Saturday, October 22, 2005
To Naseem Rejwan on Jews, Sunnis & Shiites
I hope this note finds you well and in good health.
I am so grateful to an Iraqi friend for introducing me to your book, “The Last Jews in Baghdad.” Since I finished reading the introduction and chapter one of this book, I have been meaning to write you a letter with commentary about certain issues mentioned in the forward. Finally in a train ride with two hours to go, I decided to write you a letter and to eventually publish it on the Internet as well as emailing it to our Institute’s very large list of recipients worldwide.
I also decided that I make my letter writing to you as a series in which I comment on other chapters in your book, which coincides well with the editing of my documentary, “The Other Arabs” about the life and accomplishments of Jewish Arabs with the hope to produce part II and III on the Mandaeans and Druze.
As I opened your book and read the very first quote by Louise Gluck, “Because you were foolish enough to love one place, now you are homeless,” I paused for long with my thoughts and torturing nostalgia thinking how true was this saying! Luckily I woke up from my ghafwa (sleep) telling myself if I’ve loved another place, it means I’ve become promiscuous! How can I commit such mischief? Let us assume that I didn’t think promiscuousness is a bad thing. Still I couldn’t love another place besides Iraq. Nature, people and fate know well I’ve tried so hard. I have visited cities all over Europe, North America, the Middle East, North Africa and as far as South Korea! They all had their beauty with great nature sometimes and/or had nice cities, people and food, BUT lacked that ancient beauty, unique richness and spiritual intoxication IRAQ had and still has despite the wars and the destruction. One of the reasons why I wish to visit China and India is the desire to finally become promiscuous and hopefully rise in love with one or both of these countries!
Then I flipped the pages to read the forward written by Joel Beinin. It provided interesting information and was written in a way that made me read it all with pleasure. It mentions on the first page of the forward that Jews constituted 53,000 of the 150,000 inhabitants of Baghdad in 1908. Although it later provides footnotes indicating that such statistics was taken from Hanna Batatu’s book, “The Old Social Classes and The Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’thists, and Free Officers,” I am wondering based on which source Hanna Batatu provided these statistics and how reliable such a source knowing that these statistics were published during the Ottoman domination!
On page xvi, Joel Beinin writes, “The first modern Arabic play in Mesopotamia was written in 1888 by a Christian.” In 1888, it was not called Mesopotamia. It was called Iraq.
It is a source of pride to read that just before WWI Khadduri Shahrabani organized a Jewish company that performed theater pieces in Arabic in Basra and India. It is actually a source of pride to Iraqis and Arabs alike knowing these productions were written and performed in Arabic language.
On page xvii, the family name of the leading maqaam singer of the 20th century was misspelled. His correct name is Mohammed Al-Qubbanchi or Al-Qubbanji (but not Al-Qubbanshi). It also mentions that “Hesqel Mu’allim accompanied the Egyptian diva, Umm Kalthoum, when she performed in Iraq in the 1930s.” But it didn’t indicate how he accompanied her whether as an instrumentalist, vocalist or part of a chorus!
There were very serious errors on page xviii about Jewish Arabs and the Sunni Arab so-called minority. They were so wrong that I don’t know from where to begin. The lines read, “Many Jews were eager to be Iraqi Arabs. But like most Arabic-speaking minorities, they were suspicious of the romantic and racialist aspect of pan-Arabism. Moreover, in Iraq pan-Arabism was associated with the continuing dominance of the Sunni Arab minority.”
1. Joel’s sentence, “But like most Arabic-speaking minorities” surprised me. With very few (Kurdish) exceptions, Iraqi Jews are near entirely Arabs. Writing that Jews are Arabic speaking means that they speak Arabic, but not necessarily Arabs! Then he made another grave error by considering Arabic-speaking in IRAQ as a minority or several minorities when more than 90% of the society spoke (and still speaks) Arabic regardless of whether they are Arabs or not. The suspicion by Iraqi Jews of pan-Arab nationalism was not due to being part of an Arabic-speaking so-called minority, but because the vast majority of Arabs were Moslems. The element of religion was what brought Iraqi Jews closer to communism than both Zionism and pan-Arab nationalism. Please make sure that Joel Beinin read this letter with hopes that you make corrections of this paragraph should you print a new edition. After all, pan-Arab ethnicity/nationalism is in no way as romantic and racialist as Zionism and in fact easier to accomplish than the latter.
2. This brings me to the part in which Joel wrote that Sunni Arabs are a minority. As soon as I read this line, I flipped the book pages backward to see when it was published. I had bet with myself that your book must have been published recently and I was right. Knowing it was published in 2004, neither you nor Joel seemed to investigate the truth behind the claim that Sunnis are a minority in IRAQ. In fact, it has been surprising to me that no one Iraqi, Arab, Moslem or knowledgeable American has analyzed or challenged this claim.
Here are the reasons why this aspect of Sunni minority is untrue:
1. Since at least the 1940s, all census conducted in IRAQ including those under the Baath party did not provide a questionnaire where it asks about religious sects (Orthodox, Catholic, Sunni, Shiite, etc..) The forms requested individuals to fill in whether they were Moslems, Christians, Jews or Sabeans. So how did the industrial west come to the conclusion that Sunnis are the minority in Iraq when this matter has not been documented?
2. Knowing Arabs are the vast majority in Iraq (whether the industrial west, Iran and the Kurds like to admit it or not) and the largest two minorities are the Kurds and Turkmans, let us then conduct some calculations: There is indeed a large Shiite Arab community in Iraq, but there is no documentation whatsoever (which should be obtained from the census) as to whether they are more than Sunni Arabs or not. Now one must remember that Arabs are not only Moslems. They are Christians and Jews (until the early 1970s). Putting all that in mind how can Shiites be the majority amongst Arabs? It is also a known fact that the vast majority (more than 90%) of Kurds and Turkmans are Sunnis. Now you and I know that with the use of a calculator and the facts above, even a teenage kid would come to the realization that Sunnis do not constitute a minority in IRAQ.
3. Here is another reason why Sunnis are not a minority: Regionally, Shiites (mostly Arabs) are only a majority in the South of Iraq, but they are not a majority in the middle or the north. In fact, Shiites are a minority in the middle and a minute minority in the North. Additionally, the population density in the South of Iraq is the least in comparison to the population density in the middle and the north. If the Shiites are the majority in only one-third, least populated IRAQ, how can they constitute a majority when two-thirds, more populated IRAQ are comprised of a Sunni majority? So even if we made grave approximations and exaggerations, the end result will not make the Sunnis a minority!
It put me in great discomfort to discuss the subject from a sectarian standpoint. It is indeed primitive. However, in light of the propaganda for years about nearly every aspect with regard to IRAQ, one is left with no choice, but to get in this vicious cycle with the hope to at least slows it down or relatively correct some of its myths and errors! To keep repeating an error or a myth without enough challenge and constructive arguments, such an error or a myth eventually becomes the norm. By documenting the myth or the error, we will be misleading the world and the next generations.
It will be like the myth of the "Red Indians". There were (and are) no such people or race existed in our history. Yet the powerful white Europeans created the terminology and has been using it in school curriculum all over North America and beyond. The term, “Red Indians” was even translated to nearly all earth’s languages despite the fact that they were and are known as and want to be called Native Americans, yet the white Europeans who took the name (Americans) and concurred the entire continent by force and terrorism are getting away with everything including the terminology of “Red Indians”. Christopher Columbus was heading to India not to America. He got lost and ended up in America thinking that he reached India, so he called the Natives “Red Indians”. This example and many others make me very worried about Iraq’s history and that of the Arab and Islamic worlds being decided upon by white Europeans and Euro-Americans AGAIN!
PLEASE make the necessary corrections about the Jewish Arabs of IRAQ and about the Sunni and Shiite Moslems in your book’s forward with appreciation.
Thank you so much for writing, “The Last Jews in Baghdad”. In part II of this series of letter writing to you, I will comment on Chapter one of your book.