Daughter of Iraq: An Excerpt

This morning, the house is quiet. This is a good opportunity for me to write about Ima and Eddie’s immigration to Israel. I return to the spring of 1951. In the end, after waiting for many long months, Ima finally understood that she couldn’t wait for Eddie to decide, and couldn’t count on him to make the necessary arrangements for their aliyah. It was clear to Ima that time was short, and that every day they remained in Iraq the more dangerous it would become, so she decided to take action.

It’s important to understand: Eddie was young and fervent, an uncompromising idealist who couldn’t see the whole picture and understand its significance. He had gone from being a meek and unknown officer to an important figure of the Haganah. Eddie believed that the captain never abandoned his ship, at least not until he was the last one left aboard. And so Ima, who knew that it was up to her to initiate the process, started investigating: she learned that the Haganah oversaw the aliyah process. In order to apply for aliyah, she and Eddie would first have to give up their Iraqi citizenship. She would have to find a place where there weren’t any local aliyah activists, so that people wouldn’t learn of her plans to resign their citizenship and apply for emigration. Ima sent her housekeeper, Evelyn, to the town of Hillah to speak to her relatives there who hadn’t yet made aliyah. Evelyn confirmed that there was no formal aliyah activity in Hillah, so Ima decided to try her luck there. She prepared to travel to Hillah and there renounce their Iraqi citizenship without anyone in the movement in Baghdad, and especially Eddie, getting wind of her actions.

This was right before the spring holiday of Shavuot, or as it was known in Arabic, Eid al-Ziyara–“Visitor’s Day”–because Iraqi Jews had a custom of visiting the graves of the pious on Shavuot. They would prostrate themselves upon the graves of Ezra the Scribe, near Basra, and Ezekiel the Prophet, in the village of Chifel, near Hillah. Ima left a note for Eddie saying that she was going to the cemetery in Chifel to pray for her family’s welfare, and that she would be back the following evening. Eddie thought it was a bit odd, but he decided not to dwell on it.

Ima left the house early the next morning, taking a small pocketbook and a lot of money. The money was for bribes to ensure that the immigration process would be quick, efficient, and discreet. Ima stuffed the money into her bra and cloaked herself in a big black shawl, the kind of abaya the Muslim women wore. All that could be seen of her were two burning eyes, black as coal. She climbed into the carriage that was waiting for her–she had reserved it ahead of time–and rode to the train station.

The aromas of the bustling train station aroused her senses. The morning smell of hot, fresh khubz, an Iraqi bread, filled her nostrils. Peddlers offered her their wares, and people were pushing and were being pushed. Early morning, and already it was so very hot. Ima bought a ticket and confidently walked toward the train carriages looking for Evelyn, who would escort her on the journey. The faithful servant waited right next to the train.

Evelyn was flustered: she and Mrs. Twaina would be taking the train together! It wasn’t every day that someone of her standing had the opportunity to travel with such a distinguished woman. Not only would they spend several hours together, but Mrs. Twaina would be spending the night with Evelyn’s family. After all, this was a secret mission.

The two women boarded the train, and were shoved inside with everyone else. They walked through one car after another, and when it was clear that there were no seats available, they stood in the corner of one of the cars. Ima fixed her gaze at one of the male passengers, and he immediately stood up and offered her his seat. In those days, men granted respect to women of high social status. When I think about all this today, sometimes I feel sick to my stomach. Equal and more equal–this sort of thing never sat well with me. My mother, on the other hand, never altered her worldview, and even in her death, many years later, she thought herself a queen stepping down from her throne.

Ima sat the entire time while Evelyn stood next to her fanning the noblewoman’s face; my mother did not stop complaining about the heat and the stench. Needless to say, it never occurred to her to let poor Evelyn rest her feet, even for a few minutes. And Evelyn stood there, shielding her from the heat and the pickpockets, tending her devotedly. Years later, I bumped into Evelyn on a busy street in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. She smiled when she told me about their long train ride. When she spoke about my mother, her eyes shone with admiration, which made me uneasy, and I awkwardly thanked her for being so devoted to our family for so many years.

After a long journey, Ima and Evelyn finally arrived at Evelyn’s family home in Hillah. There, too, my mother was treated like royalty. In honor of my mother’s visit, the hosts had cleaned and scoured, cooked and baked, and even given up their bedroom. Ima viewed their hospitality with equanimity; after all, wasn’t a woman of her status entitled to such treatment?

The next day, the two women set out at dawn. They went to the municipality, where Ima filled out the forms for renouncing their citizenship, and to do so, had to forge Eddie’s signature. After their citizenship was annulled, Ima submitted her request to make aliyah. In exchange for a small bribe, she was able to get the right permits that same day. Usually this process required weeks or even months of waiting, but to Ima’s good fortune, the combination of her charm and her cash sped things along. From there, the train took the two women to prostrate themselves at the prophet’s grave.

Ima prayed for a long time, asking God to bless our family. That was the last time that anyone from my family visited the cemetery. More than forty years have passed since then, and who knows how many more years will pass before someone in our family can visit the prophet’s grave. From there, Ima and Evelyn continued on to the train station and returned to Baghdad.

Not too many days would pass before Ima and Eddie would board the plane that would take them to Eretz Yisrael, to their family. Ima could never have imagined the two formidable adventures that awaited her. First, she would have to leave Iraq. Second–and with greater difficulty–she would spend the rest of her life in Israel, a life that was about to change forever.