Farewell, Baby­lon: Com­ing of Age in Jew­ish Baghdad

Naim Kat­tan; Sheila Fis­chman, trans.
  • Review
By – February 20, 2012

Read­ing news of the tragedy occur­ring dai­ly in Iraq makes it hard to believe that this was ever a peace­ful coun­try, where young Jews and Mus­lims sat togeth­er in cof­fee hous­es, attend­ed school togeth­er, under­went famil­iar rites of ado­les­cence, and dreamt big dreams about the future. After read­ing Farewell, Baby­lon, a con­tem­po­rary of Naim Kattan’s, now an Iraqi-born Parise­d­u­cat­ed Jew­ish physi­cian liv­ing in Amer­i­ca, exclaimed, This is my sto­ry, too. I lived it.” Kat­tan him­self has called this mem­oir a nov­el, not a doc­u­men­tary, which under­scores the book’s evoca­tive quality. 

Farewell, Baby­lon was pub­lished in French (Adieu, Baby­lone, 1975) and appeared in Eng­lish 30 years ago. This new edi­tion is ele­gant­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Sheila Fis­chman, who deserves much of the cred­it for the imag­i­na­tive qual­i­ty of Kattan’s prose. 

Kat­tan per­mits the read­er to slip behind the veil of secre­cy of Mus­lim homes when he describes vis­its to friends, which now would be unimag­in­able. He reveals the demean­ing real­i­ty of quo­tas even in pre- World War II Iraq, which pre­vent­ed Jews from real­iz­ing their intel­lec­tu­al poten­tial. We learn how the strongest rep­ri­mand con­veyed by a Mus­lim moth­er to her mis­be­hav­ing child was to call him a Jew, and by a Jew­ish moth­er to call her child a Mus­lim. And we dis­cov­er how before World War II the com­mon ene­my of both Jews and Mus­lims were the Eng­lish, before the shift to the Ger­mans as the pri­ma­ry Jew­ish antag­o­nist after the 1941 pro-Nazi pogrom. Kat­tan explains this trans­for­ma­tion as, We knew how Hitler would treat the Jews, and the Nazis’ Iraqi dis­ci­ples did not reserve a more envi­able fate for us.” 

Kat­tan reveals an exot­ic world that exist­ed a life­time ago. An émi­gré liv­ing in Cana­da, he is a not­ed jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist, but at his core he remains an Iraqi Jew. This mem­oir beau­ti­ful­ly illu­mi­nates a time and place which sad­ly is no more.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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