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.