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Surviving Baghdad

“He was a Syrian doctor and his wife was my close friend.”It was not the norm. She felt special.

Granny tells the story:

“This couple loved me, a Jew, they always said I wasn’t like ‘the other Jews.’”

“You grew up in Singapore not Iraq,” I remind her. She was nothing like “the other Jews,” including my mother, her eldest daughter, who grew up silenced in Baghdad, under the Muslim majority.

It was a compliment, an honor to be experienced as not really Jewish/different, by this upper middle class couple whose parties she scandalously frequented (without her husband).

My Granny, Matsuda/Meeda, was born and raised in Singapore as a British subject.

She had no idea she had become a “dirty Jew,” until she found herself a new bride at seventeen, fresh out of British Singapore, into Iraq.

She alienated her husband’s family who feared for their lives every time she fought back when taunted on the streets. She was not going to avert her eyes and quietly walk away when they cursed, “gaghba, Yehudi,” (prostitute, Jew), and obscenities I pressured her to repeat.

“It was horrible, I begged my father to let me go back to Singapore.”

She scared her eldest daughter, my mother, by her refusal to “adjust.” She had none of the fear Iraqi Jews lived with for centuries. Nor would she respect their rules. In Iraq when Jews still lived in their ancient 2,500-year-old community (there are no Jews left in Iraq), they didn’t speak back.

What Jew behaved the way she did?

Granny grew up free in Singapore. She had no idea Jews were a despised minority in her husband’s country. Her Iraqi grandparents on both sides never told her. It’s easier to forget an oppressive/shameful past.

Life became unbearable for her both inside and outside the home.

Granny was going crazy. Life threatening remarks were reaching the family because of her refusal to stop talking back when insults were hurled on her and her children on the streets. She felt powerless over her life. When she found herself pregnant again, she took control.

She refused to bear any more children. She had two older daughters followed by the obligatory boy child.

She was determined to terminate the pregnancy.

“I was not going to bring one more child into that place, to be a Jew in Iraq?

“I had to end it. But there was no way to do it. There was no place for an abortion. I had no help.

I threw myself down the stairs many times. I threw the sewing machine on my stomach. I was not going to have this baby.”

She miscarried.

“I started hemorrhaging. I didn’t know what to do. The bleeding wouldn’t stop. The family hated me. I ran to my friend because her husband was a doctor…”

My mother never forgave her mother for making an already dangerous life harder:

“Imagine she went to a dinner party honoring the Grand Mufti!!” It was there at the dinner party given by the same who had saved her when she began to understand what it meant to be a Jew in Iraq.

She sat there quietly as they introduced the guest of honor, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the virulent Jew hater who made a pilgrimage to Germany to meet in person with his hero, the Führer.

She sat there mute as her friends and guests listened to his rant in rapt attention.They clapped when he promised how Hitler would take care of all the Jews of the world, including Iraq.

“I didn’t understand…” Granny said.

My mother shot back at her mother; “what didn’t you understand Mama, you never wanted to understand, you scared the hell out of us every time we heard you caused a scene on the streets. “

“What was I supposed to do? Just let them abuse us?”

“Yes. We lived under them. You kept thinking you were “British” as if that would help, that you were different from the rest of us Jews.

As she remembered I saw the look in her eyes. My fearless Granny, Meeda the rebel, the one who opened her mouth “no matter what,”

Nodded; “I finally understood.”

She understood something so many Jews still don’t.

Read more: Surviving Baghdad | Rachel Wahba | The Blogs | The Times of Israel

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