Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew

Adam Shatz writes:

Somekh grew up in a mixed neighbourhood of Baghdad known as the Lettuce Beds. He studied Arabic under a Shia cleric from the al-Sadr dynasty and began writing Arabic poetry in his teens; his literary mentors, to whom he pays tribute, were also Arabs. His subtitle is ‘The Making of an Arab Jew’, and though he doesn’t shy away from the strains of Arab-Jewish relations in Iraq, his wry, wistful memoir is an elegy for an experiment in coexistence, rather than a Zionist parable about its impossibility. Baghdad, Yesterday evokes a world in which Arab and Jewish writers met in cafés on al-Rashid Street, browsed in the same bookshops and dreamed of an independent, secular, modern state; a world in which it would be possible for a young man like Somekh to consider himself both a Jew and an Arab. He has written a gentle book about one of the least gentle of historical relationships.

(LRB 6 November 2008)