We never know when they might not like us any more and we'll have to get on a boat and just get out. And as Iraqi Jews, we were different even from other Jews. We ate rice instead of gefilte fish, we belly-danced instead of watching Woody Allen. We were a tiny community, a self-contained little world.
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So rarely did I meet anyone who wasn't an Iraqi Jew that until I went to school, I thought all grown-ups spoke Judeo-Arabic, and that English was just a children's language. And married. And allowed to drive. At the weekends, my family would sit around a table at my grandparents' house in Wembley, chain-smoking and talking about Baghdad.
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Their stories emerged from a grey-blue cloud. One of my earliest memories is of sitting under the table, pulling the stalks off parsley to make tabbouleh while above my head, the women made sambousek bi tawa pastry crescents filled with spiced chickpeas , or purdah pilau chicken and rice cooked in a 'veil' of pastry , or ras asfoor b'shwander literally, little birds', heads, actually small meatballs cooked with beetroot in a sweet and sour sauce. Iraqi Jewish food is all mixed up, sweet and sour together, and so were the stories. They talked about sleeping on the roof in the hot summers and seeing shooting stars, which they thought were UFOs; about the gazelle they kept as a pet; about learning to swim in the Tigris; about eating water buffalo cream for breakfast, sold by women who carried it on their heads in round, flat trays.
It was as thick as cake, and the women would slice it with a hairpin for them to take home and eat with warm pitta bread and black, sticky date syrup. But I've never eaten masgouf , the enormous flat fish hauled from the Tigris and roasted on the riverbank, with spices, over an open flame. I've never seen the sandstorms that turned the skies red or the blind master musicians in dark glasses playing languorous songs of lost love. I desperately wanted to go to Baghdad, preferably by magic carpet. I'd watched The Thief of Bagdad and Sinbad the Sailor , and I had a very clear image of my grandmother setting off for the copper market where the banging was so loud you had to communicate in signs perched elegantly on a fringed rug.
But the red-and-blue carpet in our house wouldn't fly, no matter how long I spent sitting on it and wishing. It was at synagogue, at Purim, that I found a possible solution to my princess problem. A loophole.
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The festival of Purim celebrates a heroine, Esther, who is Jewish and a queen — which was almost as good as being a princess. Like all small girls, I was less interested in queens than in princesses. Usually once a fairytale princess has married her prince, there's nothing more for her to do and the story is over. But Esther's story goes on after her marriage to King Ahasuerus as she saves the Jews of Persia from the prime minister who wants to kill them all. At Purim, when we read the story, we would shout, stamp and rattle noisemakers to drown out the baddies' names.
Grown-ups were required to drink so much they forgot the difference between good and evil. Iraqi Jews gamble at Purim, so my synagogue would hire baize tables and roulette wheels to become, thrillingly, for just one night, a makeshift mini Monte Carlo. But the best thing about Purim was that it was the festival of fancy dress.
All the girls wanted to go as Esther. In Tel Aviv, the whole city celebrates with a boozy, three-day carnival, and in the Orthodox suburbs hundreds of girls dress as Esther, all in white, with sparkly tiaras and wispy veils and bouquets of orange blossom; endless tiny brides. My Esther dress, made by my mother, was cream satin with gold braid and a tiara of silk roses.
She zipped me into it and even daubed my eyelids with her best Seventies disco blue.
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I wanted to be Esther every day of the year. My Hebrew teachers said I should like Esther for saving the Jews, but I was more interested in the bit before that, where she gets her king by winning a beauty contest. I imagined her as pretty as Sleeping Beauty, but a brunette. With green eyes. All right, I imagined her as a gorgeous, grown-up version of myself. And she was Jewish, and she did become a queen. At Hebrew school, we skated over the fact that she married a man who wasn't Jewish. Everything was forgivable in a heroine who saved the Jews. Later, in synagogue again as a bored teenager, refusing to dress up and irritated by the noisemakers, I actually read the Megillah myself and I was shocked.
There is no beauty contest. Ahasuerus is no doe-eyed prince. He's already executed his first wife, the captivating Vashti, for the monstrous crime of refusing to come when he sends for her. Esther attracts his attention when her uncle gets her to join the sex-starved king's harem. Once queen, she does save the Jews. But she does it so passively. When she hears that the prime minister plans to kill her people, she's too timorous even to go and see the king.
Instead she starts fasting. It doesn't say why. Does she fast for luck? Does she fast because thin girls win?
No one knows. After three days, she invites Ahasuerus to dinner but the words dry in her mouth. She invites him again the next night, and finally with her people facing extinction, now, quite urgently tells him she is Jewish and can he please not kill her people. He doesn't exactly say yes: he says he can't rescind the order now it's gone out why not?
He's the king but he will allow the Jews to defend themselves. Which is big of him. James Forsyth. James Morris. Kipper Williams. Paul Wood.
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