Remembering Iraq’s Jews

Iraqi-Kurdish photo artist Jamal Penjweny, through his newest project, envisions a new chapter in the history of Iraq’s Jews. In Qal’at Saleh, he met the school manager Ahmed who maintans the memory of the Jewish former students.

In less than four years, from 1947 to 1951, most of Iraq’s Jews left their homes and moved to Israel. Their presence in Iraqi society has since been forgotten, intentionally or unintentionally, by many. But one man in Qal’at Saleh, a small town in south-eastern Iraq, keeps the memory alive.

Ahmad, the manager and guardian of a school in Qal’at Saleh, is proud to show each visitor the school records from 1925 and onwards, which he has preserved and keeps precisely archived.

“I kept the names and photos of the Jewish students. I also kept the original school bell, which I found when I was first employed in the school. What is missing is the students. Starting from 1947, they all fled. They disappeared almost suddenly,” says Ahmad.

“What is missing is the students. Starting from 1947, they all fled. They disappeared almost suddenly.”

Iraq once hosted one of the most numerous and flourishing Jewish communities in the region. During Ottoman times, Iraqi Jews were traders, bankers and notables. In the dawning of the First World War, the community grew in numbers and importance. According to an Ottoman census from 1917, 80,000 Jews lived in Baghdad at the time. There were also Jewish residents in cities like Mosul, Kirkuk and Basra. Many were employed in the administration of the newly-established state institutions of Iraq under British rule, until 1932.

At this time, the Jews identified themselves with the Iraqi homeland, and thought of themselves as Iraqis. The 1925 constitution guaranteed them freedom of worship and equal rights and opportunities in government employment.

But things changed in the following decades. By the end of 1951, more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews had left Iraq for Israel. They never came back.

Ahmed, the manager of the school in Qal’at Saleh

The causes of this massive exodus is still a controversial topic. Certainly, many events created the circumstances: the 1941 Farhud pogrom in the Jewish areas of Baghdad, the increasing relations between the Jewish Agency in Palestine and underground Zionist movements in Iraq and, of course, the establishment of the state of Israel and its wider political consequences.

“Today, few people in Qal’at Saleh remember or know that they were neighbours only half a century ago,” says Ahmad.

Wealthy Iraqi Jews donated funds to build schools and colleges, and encouraged the establishment of a modern educational system to teach French, English, Arabic and Hebrew. One of these schools is the elementary school in Qal’at Saleh, once the main centre for Iraq’s Jewish community.

The school was erected at a time when this region was a mosaic of communities, living side by side, and the Jews were an integral part of Iraqi society and economy.

In many ways, the school is a treasure chest of history. En epigraph on its entrance wall reads:

“This school was erected in 1925 in memory of Lt. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude, from funds collected by Qal’at Saleh”

Many generations of students have since sat in the benches of its classrooms.

“I became the manager of this school several decades ago. You won’t believe it maybe, but until 1947 the majority of the students were Jews,” says Ahmad, looking up behind his glasses.

Today, all students are Shi’a. Aside from that, little has changed in the school during the last century.

Like their predecessors, today’s students attend classes every day from 8 am to 5 pm, then anxiously wait for the bell to ring so they can run out and play in the courtyard. The classrooms line up on each side of a squared yard: one for arithmetic, one for literature, another for science. The school desks, brown in colour, are aligned in rows of two. The sunshine hits the courtyard each afternoon, day after day. The students count the days until the summer break. They learn, they graduate, they leave the school and grow old. A cyclic rhythm of life which still repeats itself, and has done so since 1925.

The sunshine hits the courtyard each afternoon, day after day. The students count the days until the summer break.

The Qal’at Saleh school today looks immortal, like beyond time. Yet, history has unwound inside its classrooms and on the courtyard. The school was erected at a time when this region was a mosaic of communities, living side by side, and the Jews were an integral part of Iraqi society and economy.

The memory of the community may be fading away, but some Iraqi Jewish names have not been erased. They are still here, recorded in the school books in Qal’at Saleh, along with their grades and their black and white photos. Portraits of children, once five feet high and 10 years old, who are today in their mid-60s, possibly living somewhere in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa.

Most of them probably do not know that in this small town in south-eastern Iraq, Ahmad is still keeping track of their names.

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