August 14, 2013
JIMENA- Voice of Forgotten Refugees
Aaron Zangi was raised the oldest of three brothers in the Iraqi city of Basra. Many of his ancestors originally hailed from Iran; “Zangi” translates to ‘ringing’ in Farsi. Aaron’s father was a well-respected textile businessman who built their home in 1936 in a Muslim Arab neighborhood. Following the Farhud, an anti-Jewish Iraqi pogrom in 1941, the flourishing Jewish community of Basra transferred to Ashar, Iraq. Aaron’s family, however, refused to leave Basra.
Aaron says that spending his childhood in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood was a benefit. He remembers celebrating joyous Arab weddings and holidays, playing games and attending school together with other Muslim children. He now believes that his close relationships with Muslims have given him an understanding of how to coexist with Arab culture.
Aaron also says his connection to Muslims did not reduce his steadfast Jewish identity. He and his family kept Kosher and Shabbat, and attended the 300-year old Beit Knesset in Basra at 3am for slichot services. Aaron credits the majority of his love of Judaism to his father, who was the chazzan at the Beit Knesset and later became caretaker to Basra’s Jewish community, even officiating Jewish funerals in order to ensure that the rituals were carried out properly.
Aaron says that he experienced little Anti-Jewish bullying during his childhood. But Aaron’s perception changed when he went to high school. Some friends now treated him with resentment as they adopted communist or khomi affiliations, indicating their support of the Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser. Others affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party or the Muslim Brotherhood. Through this experience, Aaron became closer with his Muslim friends who stood by his side.
Aaron hoped to join many of his high school classmates in leaving Basra to study at university in England. However, come 1964, Iraqi authorities had stopped granting the Jews permission to leave the country. Aaron instead studied at the Iraqi University in Basra.
Aaron also had familial obligations in Basra that he could not ignore. Aaron’s father was imprisoned three times for suspicions that he was spying for Israel and also for smuggling Jewish children to Iran. In order to maintain his father’s business and sustain his mother and two brothers, Aaron cared for the business by day and took classes at night. Twice a month Aaron would visit his father in a Baghdad prison to discuss which merchandise to buy and sell.
Little changed for Aaron’s family when Ba’ath Party leader Hassan al Bakr took over Iraq in 1968 – Aaron’s father was already in prison and it seemed like their situation could not get much worse. But one November afternoon while his father was still in prison, the mob came knocking at the Zangi’s door in search of Aaron. They seized his brother as a hostage until Aaron surrendered himself. Without a choice, he turned himself into the police later that day. Aaron was taken to the prison in Baghdad that night where he waited for the court’s verdict to whether he had been a spy to Israel.
Aaron was next taken to an underground cellar in Gassra Nahaira, the castle of the king, where he stayed for ten days. Aaron’s hands were tied behind his back, only to be released when he ate. Aaron had no mattress and he slept with the other prisoners on the ground. At least once each hour each day and night, an official would come to get a confession, which he never gave. He was later taken upstairs to be interrogated by the prison officers who accused him of spying from Iran after having been trained in weaponry. After Aaron denied the claims, they brutally attacked him from morning until nightfall.
One day, the prison guards took Aaron to a room with a fan overhead. A person hung from the fan as it swung around. “We’re going to do the same thing to you,” the guards told Aaron. Still, Aaron refused to confess. In the background, he remembers hearing the wailing of his fellow prisoners both Jewish and Muslim.
Aaron was released on the 11th day of his imprisonment after the authorities received statements vouching for Aaron’s innocence. Aaron’s release saved him from execution; on January 27, 1969, nine innocent Iraqi Jews were publicly hanged by the same spying accusations Aaron was just acquitted from; the same men Aaron had known from Basra and had recently shared a prison cell with. Aaron says that the victims’ families were not alerted about the execution’s date and had not seen the victims before their death. The court had only spared three young men, including Aaron and an old man.
Though technically innocent, Aaron spent the next year in prison. Little information was given to Aaron’s family at this time. The police told Aaron not to talk, and he obeyed.
He was eventually released from prison on the condition that he return to Basra to remain on house arrest for six months and that he would be watched for the duration of that time. Aaron only left his home to buy small groceries from the store next door. Fearful that he would be imprisoned again, he even remained at home following his official house arrest. Still, Aaron was followed constantly; eventually Aaron recognized his watchdog was a high school classmate.
One Friday night, Aaron’s mother announced that they were to immediately leave to Baghdad, where she had learned that a man called Naim Attar could smuggle them to Iran. As Shabbat was soon approaching, they only had until Aaron’s watchdog returned on Sunday. Aaron, his mother and brother only learned once they went to Attar on Shabbat morning that he would charge 400 dinars to complete the operation. Aaron’s mother promised Attar that her husband would send the money later, as the men had worked together in the marketplace. The smuggler refused, insisting he needed the money before he took them to Iran. Desperate and fearful that her son would be captured again, Aaron’s mother began crying.
Though it was Shabbat, Aaron went to the market. He approached a Muslim man, Mr. Haji, who had done business with his father. Aaron lied to Mr. Haji that he needed 400 dinars for to pay for his brother’s surgery. Without hesitation, Mr. Haji gave Aaron the money.
That night they took the train to northern Iraq where a group of 33 Jews were waiting for them. A friend of Aaron’s mother brought her 14-year-old daughter, asking Aaron to smuggle her with him. Though he feared that he would be hanged if they were caught, Aaron oversaw that the girl arrived safely in Iran. Together the group did not sleep nor eat until they reached Iran. They stayed with Tehran’s Jewish community for four months. Aaron’s peers pressured him to help other Jews flee Iraq, but he refused, knowing that he’d be killed if captured.
Instead, Aaron opted to stay in Iran and help Sachnut, the Jewish Agency for Israel. His job was to help the Jews from Iraq with their paperwork in obtaining visas to Israel. Aaron worked at the Jewish Agency for four months until the Jews stopped coming from Iraq, after which he decided to make aliyah and move to Israel himself. Aaron joined his brother and aunt in Israel on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Aaron says that Israel immediately felt like home: he had freedom he had never experienced in Iraq. Aaron also enjoyed meeting relatives he had not known before. He attended Ulpan, followed by college, then the Israeli Defense Forces where he served in the Yom Kippur War as a member of the Israeli intelligence. But while Aaron was in Israel, his parents and brother remained in Iraq; Aaron’s mother and other brother stayed in Iraq until 1997, as Aaron’s brother supported them by working at the government’s fertilization factory. Still, life in Basra’s shrinking Jewish community was difficult. Aaron’s brother was unable to find a Jewish bride.
Aaron eventually left Israel for the United States in order to make living arrangements for his family. Sadly, Aaron’s father could not leave Iraq due to his involvement in the Jewish community; the police kept a close eye on him following his three imprisonments. Aaron’s father eventually died in Iraq. Aaron is thankful that before his mother died in 2000, she was able to visit Israel where she saw her sister after 52 years apart.
Today, Aaron is saddened by the changes made to Basra since he was there. The look and feel of Basra changed from a small village to a bourgeoning city. Even the 250-year-old synagogue was destroyed to make room for the wider streets. However, he keeps his connection to the Basra that raised him by listening to traditional Iraqi music and eating Iraqi food. Aaron says that he still has a connection to the land, values the close human connections he formed in Iraq, and he one day hopes to visit the country where he grew up.
JIMENA’s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA’s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. For more information please visit www.jimena.org