and my uncle didn’t sleep a wink. Hizkel, from whom I heard the story too, said that Addas’s trial reminded him of the Dreyfus Affair, which had inspired Herzl to write his book The Jewish State. My uncle was a passionate believer in Zionism and an expert on its history. After Addas’s death he wrote an editorial titled ‘Confessions Of The Hangman’s Noose’ for which the newspaper he published was shut down. ‘The trial of Shafik Addas,’ it said, ‘was the trial of every Jew. If an Addas can be hanged, who will save the rest of us?’
I tossed and turned on my wooden bed until I felt as if I was rocking in a hammock. I dreamed of purple fields and of a great eagle that carried me to the fabled gates of Jerusalem and knocked on them with its beak. And then, all at once, I knew for a terrifying fact that the knocks were on our front gate. It was useless to try to ignore them by pulling the blanket over my head. I got out of bed and stared blindly into the dark. They’re here. They would find the arms. They would take my father.
I roused myself and went downstairs to my parents’ room. The light was on and my mother stood by the double bed with the colour gone from her face. My father lay in bed. He had been running a fever for three days and had dark bags beneath his bloodshot eyes. Strands of thick grey hair stuck out from his woollen cap and his thin moustache had all but vanished in his unshaven face.
‘They’re here!’ whispered my mother in an unsteady voice.
‘What will we do, Abu Kabi?’
‘Kabi, open the gate for them,’ said my father.
I headed for the courtyard, stopping at the end of the long hallway to grope for the light switch. My breath came in shallow spurts. The banging on the gate made me tremble. ‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ I tried calling in Moslem Arabic, but the words came out in a Jewish dialect. I turned the big key and lifted the heavy wooden latch that my Uncle Hizkel had made not long before. I was immediately pinned against the wall. Four soldiers burst inside, dragging Hizkel who lived nearby. His bloody face was beaten to a pulp. His wife Rashel followed frantically behind them.
‘Look what they’ve done to him!’ she wailed.
‘He’ll swing for it,’ said a soldier, running a finger over his throat.
‘No!’ She let out a scream and reached for Hizkel, clutching at his shoulder.
‘Out of the way, you!’ barked the soldier.
The devastation lasted a good hour-and-a-half. At four in the morning I was back in the courtyard again, accompanying the soldiers to the gate. Hizkel was lying by the cesspit. He seemed to be trying to smile at me with his swollen lips that were mashed out of shape. Rashel sat beside him with a frightened look, stroking his wounds as if drawing the pain from them. One of the soldiers, named Adnan, was in a vile mood because an oil lamp had shattered in his hands while he was searching the cellar. He rammed the jalala, the wooden chair-swing, with his rifle butt until it split lengthwise and calmed down only after booting Hizkel in the ribs. Rashel tried desperately to shield him and was driven back with a blow to her chest. Her eyes filled with tears.
Adnan studied the oil stain on his uniform. I wanted to throw a lit match at it. Would I ever carry out any of my fantasies? Not until the day that I could overcome my fear of these soldiers.
An officer appeared in the courtyard and ordered that Hizkel be taken away. Before he could get to his feet he was dragged to a jeep outside, his eyes two white flares in the dark lane.
‘Kus um-el-yahud, get the hell up!’ yelled Adnan.
Hizkel tried raising himself with his handcuffed arms, collapsed, and tried again. In the end he got to his feet with Rashel’s help. He stiffened when he saw me, turning his head away from the soldiers to hide a grimace that seemed to say: Hush not a word you know nothing. Perhaps Rashel, who was not in on the secret, was not meant to see either. She supported him while Adnan eyed her trim body in the glare of the headlights.
‘Instead of messing around with these Jews, we ought to be fucking their wives,’ he said.
‘Watch it now,’ said the officer with a wag of his finger as he climbed into the jeep by the driver. ‘Allah let you off easy this time.’ Two soldiers pushed Hizkel into the back seat and sat on either side of him.
‘Hizkel, Hizkel,’ wept Rashel. The jeep disappeared around a curve in the lane, leaving behind a stench of exhaust.
The Dove Flyer by Eli Amir
Translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin (Halban 2010)
Eli Amir was born in Baghdad, and his family moved to Israel in 1951. He served as special advisor to the Prime Minister, responsible for Arab affairs in east Jerusalem, and worked as a political columnist, lecturer, and member of the Israeli delegation on Palestinian refugee affairs. Currently Amir is chairman of the public council of The Abraham Fund for Coexistence and Equality between Israeli Arabs and Jews. His work has received many awards.
Hillel Halkin has lived in Israel since 1970, working as a translator, journalist, and author. A leading Hebrew-English and Yiddish-English translator, he has translated more than fifty works of fiction, poetry, and drama, including classic works by Agnon, Sholem Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, and contemporary Israeli writers such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. As a journalist, Halkin was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when he wrote for the
New York weekly Forward, and he has written widely on Israeli and Jewish politics, literature and culture.