by Max Sawdayee


Sunday March 10, 1968

The Search

Taking a walk in the neighbourhood, I think of calling on a friend living not far from us.  I ring the bell, unfold my newspaper and start to read while waiting for someone to open.  Ten minutes pass without any answer.  I get the impression that there is no one in.  However, I try again.  I hear some whispers inside, and somebody moves a window curtain a little to peep through and see who I am.  Then my friend opens the door.  He looks as funny as a circus figure.  From head to toe he is speckled with small pieces of cotton, and could pose as a flour miller or a Christmas tree!  But he looks worried too.  I say nothing and go in.  I am amazed to see that this wife and two of his three children appear in the same manner while the smallest child is crying.  This is too peculiar, I say to myself, and am afraid I may be going mad!  I gaze around, trying to find where all those cotton flakes come from, and see that in the adjacent bedrooms all mattresses have been answered and all the cotton blown off them.  I can’t help exclaiming, ‘By heavens, what is going on here?!  How these rooms have turned to a cotton ginnery!  And for God’s sake why are you all so distressed attempting to hide something from me!’  my friend, embarrassed, points out that during the war he was so afraid that the police might search the house that he had hidden his money, some two thousand dinars (about U.S. $5000) in one of the mattresses in such a great hurry that he cannot remember exactly where the money should be, nor can h find it now.  He adds very sadly that it may have been stolen by the ex-maid or by someone else.  I tell him to take it easy and keep looking for it with a cool mind. We chat for a while, and then I notice that both my friend and his wife are quite nervous, perhaps wishing to be left alone.  So I bid them goodbye and leave.

Tonight I feel delighted to hear that my friend and his wife have, after all, found their money, not in any of the mattresses but in the last pillow from which they removed the cotton stuff.

This comi-tragic incident is in fact one of many that have greatly inconvenienced Jews here, and will continue to inconvenience them so long as they are subjected to terror.  Fearing the worst may happen, they are losing their heads.

Thursday March 21, 1968

Early this morning Israeli forces crossed over the Jordan in a raid against commando bases in the village of Karamah.  Both sides suffered many casualties.  This is a new step in the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Jordan.  Palestinians have all the right to wage guerrilla warfare against Israel, as it now occupies the entire territory that makes their homeland.  However, Israel is not their only enemy.  They have in fact been used as tools in the hands of irresponsible rulers of several Arab countries since 1948.  And it is a big irony that will go down in history that the deeper those rulers got involved in the Palestinian question, the more assassinations, coup d’etats and rebellions blasted them off and shook their states – and with them their unsteady chairs – to their very foundations, while Israel grew larger and stronger all along.

Monday April 8, 1968

Brother is in jail.  I just finished having lunch when cousin’s car stops near my house.  From the window I see him approaching.  I admit that I suddenly do not feel well.  A disturbing thought rushes into my mind.  ‘Cousin does not call on me frequently, and certainly not at lunch time.  By heavens, there must be something really serious.  I wonder what it can be!’  As I juggle with these thoughts, I soon see cousin is himself disturbed.  He tells me that five security officers came to my parents’ house at noon and after a thorough search of nearly two hours, took my brother and left.  Father and mother were not at home, nor was there anyone with brother except a cook who, seeing the men entering the house, ran out from a side door and called to my cousin, living next door, for help.  Cousin describes how my brother, a university student, got a little pale, tense but combative, and kept asking the officers what they wanted from him.

I don’t see how I can help my brother at this hour.  It is a problem.  I request cousin to leave me alone for a while, as I decide to stay at home, compose myself for a suitable action, and quietly think of a way out.

After a long and hard search, with another of my cousins and my wife, I manage to locate brother later in the evening.  He is arrested in the State Security Headquarters in south Baghdad.  Once inside, we notice from a distance how miserable he looks.  He is seated on the bare ground in the corner of a small room, together with some other students.  After many solicitations, appeals and requests, my wife and cousin manage, through a security officer, to delivery him some food and bread enough, for a couple of days, while I stand at a distance to look at how things are going on. 

It is a difficult situation for the entire family.  Mother is unhappy, and all of us are in a similar mood.  Except father, who does not know yet.  We are afraid to tell him anything for the moment. 

At home the atmosphere is one of gloom.  I make a thorough search of my own house, though I know for sure that there is nothing at all which can incriminate us – except of course my diary, which I always keep well hidden.   Wife is very much concerned about brother, but she keeps telling me to take it easy and await further developments.

Thursday April 11, 1968

On my way to my parents’ house I see my brother!  He is coming to see me.  I cannot believe my eyes.  It is too wonderful to be true!  We run towards each other and kiss like children!  Unshaven, he looks very tired.  His 3 day detention, he says, had nothing to do with his being a Jew, as many other Muslim and Christian students were also detained along with him in a sudden government mass arrest operation among university students, in order to frighten them, that they might stop making demonstrations and causing disorders.

A security officer who knew him by name, as he knew my father quite well, told him to stay at home for a while until things quieten down a little.

We have all gone through a very hard time the last three days, trying to help brother out, but in vain.  Luck was on our side at last. I tell him to go home and get some sleep.  I am glad he’s been set free and is at home tonight.  It means a lot to him and to us.

Friday April 26, 1968

The Jarring mission has reached a deadlock.  Something must be going wrong.  It is rather disappointing.  The more we pray for peace, the further it goes away beyond the minimum expectations of all concerned.  Israel and the Arab world do not seem to be in a hurry to solve their mutual problems.

Tuesday June 25, 1968

Our country is on the brink of a serious political explosion. 

Large scale demonstrations are rife in all major cities.  Their consequences are unpredictable.  The greater porter of demonstrators demands a change in everything, and it is doubtful whether it knows what it wants.  In the south, near the swamps, communists are distributing arms and weapons among the peasants, so that massacres have already claimed a number of casualties.  It is no secret now that many policemen have been killed or wounded in the execution of their duty.  But disorders are swelling in an unchecked intensity.  In the north too, the Kurds have resumed shooting and in one single battle with Iraqi forces more than twenty soldiers and policemen are reported to have been killed.  So government sources reveal.  President Aref addresses the people on radio and TV.  The way he speaks, warning the public against any disorders, displays him as not quite sure of himself.  Prime Minister Yahya is in Tehran tackling some problems of the hour with the Iranian government.  Meanwhile whispers electrify the capital of Baghdad that a big change is near, but it is not yet known whether this rumour is spread by the government itself, or by some anti-government elements.  And what does it all mean?  What kind of change is to be expected?  Nobody knows.  Everything goes in terms of conjecture.  And it could be no more than mere gossip.

The Jewish community watches this rumour closely and stands prepared for any developments as far as possible, undoubtedly because it sorely needs a change itself too.

Sunday July 7, 1968

I go to the market for a change.  I want to visit some friends who are still working there with Muslims or Christians.  The Baghdad market is something unique of its kind.  Very interesting.  Very attractive.  It is a mixture of about two centuries of different civilizations co-existing beside one another.  The two major streets which form its main nerve and are very close to each other, are completely different in the style of their buildings and in their economic and financial activities.  But both of them claim a great importance and are complementary.  The first one, the Samaw-al Street (after the renowned ancient Iraqi Jewish poet Al-Samaw-al, the name being a translation of ‘Samuel’), is prominent in its 1880-1900 style, very narrow, and contains the principal business centres, the big wholesale stores, and the popular Iraqi terrace cafés, where tea and coffee are served in the old manner and at very cheap prices, and where businessmen discuss and conclude huge deals.  The second, the new Bank Street, bears the 1945-1965 style of buildings.  It is very wide, and is lined by the very modern main branches of the major Iraqi banks. Most of the banking business of this country is conducted here, apart from other financial operations.  Situated in the narrower streets around, are lovely shops, attractive showrooms, big stores, fruit shops, and other amenities that meet all the various requirements of the people animating the entire neighbourhood.

Among the activities that strike one’s interest and attention in this market is transport.  It consists of several means, old and new, all of them existing together: the Kurdish porter known for his sturdy physique who can carry up to about two hundred kilos at a time on his back; the big lorry, the van; the cart; the horse; the mule; and the ass.  One can meet all of them within a brief span of one hour.

It may be said that the Baghdad market represents a cross section of the entire Iraqi people.  Here you meet the extremely rich and the extremely poor, and of course the entire middle class as well.  If you wish to see how we Iraqis dress, you may come here and find the latest and also the oldest styles, all going almost together.  You can expect to hear many languages too, spoken by locals and foreigners.  And if you notice anybody spitting to distance of two or three metres, try not to take it very seriously!  Forget if you can - unless someone else repeats it soon to remind you that this is not a rare feature of the market!

The terrace cafés are of particular interest to the observing eye.  Special cups present the tea and the coffee, usually according to old customs.  A special Arabic coffee without sugar has its own clients still, and is a most lovely item.  The patrons are composed of every variety:  there is the idler who wants to while away a few minutes or hours; there is the broker who made a special effort and spoke too much in order to conclude a deal and secure his commission – he certainly needs a cup of tea or coffee to refresh himself; here you may see two or three people talking in whispers or codes so that nobody around may guess what they are intending, as if they were plotting a conspiracy; there is another who has come to take a nap in spite of the ear-rending noise around; there is one with a typical string of beads who has come to think over a certain transaction or simply to rest after having satisfied his pocket for the day; and so on, and so for forth.  Personally, I wish that this interesting picture might not change with the times!  It is unforgettable especially to those who have not had this experience yet.  It is wonderful to be in the market for at least a couple of hours looking at everybody and everything.

Here is the mill of humanity in full swing!

And now to my ‘task’.  I visit some of my friends and stay a while with them chatting about business and some other odd topics.  Most of them are unhappy, owing to the prevailing conditions.  They do not feel safe.  They are being watched.  Some are about to quit their Muslim or Christian partners.  Others intend to close shop altogether.  All are afraid of being arrested any moment.  A few have no alternative but to work.  They cannot stay at home, or they cannot afford this ‘luxury’.  They must earn a living, whatever the hazards.

I come face to face with a Muslim friend and ex-customer of mine, whom I knew quite well in the past, and who often paid me visits in my business premises before. He looks at me but says nothing.  He passes on without even saying hello.  Does he ignore me?  Or is he afraid about his own skin?

I have been told that an army officer at the central Post Office, a military censor, frequently rebukes well known Jewish merchants for receiving commercial letters from abroad.  Some of them receive his admonitions not in mere words but with a slap on the face, a kick, or a slap with a ruler.  The officer shouts in their faces that they ought to have ceased working long ago!

I go back home, and decide that the time is not propitious for me to work, nor even look for a job, neither in a private company nor in any business, big or small. It is still too risky.