Last Days in Babylon, By Marina Benjamin, Free Press, 304 pp., $25
In March 2004, London journalist Marina Benjamin ventured into Baghdad, braving the hazards of wartime for the sake of an intensely personal goal -- to examine the fading world of Iraqi Jews and to forge a connection with her family's past. Her journey led her to mere fragments: a bare-looking synagogue, a neglected cemetery, a handful of people scraping by. One man she met viewed himself as a Robinson Crusoe, "isolated, stranded, immobilized."
It was not always so. Jews had lived in the land of Mesopotamia since ancient times and built a proud community. They spoke Arabic, mingled freely with their Muslim neighbors, practiced their religion, and were leaders in trade and finance. Born in Baghdad in 1905, Benjamin's grandmother, Regina Sehayek, grew up in an orderly, tradition-bound setting. "What was good enough for my mother and for me is good enough for you," her mother liked to tell her.
Part family memoir and part history, "Last Days in Babylon" documents the astonishing swiftness with which the Iraqi Jewish community was shattered in the years after World War I, culminating in a mass exodus following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
According to family legend, Regina was a "cunning heroine and guiding light, a marvel, a phenomenon." As persecution of the Jews, fueled by Arab nationalism, intensified in the late 1940s, the widowed Regina disposed of her household, fought bullying bureaucrats, and in 1950 immigrated with her children to India and later London to begin new lives.
It is the strength of Benjamin's memoir that she downplays heroics, keeping her grandmother rooted in her time and place. Describing Regina's upbringing, schooling, marriage, and later life, she stresses her ordinariness. In Regina's world, "instead of choices, one had duties. In exchange for possibilities there were certainties." Regina accepted these limitations. She comes across believably, as a pragmatic woman with an independent streak, doing what was necessary to protect home, family, and livelihood.
Benjamin's evocation of the routines and rituals of Iraqi Jewish life during Regina's girlhood make s her account of post-World War I turmoil all the more convulsing. She describes the politics of the British occupation and the fateful decision by the British to create the nation of Iraq, joining antagonistic peoples into what political scientist Elie Kedourie called a "make-believe kingdom."
Benjamin charts the rise of Zionism and Arab nationalism during these years; it is surprising to learn how little interest Iraqi Jews had in Zionism, even as Arab-Jewish hostilities were escalating. Given their long and triumphant history in Iraq, the Jews could not conceive of themselves as outsiders; Iraq was their home, their "paradise." They finally became Zionists despite themselves, sadly and reluctantly.
Benjamin seems driven by the recognition that individual struggles and acts of courage are quickly forgotten, swept aside by indifference and the passage of time. Few people in 1950s London cared about Regina's experiences; characteristically, Regina kept her burdens to herself. Benjamin, once indifferent herself, now honors those experiences. Still, she is not stuck in the past, viewing efforts to salvage the Jewish community in Iraq as "pipe dreams." Her memoir gains much of its poignancy from this tension between remembering and releasing the past.