ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) - The Kurdish translation of a Dutch novel recounting the lost, albeit recent history of Jews in Kurdistan and Iraq met readers in Erbil on Wednesday at an event the book's author and journalist Judit Neurink organized.
Neurink's book, a work of fiction, centers around the lives of two women; one, Rahilla who lives in Kurdistan in the 1940s at the very onset of Jewish flight from Iraq to the Mandatory Palestine; the other, Zara a modern day character who comes across the former's story through a diary.
Rahilla's story, and that of Zara, are examples of a well-known phenomenon among non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries when survival comes at a high stake; a conversion to Islam yet secret preservation of one's original heritage against a full religious assimilation.
The government-sponsored persecution and eventual exodus of Jewish people in the mid-20th-century Nazi-allied Iraq, such as the infamous Farhud, a pogrom that killed over 700 Baghdadi Jews was only one of many incidents that necessitated hiding identity for those who remained.
"The history [Neurink] tells is something disturbing. A change of politics can quickly end three millennia of intercultural coexistence. A bitter lesson that is unfortunately too current in the current Middle East," writes the Dutch book reviewer Bert Altena in his blog.
At the event held at the Kurdistan Parliamentarians Union, Neurink chose to keep the further content of the book for the Kurdish reader to explore, adding the primary reason she penned "the Jewish Bride" was to reintroduce the fast disappearing legacy of Kurdish Jews.
Instead, she focused on the three thousand years-long history of the Jews who found themselves in the Mesopotamian lands when uprooted by the Assyrians from their ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
Neurink who resides in Kurdistan since 2008 and boasts of a wide-ranging journalistic experience told her audience about her continuing research into the fading steps of Kurdish Jews that has so far taken her two years to discover throughout the region's towns and cities, from Khanaqin in the south to Kirkuk, Sulaimani, Erbil, Alqosh, Amedi and Zaxo in the north.
She exemplified the many significant economic and societal roles the Jews played as merchants, farmers, goldsmiths, bankers and intellectuals in Mesopotamia in the millennia-long period since their expulsion from and back to Israel.
The first female rabbi ever, the 17th century Asenath Barzani was a "beautiful subject for research," Neurink said.
Later she and her small audience of some 50 people also talked about the remaining Jews of Erbil who often go by the name "Benjew," many of them now Muslim by faith but with a strong attachment to their ancestors' ethnicity as well as Kurdish nationalism.
Noting that although coming out as a Jew continued to be a challenge in Kurdistan because of fear of Islamists and sometimes even their own Muslim families, she stated her surprise at finding how Kurdish society was welcoming to the Israelis.
At one occasion while tour-guiding three Israelis in central Erbil where the ruins of the Jewish neighborhood of Tajeel remain, she said her guests forgot not to wear their kippahs while strolling around the bazaar, despite her warnings.
"Then people started coming to them with open arms to hug, welcoming them, and calling them brothers," Neurink said.
"I was scared of something that wasn't there in the first place," she added, stressing the need for a similar approach to the Benjews.
Neurink's novel came out titled "Buka Julaka" in Kurdish with the translation of the Kurdish-Dutch author Miran Ebrahim.
Released by the Sulaimani-based publishing house Endeshe, readers can find it at local bookstores with a price tag of 12 thousand Iraqi Dinars.
Editing by Ava Homa