Mama Toya Victoria Ofek (Taufik)

‘Mama Toya Victoria Ofek (Taufik), Encaustic on Board, 48” x 48”, 2009

March 1951

“Haim. Come with me to your father’s office.” My son laughs. Thinks I’m joking because it’s Shabbat. He’s reading and his mouth is open to welcome a hard-boiled egg. “Now!” I command. His thick eyebrows shoot up as he drops his smile, his jaw and the egg. I don’t explain the abaya (hooded black robe) I’m wearing. I turn and march to the front door. I hear cutlery clash and hurried steps as Haim struggles to catch up with me.

Haim and I step out of our three-story home and head toward Al-Sadun Street, to the office. We walk quickly, but without haste. “What are we doing?” he whispers. I wink and shake my head slightly. We discreetly scan the wooden-balconied houses for signs of trouble. Since the 1941 Farhud (violent attack) against Jewish people here in Baghdad that ended with 180 Jews slaughtered – including women, children and babies – we are careful to avoid harassment from Nationalists, including Muslims and Arabs, and often police and soldiers. I must say, though, thank God there are still quite a few non-Jews who help us in our times of need. But I’m tired of the riots, bombs and hatred, as well as the restrictions on Jews. I’ve stopped grieving for the cultural tolerance and splendor Baghdad enjoyed under British rule. That ended twenty years ago, and life for Jews here has been deteriorating ever since. I’ll soon be in Israel. Iraq – the home of my people for over 2,500 years – will live only in my memory.

Al-Sadun Street is bustling with shoppers and professionals. The abaya has made the walk unbearably hot. How can Muslim women stand it? Thirty degrees with no breeze! And it’s not even July! But wearing the robe has prevented insults and stones from being thrown at us. Once inside my late husband’s office I rush to the safe, which is hidden behind a scenic oil painting. “One of my ‘sensors’ told me that a law will be passed today banning the removal of money from Iraq.” Haim’s eyes widen. “It will especially apply to Jews who are relinquishing their Iraqi citizenship in exchange for emigration to Israel.” Like us. Haim runs his hands through his hair. His cheeks redden. “Passing the law on the Sabbath will be guaranteed, of course. And, starting tomorrow, the police will confiscate everything!” My family left Iraq eight months ago, except for Haim, myself and my daughter, Mida, who is pregnant with her first baby. Haim and I have been busy wrapping up Eliyahu’s businesses, selling property and sending things in a ’roundabout’ way, via Persia, to Israel. I won’t allow unjust people to steal the fruits of my husband’s labour!

I slip money into deep pockets in my dress, which the abaya will cover. “That explains the abaya!” says Haim. “But you’re violating the Sabbath, Mama. Touching money… transferring… carrying… business… tsk tsk!” He winks. He knows we must do this. Our family’s new life in Israel depends on this money! “You should leave some dinars in the safe or it’ll seem suspicious.” My son is smart. I frown and put some money back. “What about the antique Persian wall carpets?” he asks. I explain that, hopefully, an Arab friend will send them to Iran for me. Haim smiles. “You always know what to do and when to do it!” If the carpets don’t get to Iran, we would lose them anyway. I can only hope I don’t get caught, as the penalty could be death by hanging.

I look at my twenty-year-old son, and am reminded of my Eliyahu. Handsome with dark, lively eyes. Some think I approved my mother’s suggestion of Eliyahu for a husband only because he was rich and educated. What they don’t know is that Eliyahu was kind, generous, loving to his children, and respectful of my liberal ways. I was sixteen when we married. He was forty-one. Our twenty-seven years together were marvelous. I close the safe’s door and reposition the painting. I skim a finger along the mahogany desk’s soft, worn surface and take a last look around. “Come Haim. Time to go. We have much to do in the next few months.” As I lock the office door, Haim asks why Eliyahu didn’t involve me in his business. “He knew I’d speak my mind and interfere.” Haim nods and laughs.

June 21, 1951

Haim and I stand at the gravesides of my husband and my daughter, Hilda. Sweet, responsible Hilda, my first born, died two years ago at the age of twenty-five while trying to bring a new life into this world. And Eliyahu died just over a year ago. We each hold two rocks. One from the front garden of our house. And one from the Lebanon Mountains I picked up during a vacation with Eliyahu and Hilda years ago. The two marble tablets state our loved ones’ names and dates in Hebrew. The grey stone already looks dusty and sun baked.

Haim and I have stayed in Iraq for the arrival of Mida’s baby, and have been helping them look after little Yolande for the first month of her life. Until her birth, my head was full of such awful fear for Mida’s life. I was so frightened because of what happened with Hilda. I didn’t want to trouble Mida with my worries, so I shared them daily with Mida’s neighbour. The tears I left her could fill a pond! Now that I know Mida and Yolande are strong and healthy, Haim and I can finally leave Iraq.

Tomorrow we fly to Israel. I fight tears. Leaving behind these graves, never to return, will be hard. I know that once all 120,000 Jews from Iraq have left, this Jewish cemetery will be desecrated. But for now, it is serene and beautiful. The sky splashes with blue and pink, palm trees shimmer in the breeze, and painted ladies flit about feeding on little orange and yellow flowers. “I will never forget you, not until I go to my grave,” I say as I place a rock on each tablet. Haim’s chin trembles as he places his. I hold his hand tight and we leave the cemetery, walking past the graves that are side by side in neat little rows. Haim blows his nose. I ask, “Did you know that Israel has the most delicious Baklava in the whole world?” He shakes his head and wipes his eyes. “Yes, they say it’s because of the honey. Because the bees are truly home.” Haim squeezes my hand. “You know, Haim, neither property nor money is worth anything. In the end, it’s a person’s character and good deeds that count.” When we are outside the cemetery gates, Haim asks me if I’ll ever marry again. “So that I can serve another man?” I say loudly. Haim chuckles and kisses my cheek. He knows me.

June 22, 1951

Haim and I stand in line at the Baghdad airport. We have waited here three hours to get checked by security before we can board our plane. The authorities are enjoying their last hours of control. People behind the airport fence shout insults and death threats at us. Their words splat on the tarmac as far as we are concerned. Eighty-six of us have our minds set only on Israel. Adults are anxious. Teens are excited. Children and babies cry. A man in front of us is so frustrated, he strikes his whining boy on the shoulder. I step between the two and let the man know he must never do such a thing again or he’ll have me to answer to!

Most of us are in western clothes. Others are in baggy pantaloons and colourful headscarves. A few are in abayas. Some I doubt have ever seen an airplane before. But all of us have been uprooted from our homes, jobs, schools, neighbourhoods and environments. Many of us will need to learn Hebrew. Haim, who learned a lot of Hebrew while in the underground Zionist movement, has been teaching me. I will miss the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as the mysterious Iraqi-Jewish music. But on the bright side, I can’t wait to see my children – Florence, Evelyn, Helina and little nine-year-old Itzhak. I will make up for lost time with him, and get his education sorted out. A proper education is beyond price! And having a few languages, like English, opens doors to the world!

Mida, her husband Albert, and baby Yolande will stay behind for now. I wish they were with us. Within a year they should be in Paris. They will apply for a visa to go to Canada. Until they leave Iraq, I will worry.

I look at Haim. He sweats profusely. He thinks we will get caught smuggling our jewelry out of Iraq. I hold my special basket with care. It has a large, hollowed out wooden handle and panels that conceal our family’s jewelry. I look back along the line and wave to four of my friends at the rear who hold baskets just like mine. They wave back enthusiastically. Haim looks at my friends and their baskets. “Now I know why you sat day and night with that carpenter,” he sighs.

I reach into my basket and pull out half a chicken sandwich. “Eat!” I urge him. He obeys. I smile. “You are all good and obedient children – especially when you are afraid.” Haim gags. “Eat! Eat!” I command. I look at the shiny plane several hundred meters away. Chartered by the State of Israel to take us to Lod Airport, via Cyprus. ‘Near East Airline’ in clear dark letters is painted along the side. I think about my first experience flying. Really flying. “Haim, did I ever tell you I almost married another man?” Haim chokes on a piece of chicken. “Yes, my parents had arranged for me to marry a man when I was fifteen years old. I demanded to take a look at him first – you know how I am.” Haim nods and coughs. “So my mother took me to the synagogue and pointed him out to me. Right away I saw that his Tallit bag was mended. Mended!” I give Haim a smack on the back and a chicken chunk falls on the tarmac. “Can you imagine? If I had married that religious miser, he would have been just as cheap with me as he was with the Tallit bag!” I hand Haim a handkerchief and he wipes his face. “So, you know what I did?” Haim shakes his red face. “When the man’s parents came to our house to check me out, I climbed out of my bedroom window and got onto our roof. It was so full of space and possibility. I ran and jumped onto the next roof… and the next… and the next! I felt so free and alive! I was flying!” Haim stands motionless, listening in disbelief. I laugh. “The miser’s parents were not impressed and called the whole thing off! Best thing that ever happened to me!”

It is now our turn for the security check. I grab Haim’s elbow and pull him forward. I place my basket on the table in front of the policeman. He looks me in the eye. I stare back until he looks away and opens my basket. I hold my head up high and watch as he pulls everything out and onto the table. A pair of stockings, clean underwear, a scarf, two handkerchiefs, a large bag of sweets (toffee, chocolate and chewing gum). The policeman pockets some of the candy and grins. I yawn. He continues. House and office keys…he confiscates them. Every time his hand touches the basket’s handle, Haim stiffens. Papers with Hebrew/English translations. Our identity cards and travel papers. A doctor’s report from a few years ago. And two and a half chicken sandwiches. He squints at me. I squint back and raise my chin higher. He asks me why I have so much in my basket. “I have left behind all my money, belongings and property in Baghdad. Surely that’s enough!” I say sternly. He sighs and waves us through.

I turn and walk toward the plane with Haim in tow. I look at the grand, silver wings that will take us to Israel and I feel that if I stretched out my arms I could fly. I recite from Exodus, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

Haim catches up to me, smiling. He is finally over his fear. He asks me what we will do when we get to Israel. I tell him, “I will buy an apartment in a city and be a host to family and visitors! And I will have keys to all of my children’s apartments so I can stay with each of you to cook, move things from here to there, baby-sit and give advice.” Haim nods knowingly. “And every week we will go to a café for coffee and baklava!”

“I will pay!” Haim says with a wink.

“I have enough money – don’t pay!” I tell him. We have fun arguing in circles for a few moments while we walk towards the plane.

Haim finally asks, “And who will pay for our visitor’s servings, Mama Toya?”

I tell him, “If they ask – let them pay!”

We reach the plane and climb the stairs to our flight to freedom. We see faces in the windows of the plane. All are smiling.

Story written by Tori Jones
copywrite 2010 Tori Jones