Leaving Babylon

Founded in 2001 by former Jewish refugees from Libya and Egypt, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) was launched as a grassroots initiative to educate and engage Jewish institutional leaders, policymakers, Jewish college students, and members of the general public to the unknown personal and collective stories of the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their mission is to achieve universal recognition for the heritage and contemporary history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.

JIMENA’s Oral History Project aims to collect and preserve the personal histories of Jews who fled Arab lands and now live in the United States. Little has been done to document, preserve, and expose the personal and collective stories of trauma and loss experienced by Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees are part of an aging population and for the sake of Jewish history and historical accuracy in the Middle East and North Africa, we must ensure that their histories are properly documented. JIMENA’s growing archives of unedited film interviews, transcripts, written testimonies, and copies of documents are available to the public for research.

Niv is honoured to share Joseph Samuels’s testimony in Issue 14. Samuels was born in Iraq and now resides in Southern California, where he penned his memoir, Beyond the Rivers of Babylon: My journey of optimism and resilience in a turbulent century.

In his piece for JIMENA, he begins his story on an unusually cold December night (precisely at 11 p.m.) in Iraq in 1949.

I had put my life in the hands of two Muslim smugglers, and I wasn’t alone. There were 15 other teenagers, including my younger brother Nory. The underground movement (Tenua) to help Jews escape out of Iraq had arranged for a boat to take us to Iran. We boarded one at a time, at varying intervals, in order to avoid raising suspicion in the neighbourhood. We had no luggage, money, food, or water.

The boat, if it could be called that, was about 30 feet long by 10 feet wide. It had no seats, beds, toilets or motors. It moved by punting, a method of propelling the boat forward with long sticks. It was designed to carry light cargo such as manure or hay to the farmers in the delta. In their hay cargo, the two smugglers had devised a false space that measured about 10 feet by 10 feet and over two feet high. We crouched in complete darkness in this dungeon. I was appointed the person in charge for the journey. The first thing I did was make holes in the hay so that we could breathe. Our escape depended on luck, the tide, and the bribed border police.

So that our crossing would coincide with the tide, at about midnight, the two smugglers pushed the boat out of the tributary river. Our beacon of hope, Iran, was downstream and across the river, two to three hours away. The sound of water splashing broke the stillness of the night and was sweet music to our ears. As we moved down the main river Shatt al-Arab, “the river of the Arab,” our hearts lit with hope for freedom.

However, after about an hour that sweet sound of splashing water stopped. All was quiet except for the sound of the wind. I went out through the hole. The two smugglers looked worried. “We can’t move,” one of the men said, “the tide is with us, but the wind is against us.”

I went back through the hole and told everyone to close their eyes and sleep a bit while we waited for the wind to subside.

We docked inside a tributary of the river. The hours passed quickly, and I began to worry. My heart was beating faster than the wind as dawn started to break. We would not be able to move during the day and we were going to miss our rendezvous. What about food, drinks or toilets? What if some villagers were to spot us and tell the Mukhabarat, the secret police? We were leaving Iraq illegally and this was either a major or a capital crime.

I couldn’t share my fears with the boys and girls. One boy, Haskell, was only 13 years old. Instead, I put on a stoic face and assured them that everything was going to be all right. We had to wait until darkness to move again. Some started to cry. I felt the same way, but I held back my tears.

One of the boatmen went to get some food. I warned him not to buy food in bulk, since that might create suspicion. In the early morning it was toilet time. One by one we got out of our hole. One boy, a good friend of mine whose brother had been arrested on Zionism charges just a few weeks ago, shook so much he couldn’t stand. The boatmen returned after an hour with some bread, cheese and dates. Like rats, two or three of us came out of the hole, ate something and went back in, until all the pack was fed.

I was in Arab garb wearing a long white gown and a keffiyeh on my head just like the boatmen. I wandered away from the boat and sat under a tree in the shade. I closed my eyes and yearned to sleep. I couldn’t. My life passed before me as if on a movie screen.

I remembered the Farhud of June 2, 1941 in Baghdad, when the mobs murdered over 200 Jews and thousands of Jewish homes were looted. I was 10, I survived. At 14, two Muslim boys ran after me with a knife, I overran them, I survived. In May of 1948, after Iraq and four Arab countries lost the war against Israel, many Jewish youths were arrested, tortured, or simply disappeared. Once more, I survived.

Just a few days before these events took place, the secret police stopped me at the train station when I had arrived from Baghdad. I was with my brother and two other boys travelling to Basra. One of the policemen asked me what my purpose was in coming to the city. I told him that I was visiting my cousin. When I mentioned his name, Agababa, the policeman’s eyes lit up and his tone of voice changed. He became sweet and gentle and said he knew my cousin well. He got his Arrow shirts from him. I knew what he meant, it’s what all the secret police did. I survived again. The other two boys were returned to Baghdad. We never heard from them or saw them again.

Back on the boat, the hours passed slowly. This was the longest day of my life. A river patrol passed by unaware of the human cargo hidden in the stack of hay. I was frightened and frustrated. I began to pray, “God, please let it be night so that we can make our final escape.” I went back into the hole. I assured everyone that by the next morning we would be in Iran and in a few days we would be in Israel.

In the darkness of night the smugglers pushed the boat again. Before the break of dawn, we crossed to the other side of the river. “We are in Iran,” I screamed. Slowly my fellow passengers came out of the hole, some with tears in their eyes, others with a smile on their face as wide as the river we just crossed. 

Fast forward 65 years later, I was invited to tell the story of my escape to congregation Kahal Joseph of Los Angeles. After my talk a member of the synagogue, who sat close to me during the services for many years, came to me and said, “I was with you on that boat when we got stuck overnight.” His name is Haskell Abrahami. He was the 13 year-old boy on that horrible journey. 

An earlier version of this article first appeared in JIMENA Iraqi Experience

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photograph of Shatt al-Arab from Buonasera, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

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