Friday, April 18, 2008

Iraqi-Jewish writer with an identity crisis

Shimon Ballas is one of that generation of Jewish writers steeped in Arabic culture - like Nissim Rejwan, Sami Michael and Samir Naqqash - who flirted with Communism and have always been ambivalent about their identity. In Ballas's case, one could blame the Alliance Israelite Universelle, which replaced the Jewish culture of previous generations with a polyglot, intellectual, secular education. Paul La Farge, writing in Nextbook, profiles Ballas.

"Shimon Ballas is a writer doubly exiled. Born in Baghdad in 1930, he was a part of Iraq’s lively secular Jewish society, the son of middle-class parents who lived in the city’s Christian Quarter. He went to a school founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, but Hebrew scarcely featured on the curriculum; the languages of instruction were French, English, and Arabic. Ballas was raised on Egyptian translations of Arsène Lupin and Alexandre Dumas, on the 1001 Nights and Les Misérables. In 1947—when the state of Israel was founded, an event that indirectly brought about the end of Iraq’s Jewish community—he had already filled many notebooks with stories and observations.

"In that year, there were about 124,000 Iraqi Jews, most of them in Baghdad, where they comprised between a fifth and a third of the city’s population. They were integrated but not assimilated, and in 1941 they had suffered through the farhud, a wave of anti-Jewish riots that left hundreds dead. They were mostly not Zionists: in 1947, the General Council of the Iraqi Jewish community sent a telegram to the United Nations, opposing the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. In part this was because they thought of themselves as Iraqis first and Jews second, and therefore had no need for a state of their own; they must also have feared the repercussions a Jewish state would have in the Arab world.

"They were not wrong. Zionism was declared a capital offense in Iraq in 1948; emigration too was made punishable by death. Then, in 1950, the Iraqi government devised a new policy: it would allow the Jews to emigrate to Israel, provided they renounce their citizenship and allow their assets to be frozen (and later, predictably, confiscated). At first few accepted this offer, but after a series of bombing attacks on Jewish homes and businesses, the trickle became a flood. Between May, 1948 and August, 1951, more than 121,000 of Iraq’s Jews left for Israel, a country they had not asked for, and about which, for the most part, they didn’t know much. Shimon Ballas was one of them.

"Before he left Baghdad, Ballas burned his notebooks, as though to force himself to make a fresh start. Almost a decade passed before he started writing in Hebrew, a language which he taught himself with the help of the newspaper. His separation from his mother tongue was violent: for three years, while he was writing his first novel in Hebrew, Ballas forbade himself to read a word of Arabic. (He returned to the language later, as a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Haifa.)


"The Transit Camp
(1964), the fruit of that uprooting, is the story of Iraqi refugees in, well, a transit camp, a makeshift place where the emigrants from Baghdad waited for Israeli society to take them in. The Transit Camp was benignly, if perplexedly, received in the Israeli press: the critics mostly took it for reportage, an account of how things were in a not-well-known segment of the population, a work of social rather than literary importance."

Read article in full

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