Synopses & Reviews
Marina Benjamin grew up in London feeling estranged from her family's exotic Middle Eastern ways. She refused to speak the Arabic her mother and grandmother spoke at home. She rejected the peculiar food they ate in favor of hamburgers and beer. But when Benjamin had her own child a few years ago, she realized that she was losing her link to the past.
In Last Days in Babylon, Benjamin delves into the story of her family's life among the Jews of Iraq in the first half of the twentieth century. When Iraq gained independence in 1932, Jews were the largest and most prosperous ethnic group in Baghdad. They dominated trade and finance, hobnobbed with Iraqi dignitaries, and lived in grandiose villas on the banks of the Tigris. Just twenty years later the community had been utterly ravaged, its members effectively expelled from the country by a hostile Iraqi government. Benjamin's grandmother Regina Sehayek lived through it all. Born in 1905, when Baghdad was still under Ottoman control, her childhood was a virtual idyll. This privileged existence was barely touched when the British marched into Iraq. But with the rise of Arab nationalism and the first stirrings of anti-Zionism, Regina, then a young mother, began to have dark premonitions of what was to come. By the time Iraq was galvanized by war, revolution, and regicide, Regina was already gone, her hair-raising escape a tragic exodus from a land she loved -- and a permanent departure from the husband whose gentle guiding hand had made her the woman she was.
Benjamin's keen ear and fluid writing bring to life Regina's Baghdad, both good and bad. More than a stirring story of survival, Last Days in Babylon is a bittersweet portrait of Old World Baghdad and its colorful Jewish community, whose roots predate the birth of Islam by a thousand years and whose culture did much to make Iraq the peaceful desert paradise that has since become a distant memory.
In 2004 Benjamin visited Baghdad for the first time, searching for the remains of its once vital Jewish community. What she discovered will haunt anyone who seeks to understand a country that continues to command the world's attention, just as it did when Regina Sehayek proudly walked through Baghdad's streets. By turns moving and funny, Last Days in Babylon is an adventure story, a riveting history, and a timely reminder that behind today's headlines are real people whose lives are caught -- too often tragically -- in the crossfire of misunderstanding, age-old prejudice, and geopolitical ambition.
"A clever and thoughtful book...rich in ideas." -- Lynne Truss, Sunday Times (London)
"A pleasingly garrulous and inquisitive book...Benjamin is judicious, generous, and insightful." -- The Independent (London)
"An elegantly written memoir." -- Publishers Weekly
"Agile insights and melodic phrasing make the trip a lot of fun." -- The Evening Standard (London)
About the Author
Marina Benjamin has worked as a journalist for fifteen years. She was arts editor of the New Statesman and deputy arts editor at the London Evening Standard, and she has written columns for the Daily Express and for Scotland on Sunday. Her last book, Rocket Dreams, was shortlisted for the Eugene Emme Literature Award. Marina lives in London with her husband and daughter.
Table of Contents
THE LOST WORLD
THREE: JEWS AND POMEGRANATES
FOUR: VERY NICE TO MEET YOU
FIVE: WOMEN'S SECRETS
SEVEN: ARABS BEFORE MUSLIMS
EIGHT: WRITING ON THE WALL
TEN: THREE EVILS
ELEVEN: A FAIR EXCHANGE
TWELVE: LAST TRAIN TO BASRA
FOURTEEN: THE LAST JEWS OF BAGHDAD
FIFTEEN: GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Reading Group Guide
1. "I, too, had come to the Old City in search of the past, my family's past, colored by fond memories I'd been spoon-fed down the years." How would you compare Benjamin's expectations for Baghdad with the reality of what she encounters on her first visit there in 2004? Why are Benjamin's walks through Rashid Street and the Shorja, the open-air souk in the Jewish Quarter, especially frustrating? What prompts her to write that her grandmother Regina would find herself a stranger in Iraq, were she to visit today?
2. At one point, Baghdad's citizens included Jews, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Armenians, and Yazidis. How has nearly a century of Arab-Zionist conflict impacted the city's ethnic diversity? What religious, social, and political phenomena help explain the presence of a vibrant Jewish population in Iraq in the early twentieth century?
3. "[M]y grandmother never lost sight of the fact that her married life had begun as it was meant to continue -- with a test." In what respects was Regina's betrothal to Elazar typical of the era? How would you characterize their marriage, and what role -- if any -- did their age difference seem to play in terms of their obligations and expectations?
4. How did Iraq's gain of independence in 1932 serve to formalize the indirect rule of the country by the British? In what ways did the emerging forces of Arab nationalism and Zionism that coalesced around this time come to threaten the stability and security of the Jewish minority population in Baghdad?
5. "The farhud [of June, 1941] was pivotal to the consciousness of this generation, for which it functioned as a kind of awakening." Why did the farhud serve to polarize brothers Nessim and Solomon Sehayek in terms of their political philosophies? How did this act of violence against Jews by Iraqis underscore the complex nature of political and religious affiliation in the Middle East?
6. What effect did the shifting international allegiances during World War II have on the Jews in Iraq? To what extent were Jews perceived by Iraqis as affiliated with the British? How did the rioting and widespread mayhem during the farhud affect the relationship between the Jews and the British in Iraq?
7. In what respects did the Iraqi policy of denaturalization and the Israeli government's Law of Return alter the political landscape for Jews in Iraq in the 1950s? How did Regina and her family's flight from Basra to Bombay reflect the challenges faced by ordinary people to keep their families intact during times of political upheaval? To what extent did her experiences on board the Dumra seem typical of the time?
8. According to Benjamin, some 124,000 Iraqi Jews fled Iraq between 1948 and 1953. How did their treatment in Israel differ from the treatment of European Jews fleeing persecution? How significant was their inability to emigrate with their assets to the success of their assimilation? To what extent was their assumption into the Israeli state a convenient solution to the nascent country's need for cheap labor?
9. "This was how the last Jews of Baghdad viewed themselves, as quasi-tragic, quasi-romantic figures, isolated, stranded, immobilized." How do many of the Jews that Benjamin encounters living in Baghdad in 2004 feel about their decision to stay in Iraq? How would you characterize their plight? What keeps them in Baghdad?
10. How does the author's use of personal anecdotes and experiences from her family's history enhance your appreciation of the story of Iraqi Jews? What aspects of the narrative of Last Days in Babylon did you find especially surprising or illuminating, and why?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Marina Benjamin smuggles vast quantities of kosher meat to the Iraqi Jews she meets in Baghdad, as a kind of "calling card" that will give her access to their secretive community. If you lived in isolation, with limited access to abundant sources of fresh food, what kinds of meals would you crave? Bring a recipe or a favorite dish to your next book club gathering -- one that embodies the kind of food that would get you to open your door to a stranger. Share your food (and your cravings) with your fellow book club members.
2. Benjamin writes that her grandmother Regina would hardly recognize some of Baghdad's most revered and historic neighborhoods in the aftermath of the many conflicts that have devastated the city in the last few decades. How has your childhood home and neighborhood changed over the course of your life? If you were to return now, how much would you discover has changed? How many of the neighbors and friends you knew as a child would you encounter? If time allows, revisit your old community and observe the changes. Or, connect with friends who are part of your past and reminisce about the way of life you enjoyed back then.
3. In Last Days in Babylon, author Marina Benjamin confesses that a photograph of her grandmother offers her a "silent rebuke" for not having been interested in her grandmother's life until after her death. What photographs of family members trigger powerful memories for you? Gather some of your most beloved photographs and bring them to your next book group to share with your friends. What emotions do these photographs elicit from you, and why? Do any of your photographs offer a "silent rebuke"?