It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard their stories, my stateless roots need nourishment. My family has been my country, the stories fortify my identity.
Today we are in the kitchen, Mom, Granny and me and my notebook. They are my captives as long as they are washing, chopping, cooking, preparing dinner.
“So tell me about Baghdad”
“You haven’t heard enough?” Mom asks (as she always does).
“Nope, never”, I answer as I always do.
Granny is already there, I see it in her eyes when she looks up at me from the chopping board. Cilantro, she loves cilantro, so do I . Mom tells her not to put too much in. She has never stopped trying to corral her mother.
“Tell me” I prod.
“It was terrible, the Jews were like mice, afraid to speak up” Granny begins.
Mom explains; “We had to keep a low profile, we were second class citizens and we never knew what could happen”.
“We lived in fear, fear, fear, always fear”, Granny says.
“Yes, and there she was, my mother, never letting anything go, fighting with everyone, in the family and on the street! She put us all in danger”, Mom says.
“Of course I yelled back, what do you think?” Says Granny. “Once on the street some men on the street were cussing us and delivering us, ‘shoof shoof Yehudi’, he wanted us to know that the time will come, ‘you for me, she for him’, pointing at me and my children. I yelled back at them IN ENGLISH! They thought I was British, that’s why they never touched me”.
Granny grew up in Singapore and her arrival as a young bride of sixteen in Baghdad in the early thirties was a rude awakening. She didn’t fit in on any level. Grampa was supposed to marry within the family, not come home from abroad with this creature who cut her hair and wore lipstick. And spoke English, not Arabic. It didn’t matter that her parents were from Baghdad, Jews who had left for India and then Singapore .
“I never imagined such a place, horrible” Granny says.
“She really turned their lives upside down, they didn’t know what to do with her. She refused to adjust” Mom says
She blames her mother.
“Adjust to what? I was modern and they hated me. Grampa was supposed to marry one of his cousins, them and their disgusting customs. I hated the whole lot of them. Except one cousin who came to the house, Victor, he spoke English.”
Granny’s eyes light up when she tells me one of her revenge stories.
“Yah, I gave them hell—one day I heard my mother-in-law and the washerwoman, a Kurdish Jew, talking about me. They were washing clothes in a big basin in the courtyard. I was upstairs on the balcony, holding Katie (my mom) in my arms in a blanket. She must have been only a few months old. And I got so mad , always talking, always talking about me.
They were calling me an idol worshipper’!
Just because I had a big plastic kewpie doll my father gave me in Singapore, and I sewed clothes for it. The said it was ‘idol worship’ and I was worshipping idols! I was so angry, why were they always so mean to me, always talking about me?
I put Katie on the bed and wrapped the doll in Katie’s blanket. And when they looked up at me I threw the doll down . It landed Plop! Right ito the basin—what a fright they had!”
“Serves them right!” she adds, giving the cilantro one last loud chop!