Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
This is a book about literature and adolescent dreams, some fulfilled but most shattered. The teenage aspirations are so lovingly recalled that it’s hard not to share them, not to feel sad and angry at the loss of what might have been.
When you realise that the country being re-created so elegiacally is Iraq, the city Baghdad, the frustration at the waste of so many exuberant lives, either through exile (for
the lucky ones), or murder is almost unbearable.
The opening scene is a cafe where a group of young intellectuals – Jews, Christians and Muslims – are arguing over cups of bitter coffee. All of them speak Arabic, after all “we had been neighbours for centuries … in our group we were neither Jew nor Muslim we were Iraqis.
“Books were the source of life for us,” declares the author Naim Kattan. But they also contained the seeds of future pain as Kattan and his friends discovered therein “the full and radiant existence of Europeans and realised how bare our own lives were, how stifling the limits of our surroundings.”
Kattan describes with youthful incomprehension the Farhoud of June 1st-2nd, 1941 when violence, rioting “and the howling of a mass burning with thirst” ripped through the city which until then had provided a warm home to Jews for centuries. His family huddled together, prayed in Hebrew and survived. Almost 300 Jews did not. Yet many of the 150,000 Jewsm still in Iraq had been fervent nationalists and considered themselves fully integrated. When ten year-old Kattan behaves really well for a week, his reward is to be taken to a reat celebration at the home of Muslim friends. When he fractures a bone in his arm his father takes him to a Muslim bonesetter who asks for no remuneration. When he loses his virginity to a woman resplendent with beauty and filled with poetry, she tells him, in the purest Muslim accent, that her father is a mullah.
As memories of theFarhouddimmed, Kattan and his friends allowed themselves to glimpse a future where they were united to their Muslim and Christian brothers.
Kattan describes Nessim, his best friend, as “travelling as seriously as I was down the road of dreams and self expression.” Both shared a frantic love for Arabic literature, especially pre-Islamic poetry, and on one occasion were the only two in the class who knew the meaning of a verse from the Koran. The teacher ignored them.
Naim Kattan was born in Baghdad in 1928 and left in 1947 on a French government scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. As he points out in the book, education was
always the Jews’ most potent weapon and parents who had the means did not wait to send their children abroad if they possibly could. Five years later the rest of his family went
to Israel. Kattan himself left France for Montreal in 1954 andFarewell, Babylonwas first published there in 1975, nearly thirty years after the events described. Its highly accomplished translation into English could hardly be more timely. There are today nearly four million Iraqi refugees spread around the globe, Arabs and Kurds as well as Jews. The author insists in this new version of the book that he has written neither a work of nostalgia nor resentment. He sees Iraq as a country that could not hold on to its citizens.
“I remind myself that people outlive their lands, even lands that are hostile. Sometimes ungrateful people damage the legacy and the wealth of their land. I never forget that Abraham was born at Ur in Chaldea, not far from Baghdad.”
Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother published by John Murray September 2007