The author’s grand­par­ents, Nana Aziza and Abba Naji

Pho­to­graph cour­tesy of the author

My Iraqi grandmother’s hands shone with olive oil and fad­ed burn marks. They were always mov­ing — knead­ing, crush­ing, chop­ping, sautéing, pour­ing, and spoon­ing — the turquoise-stud­ded gold ban­gles around her wrist a glo­ri­ous jan­gle. When I was a lit­tle girl in Syd­ney, she would some­times mas­sage my back. I could not speak Judeo-Ara­bic or Hebrew, and her Eng­lish was a pid­gin mix. Our lan­guage was that of our hands.

I wrote Shoham’s Ban­gle because I want­ed to tell the sto­ry of my grandmother’s ban­gle, which I now wear around my own wrist. It wasn’t until lat­er that I real­ized that the book also spoke to a larg­er shift in Iraqi Jew­ish women’s history.

Every fam­i­ly deals with the past dif­fer­ent­ly. My fam­i­ly chose silence. Although I was fed Iraqi Jew­ish food, sung Iraqi songs, and heard Judeo Ara­bic, I was not told about Iraq or the rich Baby­lon­ian Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that had lived there for 2,600 years. I was not told about Oper­a­tion Ezra and Nehemi­ah, the air­lift of over 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel. I was not told why they had to leave. I was told, Be qui­et and study hard.”

So instead of ask­ing ques­tions about my roots, I absorbed Iraq through my grandmother’s open home, teapots of car­damom tea, cheese-filled sam­busek, ba’aba tamar date cook­ies, and the del­i­cate, sim­mer­ing spices of cumin, baharat, and turmer­ic. Per­haps I always felt there was some­thing more to these spices. Inside every kubbeh ball was a hid­den tale.

I knew from a very ear­ly age that I want­ed to be a writer. I read words wher­ev­er they appeared — milk car­tons, cere­al box­es, street signs. Books like Enid Blyton’s The Far­away Tree and Syd­ney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series offered mag­i­cal oth­er worlds and immi­grant tales. It nev­er occurred to me as I buried myself in books that my grand­moth­er and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers also had a story.

The author’s grand­par­ents with their five chil­dren in Bagh­dad, 1951, before their flight on Oper­a­tion Ezra and Nehemiah

Pho­to­graph cour­tesy of the author

I got mar­ried young (like a good Iraqi Jew­ish girl), left Syd­ney, and moved to Johan­nes­burg. I had four boys. I called my grand­moth­er and scrib­bled down her recipes. After she died I lost some­thing very dear, which I only redis­cov­ered when I moved to Israel sev­en years ago. I began to research the sto­ry of the Iraqi Jews, espe­cial­ly the women, whose lives changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly with the plane ride from Iraq to Israel.

Shoham, the pro­tag­o­nist of my book, would have gone to school in Bagh­dad. I like to imag­ine that she went to the Lau­ra Kadoorie School for girls, which by 1950 had over 1300 stu­dents. While she stud­ied, her ban­gle would have jin­gled, a reminder of gen­er­a­tions of Jew­ish women stretch­ing from Baby­lon­ian times through the Ottoman Empire. There were no banks in Ottoman times, and so jew­el­ry was the depos­i­to­ry of fam­i­ly wealth worn by women, who were safe­ly guard­ed at home. Home was still a girl’s des­tiny in 1950’s Iraq. Shoham was to be an Iraqi Jew­ish wife and moth­er, the heart of the family.

In Israel, how­ev­er, these strict­ly defined tra­di­tion­al roles were bro­ken. Refugee pover­ty meant that Shoham’s moth­er, like many Iraqi Jew­ish women, had to work in fac­to­ries, in low-wage jobs. In Iraq, this would have been a dis­hon­or and embar­rass­ment. In Israel, it was survival.

This shift in expec­ta­tions meant that girls could have a dif­fer­ent des­tiny from their moth­ers. They had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to leave their homes ear­li­er, to envi­sion mean­ing­ful work and pro­fes­sions. A life beyond the stove. Yet, I imag­ine that even as Shoham entered the free­doms of an Israel where girls wore shorts, and mixed freely with boys, her ban­gle would clink on her wrist, as it does on mine.

She would remem­ber that her ban­gle was smug­gled from Iraq by her clever Nana. She would remem­ber that her ban­gle is the sym­bol of many wise, female hands, who guard­ed fam­i­ly and wealth before her. And I won­der if her ban­gle jan­gled her con­scious­ness as it does mine.

The ban­gles on my wrist remind me of my illit­er­ate grand­moth­er whose wis­dom ran deep­er than words. My ban­gles echo in the silence of my kitchen. What have we lost? I won­der. It’s in the emp­ty space next to me at the stove where my grand­moth­er once stood — where I feel not just the loss of the Iraqi, Baby­lon­ian Jew­ish community’s lan­guage and his­to­ry, but also the lost female secrets, the absent moth­er, the silenced chat­ter of gen­er­a­tions of women cook­ing together.

For me, this is the ten­sion of Shoham’s plane ride from Iraq to Israel, the cul­tur­al clash of East and West. It is the ques­tion that jan­gles on my wrist between the stove and the com­put­er screen. It is why I want to feed my chil­dren poet­ry, why I want to feed them kubbeh bamya stew. It is why I want to con­tin­ue the Iraqi Jew­ish lega­cy of my grand­moth­er who didn’t know how to read or write, but knew the secret of chop­ping onions joyfully.

The author’s fam­i­ly, includ­ing Nana Aziza and Abba Naji, in Syd­ney, Australia

Pho­to­graph cour­tesy of the author

Sarah Sas­soon was raised in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, sur­round­ed by her lov­ing Judeo-Ara­bic speak­ing Iraqi Jew­ish immi­grant fam­i­ly. When she mar­ried, she immi­grat­ed to Johan­nes­burg, South Africa and with her hus­band and four sons, made Aliyah. She lives in Jerusalem. Sarah loves writ­ing poet­ry and sto­ries about cross­ing bor­ders and oth­er worlds. Shoham’s Ban­gle is Sarah’s first children’s book.