Sunday, February 02, 2014
A tribute to Auntie M, z"l
Born in 1921 in Baghdad, she was a remarkable lady whose story you would never read in the history books. At school she was an outstanding student, shaming pupils much older than herself with her intellectual prowess.
Married to one of the three Jewish MPs in the Iraqi Parliament, she was immersed in Iraqi politics, but later became one of its victims. M's early life was a whirlwind of royal visits, trips and parties entertaining her many Muslim friends. In 1950, she set up a committee to help the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in transit to Israel from Kurdistan. The committee boiled a hundred eggs a day to feed them.
With her dynamism, zest for living and flamboyant dress sense, aged 35 she overcame the tragedy of her husband's death from a heart attack. He left her to cope alone with three small children. At the end of her life, she suffered the catastrophe of the sudden death of her eldest son in his 60s.
She came to London in the late 1950s, and promptly enrolled for a university degree in Economics and French. She then made the fateful decision to return to Iraq in 1964 to sell some property. For six years, along with the few thousand remaining Jews, she was trapped under increasingly oppressive conditions in Iraq and unable to leave, while my parents back in London took care of her children. She passed the time by learning Spanish, the names of the flowers in her garden and making traditional Iraqi dolls with cardboard roll holders to send to her daughter in London.
Finally, in 1970 she was able to disguise herself as a Kurdish woman named Khadija and smuggled herself over the border into Iran through the Kurdish mountains, and thence back to England to be re-united with her family. She had missed her son's wedding by three months. Many years later at a function, a member of staff at the Israeli embassy in Belgium recognised her. "How did you know my name?" she asked him. "I was on that mountain the night you crossed the border," he confided.
Of the many fantastic stories she had to tell, one of the most amazing was the episode in a Vienna strip club in the early 1950s when she and her husband were with the Prime Minister of Iraq and the Minister of the Interior. The latter became so excited that he pulled out a gun and started firing at the ceiling. The room was in uproar. It fell to her husband to calm the situation and stop the club from calling the police.
If she had her life again, was there anything she would change? I once asked her. She would not. "I had a really tough life, but I am happy," she told me.
Auntie M, may your memory be for a blessing.