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Escape from Baghdad!!! Part One
By Saul Silas Fathi
(When the Iraqi army returned from the war with Israel in 1948, defeated and humiliated, they tried to appease their Muslim population by blaming their defeat on the "Jewish Zionist spies." They began compiling a list of rich and prominent Jews, looting their possessions, jailing them, and hanging many of them in the main public square. My father took me there once to witness one of these hangings. Details can be found in previous chapters of the book "Full Circle: Escape from Baghdad and the Return" by the author )
A few months later, my father's name appeared on a blacklist of Jews. Not knowing his fate, Father wondered if he would be hanged like other Jews had been. He decided that he must save some of his children by smuggling them out of Iraq to the new state of Israel. Father chose my brother Yeftah and me. I was ten years old, and Yeftah was only eight and a half. Father contacted some members of the Zionist underground, begged them to take his young sons, and paid them dearly for their help. He told Yeftah and me that we would be leaving one day soon but we did not know when.
One hot summer evening around 8 o'clock, I was in my room, with the door closed, doing homework. I heard a soft knock at the door.
"Come in," I said, as I looked up from my textbook.
It was my father, still dressed in his usual English-tailored suit and conservative tie. His normally smiling face looked grim as he sat on the edge of my bed. As he looked at me, I knew something of the gravest importance was about to be said.
"Saul, my son," my father began, in quavering voice, "it's time to get ready. You know what I am talking about." He cupped my face with his soft clerk's hands. I could see, for the first time in my life, a single tear welling in his eye. It was so rare a sight that that tear was burned into my memory. We had always been taught not to show emotion, and father was a strict observer of that custom. "This is the day we have all been waiting for," Father explained. "You and your brother are leaving tonight. You will be joining a small group of people, starting a long journey toward the state of Israel, our promised land, the land of our forefathers."
Even though I had been preparing for this day for many months, I was stunned that it had to be now, without any warning. And, I was petrified about the journey and the dangers ahead. Still, I tilted my head up and tried not to show how I felt. "Really, Dad? Tonight? So soon?" I said.
"Yes, Saul, tonight," he answered as he stood up and paced the floor in front of me, laying out my next duties. "You had better change your underwear and put on some clean clothes, just as if you were going to school." He moved about the room, pulling out clothes for me to wear. "Your mother has already packed everything you and your brother will need. It's just outside."
My father put his arm on my shoulder and guided me to the bathroom. For the first time in years, he stood there and watched me as I brushed my teeth and washed my face, nose, and ears. He smiled as if he were proud of me.
Then he picked up a towel and vigorously dried my wet face and hair, pulling me against his chest in the process. It was a rare, tender moment, making me feel safe and loved. Father didn't express his affection openly, but all of us children knew he loved us very much.
"Let's get you dressed," Father said, pushing me away gently and combing my hair. "Hurry now. Mother is preparing your brother. I bet he's ready by now." Father rushed me back to my room and helped me dress. "You must keep warm and dry. Keep this nice sweater on all the time. And your brother, too, make sure he does the same."
He left me alone to go check on the progress in my brother Yeftah's room. Mother had already dressed him and was now in the kitchen preparing sandwiches for the road. I could see her from the doorway of my room as she whispered to my sisters and youngest brother Abraham. They were all gathered around her in the kitchen, sensing that what they were witnessing was an extraordinary event in the annals of our family.
Our parents were risking their lives to try to save Yeftah's and mine. There had been no other choice for them. Staying in Baghdad could mean that we would witness our father's hanging since he had been falsely accused of treason against the Iraqi government. He was accused not only of being a Zionist but also of being a Communist, just as every other wealthy and prominent Jew here had been labeled. Being thus accused was a double insult in the eyes of the citizenry. One charge offended their nationalism; the other, their religion. It was sure to arouse the hatred and outrage of the entire Muslim population.
While the whispering was going on in the kitchen, my father signaled to me to follow him quietly. He led me to his bedroom, where we were rarely allowed. He pointed to the bed. "Sit down, son. I have something very important to tell you." He sat down beside me and continued. "As you may know, we paid a great deal of money to the Arab guides who will lead you and the others across the border into Iran. Of course, we don't know these people very well. That is why they are not to be trusted. We don't know what to expect from them. They could take our money and lead all of you into a trap. If that should happen, you would all be caught and shot on the spot. Then, the authorities would seek out the families of everyone who attempted to flee and execute them as well."
I shrugged, pretending to be brave. So what, I thought, there are things worse than death, like living in fear here in Baghdad, where we are hated as Jews. We can't even be citizens here, even after our people have been here for 2,600 years."
My father smiled. "You know our history well, son. I'm proud of you." He patted my shoulder, then added soberly, "We will have no contact with one another till we meet again someday in the land of Israel, God willing. It may take years. But we need to know that you and your brother made it across the border." He then reached into his jacket pocket for something. He opened his hand out to me. "Look, here are two beautiful glass marbles. One has your name inscribed on it, and the other one has your brother's. These are not for you to play with. You must keep them hidden. One is for you, and one is for your brother. When you make it safely across the border, I want you to give them to one of the Muslim guides, saying to him, 'Here, take these marbles back to my father, Silas Fathi; he'll reward you handsomely if you do." When the marbles are brought back to us, we will know that you are safe, that, at least, you have crossed the Iraqi border alive."
I was puzzled and asked, "But, Dad, what if only one of us makes it alive across the border?" Father stood up suddenly. Then just as suddenly, he pulled me against him, burying my face into his stomach.
Finally, Father said, "Then, my dear son, give the guide only one marble to bring back to us." Father pushed me away to look at me. "You will have to give one of these marbles to your brother, to keep in his pocket, so that whoever survives will be able to give his marble to the guide. But, don't give the marble to your brother just yet. He is so little. He can't keep a secret like this. But, you are older. You're a man now. You have a great sense of responsibility. I know I can count on you." Father offered the marbles to me again. "Here, keep them inside your jacket pocket, and put your handkerchief over them."
I was ten years old, yet Father thought I was a man of great responsibility for I truly became my brother's keeper. I nodded as I took the marbles and all of the responsibility that they represented and put them into my pocket for safekeeping. Beaming with newfound pride, I looked at my father and said, "O.K. Let's get going."
Father and I walked to the front door where Mother and my sisters and brothers were waiting for us. Suddenly, I had a thought. I ran back to my room, closed the door behind me, and pushed the night table beside my bed away from the wall. It seemed fitting to mark the occasion in some way so I wrote in neat letters on the wall: "I left my room today, perhaps forever, August 12, 1948." I restored the night table to its original position, covering the note on the wall, and dashed back to join the rest of my family near the front door.
Father announced, "O.K., this is where we say goodbye. We can't go with you to the car. Someone may see us and get suspicious." Yeftah and I nodded and began hugging and kissing first Mother, then our sisters Berta and Yedida, who were choking and crying, with the palms of their hands over their mouths.
Father gently pulled us away from these prolonged goodbyes. "Enough now," he said. "You must go." He handed each of us a small valise and then said his last goodbye. "God be with you. And, don't worry about us; we will join you someday. Be strong now."
Father opened the door and gently pushed us out into the evening air, closing the door quickly behind us. As it shut, it forever separated us from this house and our family and a part of our lives in a country we would never see again. We were alone; just two little boys in the dark night. But we were also emissaries of hope for a future the rest of our family might never know. In the darkness, we could just make out the nondescript car waiting for us. I took my brother's small hand in mine as I took a deep breath and walked briskly toward the waiting car.
A door opened and someone reached for us, pulling us into the laps of two young men in the back seat of an already crowded car. When we settled on bony male knees, we turned to look at the men who had us firmly in tow. To our surprise, two familiar faces grinned at us. It was our Uncle Moshe, who was nineteen, and Uncle Salman, who was only seventeen. To stifle any surprised cries of recognition, they put their hands gently over our mouths, but kept grinning at us. Inside the silent car, we sat, surrounded by familiar arms, as we sped through the city, making stops in the dark, picking up others like us who were hoping for a way out of the country.
After a few hours when other cars fell in line behind us as we traveled in caravan through the city, I realized there were actually three cars involved in the escape plan, not just ours. The three drivers maintained about 100 yards distance apart, but they remained within sight.
The trip and the dark night seemed to last forever. Yeftah pretended to be asleep in Uncle Salman's lap. I kept my eyes open, looking through the car window, trying to figure out where we were. It was difficult to see anything. There were no streetlights; only the light of the moon and the stars were visible. Our driver, an Arab, who never spoke a word during the entire trip, smoked one cigarette after another, and some of us coughed and choked. Though we were all trying very hard not to make any noise as we tried to breathe in that smoky atmosphere, no one dared complain.
I craned my head around and tried to see who else was with us in the car. I saw two other children. One was about three years old. The other was an infant. Like my brother and me, they were held in the laps of two adults, who were most likely their parents and who kept the children's mouths covered with their hands. The family was snuggled under one blanket, leaving only the children's heads visible. In the front seat was man of 35 or 40. It seemed to me he was cold since his arms were wrapped around his wife's shoulders as they trembled uncontrollably. Now and then, on the slightest noise from the back seat, he looked over the seat and glared at us.
Uncle Moshe made a gesture to me to try to sleep by closing his eyes and tilting his head into the palm of his hand. I obeyed and tried to settle into his shoulder to sleep. Suddenly, I felt a kick on my leg. It was Yeftah, seeing if I really were asleep. I reacted like we always did, by kicking him back harder.
"Ouch!" he yelled.
The driver turned around and demanded total silence. Properly chastised, we nodded. The three-year-old looked at me and smiled, then he looked at Yeftah and made a face, sticking his tongue out and wiggling it. The boy knew he could get away with doing anything in our particular predicament. But I could tell my brother was having a hard time controlling his anger at the boy's antics. Yeftah was a person of action and revenge. Kicking the kid would have been a real treat for him, but it would have to wait for another time and place. Yeftah probably was plotting his own sweet revenge.
After almost eight hours of speeding through the city and the countryside, constantly on the alert for the police or border patrols that may have noticed us, we arrived in Basra, Iraq's main seaport. When the car stopped in front of a house, we were rushed one by one into the basement, which seemed uninhabited. There, eighteen of usmen, women, and childrenlived in hiding in cramped quarters for sixteen days and nights. Food and water had been stockpiled in advance of our arrival so we did not get thirsty nor did we starve. Sanitation, however, was difficult to maintain, because there was only one toilet. We changed our underwear daily, but kept the same clothing on since many of us had little luggage with us.
We waited and worried. The adults feared that the longer we stayed in one spot, the easier it might be for the police or the patrols to find us. We lived each day in whispers among our own kin, not risking play or childhood interactions. I took care of Yeftah as father had told me to, but I wondered after all this time whether we would actually be able to leave Iraq. Maybe all of this was a big mistake and we'd all be sent back to our families. Maybe, then, I remembered that my father had been falsely accused of treason, and I knew that our little house was no longer safe. But what of father, and mother, and our sisters and little brother? Were they safe?
Then, one night unlike any other of those in that basement-hiding place, an Arab guide met with us. He told us to be completely quiet throughout the entire journey that night as we crossed the river into Iran. He made it plain what would happen if we were not quiet. "If the border patrol notices you crossing the river," he said, "they would shoot you and sink our boats. Don't say I didn't warn you."
One by one, we grabbed our small bags and bundles and filed into the waiting cars that would take us to the river. After a very short ride, we all scrambled out of the cars and ran to the river and waded in, up to our knees, to two small rowboats that were waiting for us. We climbed onboard as the unshaven Arab boat owners silently motioned for us to lay down in the bottom of the boats, which had been lined with bed cushions. It was dark and deathly still, except for the lapping of the water against the sides of the boats, the dripping of wet clothing as we came out of the water, and the little stirrings as people squished down onto the cushions.
I looked around for my brother who was nearby on the shore. Even fidgety Yeftah could sense the danger we were in and kept as still as he could. Without uttering a word, I pulled him closer to me and held his hand as we waded to one boat and boarded it. Down on the cushions next to us was the woman with the three-year-old boy and the infant. She again kept her hands over their mouths to make sure they didn't speak or cry. Just one little sound could endanger us all. Her husband lay next to the children and some other members of the group. We were packed liked apples in a box with little room to move. From the cessation of the muffled sounds, the other boat had just finished loading its passengers as well.
When everyone was on board, our boat owner signaled with his hand to the other boat. They began to row, slowly at first, then faster. With each labored stoke, we moved farther into the river and away from our native country, Iraq. Just on the other side of the river was Iran, our safe haven, where we would stop until we could make our way to the new state of Israel. O, Israel, the land of our forefathers, the hope of freedom and autonomy in a brand new land! Our first step toward that Promised Land and freedom wasn't far away now. It was just at the water's edge, just at the last dip of the boatman's oars, just a prayer away. I noticed some of the women were moving their lips in silent prayer and kissing the holy necklaces on their chests. It wasn't far, not now.
Then, as we came to the middle of the river, it happened. Maybe it was the fear in the air that the infant had sensed or its mother's own tension, or maybe it was just hungry or needed a diaper change. Out of its muffled little mouth came cries of discomfort. The boat owner waved his hand, trying to get the baby's mother to shush the unhappy child. Soon, others in the group began to whisper to the mother, "Hey, quiet. You're going to have us all killed." The whispers soon rose and profanities were used, creating more noise than the little child's cry.
Spurred by the fear in the voices of the others in the boat, the baby's father reached over and covered the mouth of the three-year-old. The mother then used both hands to silence her infant, with a hand over its mouth and another on the back of its neck. The baby's cries stopped, and it was quiet again. All we heard was the rise and fall of the oars.
Then suddenly, we heard the sound of rifles and a volley of bullets whizzed over our heads. The sides of the boats were thumped dully as bullets embedded in the wood. The border patrol must have heard the baby or the adult voices. They had found us and were intent on shooting in the direction of the sounds they had heard. But instead of maintaining our silence, members of our group started yelling and praying, "God, not here! Don't let them kill us now!" That only helped the border patrol correct their aim. The more the adults screamed and yelled, the more bullets hit the boat and passed over our heads.
The owner of our boat yelled at us, "I'll throw all of you into the river. You're going to have me killed and my boat sunk!"
That stunned the adults into silence. Everyone then huddled together, crying and praying in silence. We were trying to save ourselves, unaware of the fate of the other boat containing the other half of our group. We couldn't see anything in the darkness but the pale moonlight bouncing off the waves.
When our boat finally came near the far bank of the river, we all scrambled out into the water, running toward the shore, and collapsing onto the sand. We were alive and safe, and very grateful to be out of the nightmare on the water. Minutes later, the group from the other boat joined us.
Someone came down to the river from an open-bed truck nearby and told us to load up. We all climbed in and sat on the floor of the truck like cattle. Within minutes, we all were dashing through the desert toward the interior of Iran, away from the border patrol and the gunfire. One of the men from the truck looked back through the rear window and counted the number of people in the truck bed. He made a note in a little pocket notebook and tucked it away inside his shirt.
Suddenly, we heard a cry from the infant's mother. She was screaming and holding up her baby, "Oh, my heavenly God, my baby is not breathing! My baby is not breathing! He is dead! My baby!"
Her husband crawled rapidly across the truck bed toward her. He took the baby and shook it from side to side, confirming his wife's fear. "My beautiful baby is dead!" he cried. "Oh, God! Oh, God! What have we done?"
Everyone sat up and moved toward the poor parents. "You choked him too hard," said one of the men.
"I'm sorry for you," said another.
The three-year-old little boy put his hand on his infant brother's stomach, and said, "Wake up, Joseph! Wake up. We are free! We are safe!" But the child did not awaken.
By now, everyone was crying, feeling ashamed and guilty for what they had said earlier in the boat. Saving their own lives had been foremost in their minds, and blame was easy to cast when faced with their own possible deaths.
The Arab guide said nothing, but looked as if he had seen a lot of tragedy in this refugee business.
The mother snatched her baby back from her husband. She sat rocking the infant, murmuring to her dead child, "My baby! My baby! I'm so sorry. I will never forgive myself. Oh, forgive me. Forgive me."
Many of us clung to those close to us or held their hands. We felt the family's loss as if it had been one of our own relatives. We had all become one family in the life and death reality of refugees. Yet, we felt helpless. There was nothing we could do for this family to comfort them, and I as a child could only stare at their dead baby and hold onto Yeftah's hand. I felt that Yeftah's little fingers in mine had suddenly become quite large and heavy and almost more than I could be responsible for. But, I knew that I could not let anything like what had happened to that baby happen to him.
Part Two will appear in next month's Jewish Magazine
The book may be ordered via www.saulsilasfathi.com
from the May 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine