Reminiscences of old Baghdad by one of last Jews

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - One of the last eight Jews in Baghdad, a portly retired accountant, erupts in a bellyful of laughter when asked why he never married.

Policemen hold Iraqi national flags as they march during a graduation ceremony in Tikrit, 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad, November 8, 2008. REUTERS/Sabah al-Bazee

“I was a playboy. Don’t write that!” he jokes, grinning. “How old do you think I am? Wrong. I’m 65! Don’t write that! Write that I am 55!”

His government ID proves his age, and on the back it says, unmistakably: “Religion: Jewish.”

He has made contact with a reporter, not because he wants to tell the story of his persecuted community, but because he wants to complain about the landlord who is raising his rent.

“Because we are Jewish he knows we can do nothing. He isn’t afraid because he knows we have no tribe here. Don’t use my name.”

Once one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East, Baghdad Jews have now nearly vanished while the country has been consumed by sectarian war.

Speaking in fluent English, the ex-accountant launches into a description of the Baghdad of his youth, one of the Muslim world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

He recites the names of legendary social clubs where Jews, Christians and Muslims mingled in better days, with music and whisky and parties that ran through the night.

“So many people -- Muslim people -- say if the Jewish people come back it will be nicer,” he says.

His family have left. Some are in London, some in the United States. His father was offered a chance to move to Canada, but turned it down because he wanted to die and be buried in Iraq.

The ex-accountant himself stayed, but if he can sell his father’s house -- now a ruin bombed out in the Iran war in the 1980s -- he will finally leave.

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“I want to sell the house and go. I like Iraq, but I am fed up. We had very nice times in Iraq, but now we don’t like it.”

Iraq’s Jewish community dates from biblical times. According to Charles Tripp’s History of Iraq, the country was home to 117,000 Jews in 1947.

Under Ottoman rule, well into the first half of the 20th century, Jews made up about a fifth of the population of the capital. Some of the villas in neighborhoods along the Tigris still have six-pointed stars of David in their stucco.

How many Jews are there now?

“We know them all,” says the ex-accountant, counting.

There’s the ex-accountant himself, plus the nephew with whom he shares a rented house in Baghdad’s central Karrada district. There’s the man who lives near them, the man who leads the community, the very old woman, the male doctor and the female dentist. And the man whose brother was a goldsmith.

The goldsmith married the dentist a few years ago. A few months later, he was abducted by gunmen.

“They came to his house and took him. He disappeared. They left his car, they left his mobile. They just took him.”

So that leaves eight. Eight Jews left.

The synagogue in central Baghdad has been boarded up since 2003. The ex-accountant occasionally runs into some of the other Jews on the street, but confesses he isn’t much for religion.

“We don’t know how to pray,” he says. “Hebrew books we have everywhere in the synagogue, but we don’t know how to read it. Some words I know. The important one is Adonai. Adonai is God. We believe in God.”

In the old days, Jews were an integral part of Iraqi life. A relative of the ex-accountant was finance minister decades ago. But beginning in the late 1940s, successive Arab governments accused Baghdad’s Jews of supporting Zionism.

Some were jailed, others were barred from government posts, and thousands upon thousands left for Israel or the West.

By the time of Saddam Hussein’s fall, the ex-accountant estimates there were only a few dozen Jews left. Western organizations came and evacuated most of the rest.

“A woman called Rachel, she came here took some of them to the Jewish community in London, I think,” he said.

In 2003, he went to the Green Zone to meet a cousin who was born in the United States and had come to Iraq to work for the U.S.-run administration. The American woman was shocked when her mother put them in touch.

“She said: incredible! You are still here? She did not know she had a cousin in Iraq,” he said.

Apart from his quarrel with his landlord, the ex-accountant says he has had few problems with the neighbors, most of whom don’t know he is Jewish, some of whom don’t care.

“Somebody says ‘You are Christian’, I don’t say anything. Somebody says ‘You are Muslim’, I don’t say anything. I think most people think we are Christian because they don’t know there are still Jews in Iraq.”

Editing by Matthew Jones