Miriam Halahmy has published fiction, poetry, book reviews and articles. Her debut Young Adult novel Hidden (Meadowside Books) tackles the complex issues of immigration and human rights law. Miriam is actively involved in dialogue towards peace and reconciliation across the Middle East divide and believes in challenging any injustice, however small. Below she discusses Eli Amir's The Dove Flyer.
Miriam Halahmy on The Dove Flyer by Eli Amir
Eli Amir was born in Baghdad in 1937. His family, like my husband's family, were part of the oldest continuous Jewish community in the diaspora, the Babylonian Jews. But in 1949, at the age of 13, Amir went into exile along with 120,000 Iraqi Jews. Over 90 per cent of the community left within one year, 'unprecedented in the history of refugees,' says Amir. 'Only one place would take us, Israel.'
Modern Iraq has been at the forefront of our news for decades but there has been little interest in the Iraqi Jewish story. This English translation of Amir's novel The Dove Flyer offers a wider audience the opportunity to discover this fascinating community, which once constituted half of the population of old Baghdad, as it teeters on the point of exile.
'I write to show the pain, the sorrow, the insult of losing a homeland,' says Amir and in The Dove Flyer he describes a society where everyone has dreams but they are all destined to be broken like the wings of a dove.
The book opens in the late 1940s after the creation of the state of Israel. The Iraqi government is turning against its vulnerable Jewish community, still fragile after the 1941 Farhood (pogrom) in Baghdad, which left over 200 Jews dead and hundreds more wounded.
Kabi, the teenage narrator, is thrust into the heart of the growing turmoil when his home is raided by the police and his uncle Hizkel, an ardent Zionist, is beaten up and dragged away. Kabi's family and Hizkel's young wife, Rashel, whom Kabi secretly lusts after, embark on a tortuous journey to discover Hizkel's whereabouts. Desperate for news, they consult the Chief Rabbi, the coffee-grounds reader, the Sheikh who summons the djinns that terrify Kabi after dark, the pious Jew who believes the Muslims have never forgiven the Jews for not converting to Islam and the moderate Muslim lawyer who advocates equal rights for all. 'A homeland isn't a hotel you leave because it is uncomfortable,' the lawyer tells Kabi's father.
Amir paints a teeming picture of old Baghdad with its bakers' ovens, prostitutes, belly dancers, government ministers, soothsayers and professional mourners wailing behind coffins; a colourful, exotic mix, where the food stalls create the backdrop, dishing up kubbeh, okra, umba and sambousak as everyone jostles for position and influence.
Baghdad in the 1940s was a society in chaos, as if in the middle of an earthquake. 'I could smell it in the air,' says Amir. 'Within ten years all the leadership was gone.'
As Kabi follows his family seeking Hizkel's whereabouts, he is bombarded by a myriad of different dreams. Everyone wants something different and every viewpoint in the book is presented as the right viewpoint. The author gives everyone a voice. Long into the hot Baghdad nights, where entire families sleep out on the roof, the arguments rage.
Should they sit and wait for the next Farhood or gather arms and defend themselves? Should they go into exile in the fledgling state of Israel or build a flock of doves and ignore everything else? 'A landless people is like a starless sky,' says Kabi's father. He firmly believes they should emigrate to Israel where he dreams of growing rice. 'Iraq has made slaves of us,' he tells his wife. But Kabi's mother longs to return to the old familiar life in their former Muslim neighbourhood.
The Zionists urge the Jews to emigrate to Israel and the Communists, hunted by the State like the Zionists, want a revolution. The moderates, the religious fanatics, the ministers and the belly dancers all have their own dreams. Kabi himself is fuelled by his emerging sexuality and cannot make his mind up where he wants to be, the land of his birth or the new Jewish homeland. The dove flyer wants to expand his flock. His greatest delight is to count his doves when they return and see how many he has managed to entice away from his Muslim neighbours. 'Our whole history is one long day of mourning,' he says and can see no reason to go into exile in a foreign land.
Ultimately the exile comes. Hizkel is left behind in prison as Kabi and his family find themselves on planes sent by the government of Israel. But the Promised Land doesn't quite fit the propaganda and they end up in a refugee camp. No one will help Kabi's father to realize his dream of growing rice and the only person who seems to adapt quickly is Abed, the Muslim servant they brought with them.
Amir wrote his book in Hebrew but he heard the book in Arabic in his head, in the voices of his mother and father arguing in Arabic. 'I wrote down what they said.'
The Dove Flyer is a novel which shows the exiles and exchanges of populations in the Middle East after the Second World War when an almost equal number of Palestinians and Jews were displaced. Iraqi journalists have told Amir, 'We miss our Jews, they contributed so much.' I have been told the same by Iraqi poets when we have shared a platform.
This novel by an Israeli author of Iraqi Jewish origin, who understands the Arab Muslim world he was born into, is an important contribution towards building peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. As Amir has said to a Cairo audience where his work is very popular, 'How can there be peace without us knowing each other?'
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]