NAIMA

Nissim Rejwan




My eldest sister Naima died suddenly in her sleep one night in november 1980. A few years before her death, I made a habit of visiting her in Natanya where I usually stayed a night or two. Her memory was phenomenal. For hours on end she used to answer my queries about those early days, describing the conditions in which our family lived before and just after my birth. One day she recited to me this rhymed saying of the Jews of Baghdad:

Hayi lulayi aghdha khfifi
'Ala walad id latshilon
Akel mamghatta la taklon
U'ala shein maysigh yimmighdon

(This is a land whose ground is shaky. Three things you are forbidden to do; Never raise a hand at a child; don't eat anything that had been lying uncovered; and never get worked up no matter what the cause).

Naima was a very energetic, very clever and extremely practical person. Since the age of nine, when father was blinded, she never stopped working . Shortly after that disaster, father, who was a carpenter by profession, decided to open a small neighbourhood grocery shop - and for the two of three years it took him to go broke, it was Naima who managed the place, keeping an eye, doing the account, weighing, dealing with the cash and so on. Brother Eliahu, who was her senior by a year or two, tended like all male children of those days, to be spoiled and he did not so much as raise a finger - the more so because he was attending the Midrash while Naima stayed at home like the majority of her female contemporaries.

Naima's wedding took place in the spring of 1921, three years before I was born. things then looked quite ominous in Baghdad, what with the imminent arrival of King Faisal I, who was eventually enthroned as King of Iraq in August of that year. Naima related that the wedding was not properly attended, since many of the relatives and friends who were supposed to come failed to do so as they were apprehensive of leaving their homes.

It was a good match by the standards of those days. The bridegroom, Salih, came from a solid background though he was not of what the Jews then would have termed as "good family". the Tahhans were a typical family of thoroughly acclimatized Baghdad Jews with very deep roots in the place. They lived in the Dihedwana quarter, which like my own birth place, Abu Shibl, was predominantly moslem with a few Jewish households scattered all over the place. The word Tahhan, from which the family name derived, means "grinder", and the family owed its name to the fact that in their house in a far corner of el-Dihedwana they had for years operated a wheat grain grinding device, extremely primitive in its design and working with the indispensable aid of oxes. Immediately after the Great War, with the coming of the British, far more "modern" and larger mills were introduced and business for the Tahhans became so slack they had to decide to close down shop. But it did not take them long to acquire new skills - and the brothers managed to rent a small workshop-cum-jewellery store in the Bazzar of the Goldsmiths (suq el-siyyagh).

The dominant figure in the family was Salih's elder brother Khedouri, who in addition to opening the jewellery business also built the old grinding mill site plus residence, and it was in this new house that the families both of Salih and Khedouri lived for many years. Khedouri was a wily fellow and a true survivor. During the war years he actually managed, with the help of money or gold he had on him as well as of his sturdy constitution, to escape to safety and come back to Baghdad shortly after he was conscripted with thousands of other unfortunates who were sent to the Great March - the safarbarlugh - from which hardly a soul managed to return to his family.

Next door to the Tahhans lived Abraham Habba, whose wife Farha was the midwife of Hanna's eldest daughter. There is a story which used to make the rounds in mother's intimate family circles that Farha Habba shortly before her marriage, used to work as a housemaid in the household of some rich Jewish merchant with a great reputation of lewdness and lechery. Although married and with several children, he is said to have managed to seduce and bed practically every good-looking girl who happened to have worked for the family - making a few of them pregnant. Young and highly attractive Farha did not escape that fate - but the man was a clever Jew and always managed to find some honourable way out. In most cases, the stratagem was simple enough and it always worked. Since the girls in question were poor and since no Jewish girl in those days could possibly find a husband, however humble himself, without paying some kind of dowry, our lecher simply helped marrying his pregnant housemaids off quickly enough for the whole affair not to come to the open. He also took care of the expense which the virginity problem entailed. It was exactly thus, so the story goes, that poor Farha was saved from a fate worse than death.

My visits at the Tahhan's household were pretty frequent. At the age of five to eight our economic situation was already deteriorating and I often went to Naima for an occasional meal, sweets, dessert or some fruit since her family was relatively well-off. Naima, her husband and her three children then lived in a section of the Tahhans household, in which the whole Tahhan family lived - the ageing but still fairly active parents, Khedouri their first-born and his family of five or six fairly grown up children, my brother-in-law Salih and his family, and his two young brothers who were still unmarried.

It was khedouri however who was the undisputed master of the household. He was the first-born, and Salih's senior by several years, and his sons were all past their teens by then, with the eldest already helping his father in the business and the second studying to be a doctor. It is difficult nowadays to impart the kind of awe the word "doctor" used to evoke in those days; there was a kind of challenge, of defiance even, in the very fact that a boy who had been raised in those circumstances and those surroundings would so much as dream of becoming a medical doctor. But Khedouri was a man of will and determination - and if Naima's version is true he had vowed to make of his son Naji a doctor come what may. In the event, indeed, Naji proved to be a little too thick-headed and, despite the superhuman effort he made to master his subjects, it was only by using his various wiles and influences that Khedouri finally managed to be the proud father for a real doctor.

Needless to say, Naji's studies - the fact alone that he had to study and prepare his lessons - made him a privileged member of the Tahhans household. Alone among them he had a room of his own, with a large inner balcony which he used to stroll endlessly back and forth while memorizing his difficult material. When Naji was at his studies we children were ordered to keep quiet lest we disturb him, or distract his attention.

Meals at the Tahhans' household were at first prepared collectively in huge pots and pans, and as was the custom in Jewish households in those days certain dishes were made on certain days of the week, especially the last three days of it: Kidgeree on Thursday, sour-sweet meat balls with vegetables on Friday, and the inevitable tebit on Saturday. Midday - and main - meals during the rest of the week depended largely on the material situation of individual families, with the main question being whether or not meat would be an ingredient. Usually, however, there was one day for fish - for poor and rich alike since fish in those days was far less expensive than meat. In this context, it is useful to remember that the organized Jewish Community's finances came largely if not wholly from the taxes it levied on kasher meat, a circumstance which made meat at the Jewish butcher's far more expensive than the same meat at that of a Moslem. However, in all my experience of life in Baghdad no Jewish household even thought of preferring non-kasher meat - not even those with no tradition or desire to observe kashrut laws. The paradox was that members of such households, while not hesitating for a moment to eat out of a tin of imported non-kasher corned beef or some other food with meat ingredients, would not come near a non-kasher butcher.

I don't remember spending much time during those visits of mine at the Tahhans'household. Apart from the meals and the goodies - the former were always plentiful and fresh from the pot, the latter a simple matter of luck and good timing - I had little to do there. Khedouri's male children were too old for me, while Naima's were too small; and there always was this annoyance of having to keep quiel, since Naji seemed to be ever there, studying and memorizing his impossible lessons.

But my attachment to Naima and her household was to continue for a long time. As usual in such cases, the two Tahhan brothers were shortly obliged to live separately - whether because of the growth of the two families or some other difficulty I don't know; they also set up separate busineses, remaining however in the same line - gold and money-lending. In the course of the coming years, Naima and her family alternately lived with us as sub-tenants (when we were still living with Eliahu), first tenants or seperately. But somehow the links remained strong, and throughout it was Naim who usually extended help to us in one way or other - food, small cash, and services.

With her children all married and settled, Naima - who had come to Israel with her family and lost one of her three sons who was killed "accidentally" while on military training - spent the last ten years or so of her life living alone in a small flat in a slum area of Natanya. When we were living in Ramat-Gan, we used often to invite ourselves to pacha of a Saturday but after Salih died and there remained no one to purchase the ingredients from the Tikva Market in Tel-Aviv, we used to go there for a day or two in summer - and later when we moved to Jerusalem and my wife couldn't always accompany me because of the children, I made a custom of going to see Naima for a long week-end of a few days during the week, which I used to divide between mornings on the beach and afternoons and evenings for long and interesting accounts of my childhood and our family which Naima with her fabulous memory recounted with tireless enthusiasm. I used to take notes for my projected autobiography - and by the time Naima died in December 1980 I had managed to recapture much of that distant past.