Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad

By Mary Soderstrom

A review of Farewell, Babylon: Coming Of Age In Jewish Baghdad by Naim Kattan

Published on October 1, 2005

Farewell, Babylon: Coming Of Age In Jewish Baghdad
Naim Kattan

Raincoast Books
$22.95
paper
220pp
1-55192-799-3

Naim Kattan is one of the grand old men of Quebec letters. Winner of Quebec’s prestigious Prix Athanse-David as well as the French Légion d’honneur, he has published 32 books of poetry, essays, and fiction, all in French, since coming to Canada in 1954. His first literary language was Arabic, however, and it still holds a place in his heart. The nuances of Arabic dialect and vocabulary are centre stage in the opening section of his memoir Farewell, Babylon and set the tone for a drama of the loss of one world and the discovery of another. Kattan’s observations also cast welcome light on Iraq: what we see today grew from the colonial, Muslim-dominated society Kattan grew up in and from which he escaped.

Kattan begins by explaining that he and his friend Nessim are the only Jews in the group of young intellectuals who meet each evening in a Baghdad café not long after World War II. They argue about the foreign literature they are reading, and the difficulty of creating a unique Iraqi literature in the newly independent country. Kattan and Nessim had rejoiced like everyone else when the British were forced to give up control, but nevertheless they feel themselves outsiders. No matter that the Iraqi Jewish community dates back 2500 years to the times of Biblical Babylon, or that the best Arabic grammarians come from the Alliance Israélite Universelle school or that the best students of Arabic examinations are Jewish: Jews are different and the Jewish dialect is considered comic. Needless to say, Kattan usually speaks classical Arabic when debating with his friends.

One night, however, Nessim makes a strong political statement by insisting on speaking that very dialect: “We were Jews and we weren’t ashamed of it.” The others are surprised, but slowly the Muslims begin to listen with “respect.” Indeed, Kattan says, “in the heat of discussion Janil and Said borrowed some of our familiar expressions. They stammered over words they had heard so often but never allowed to cross their lips…Nessim’s tenacity bore fruit.”

From that beginning, one might think that Iraq might be able to build a country for all of its people, but the next section shows how the book’s bittersweet ending could be nothing but the end of the Jewish community. Kattan takes us back to the Farhoud, the vicious pogrom which began on a hot night in May, 1941. British forces had beaten back German-backed Iraqi insurgents, but before they could enter the city, angry Bedouins swept in. “A wind of impunity was blowing…The Jews would bear the cost of this repressed hunger, this devouring thirst. Two days and a night. We could hear shots in the distance…”

Luckily, the conflagration stops just short of Kattan’s house when the Iraqi regular forces take control of the city. Slowly things return to normal and young Naim is allowed to grow up precocious and loved. His first story is accepted by an avant-garde literary magazine while he is still in short pants; he dreams of women in a society where all respectable females wear veils; he wanders the crowded streets of Baghdad, visits its many gardens, swims in the Tigris.

As the book goes on, however, it becomes clear that there will be no place for Kattan in the modern Iraq, no matter how deep his roots in the region or how elegant his Arabic. After the Farhoud, his family begins the long process of getting passports. He transfers to the Alliance Française school and starts to dream of studying in Paris. His friends – Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish – begin their own lives. Then he gets a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne. The memoir ends as he leaves Baghdad on a bus headed for Beirut, and thereafter for France. He will not see his family for five years, when he visits them in a settlement camp in Israel.

Raincoast should be commended for reviving this moving book, which was originally published in French in 1975 and in English in 1976 by McClelland & Stewart. If anything, the book is more important now than it was then.

Translator Sheila Fischman has deftly captured the fluidity and charm of Kattan’s style, making it read as if it had been originally conceived in English. mRb

Mary Soderstrom is an old leftie herself, and the author of a biographical novel about an Anglophone Patriot in the nearest thing to a revolution that Canada ever had: The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson and the Rebellion of 1838 (Oberon Press, 1998).

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