Written by: Hanan Jiyad
Humans have always told stories. It began through speech and wonderful art on the walls of caves, and as mankind progressed, we produced music, and wrote books, plays, and poetry. Storytelling is an important part of the human essence because we constantly seek connections with others. In 1980, Anwar Shaul published his autobiography titled ‘the story of my life in Mesopotamia’ and in which every Iraqi will surely find a connection.
Anwar Shaul was an Iraqi Jewish writer and poet who hugely influenced Iraqi society. He was born in 1904 in Hillah to the Sassoon family. From a young age, Shaul loved literature and his writings were shaped by the dynamic events in his early life. In 1917, the British occupied Mesopotamia and Iraqis were unified by their struggle for emancipation. Eventually came the birth of Iraq, as a kingdom, in 1921. For the first time, there was a collective Iraqi identity and Shaul, who was very patriotic, massively promoted it.
Anwar Shaul dedicated his life to the intellectual enlightenment of Iraqis. He founded and edited several literary magazines, most notably Al-Hassid in 1929 which published poetry, educational short stories and essays, some his own. Al-Hassid became Baghdad’s most read magazine. Shaul wrote the script for the first Iraqi movie, titled Alia and Isam, which premiered in 1948 and marked a huge advancement for the Iraqi arts. And aside from writing, he studied law in Baghdad and graduated in 1931, briefly worked as a teacher, and completed military training in 1939.
The 1940s was a turbulent time for Iraqi Jews. The violence of the 1941 Farhud saw their homes destroyed and looted, many injured, and around 200 killed. It forced many Jews to leave Iraq, though most left between 1948-1952 after Israel was established and Iraqi Jews were accused of being Zionists and burdened with huge restrictions. But Shaul was one of the few who remained.
After the Ba’ath party seized control in 1963, they began dealing with the remaining Jews. Anwar Shaul was arrested, and while imprisoned, he wrote a letter containing poetry that would change his life. The letter, sent to the interior minister, was so moving that he showed it to President Al-Bakr. Upon reading it, Al-Bakr ordered for Shaul to be pardoned and allowed to leave Iraq. Its words:
إن كنت من موسى قبست عقيدتي
فأنا المقيم بظل دين محمد
وسماحة الإسلام كانت موئلي
وبلاغة القرآن كانت موردي
ما نال من حبي لأمة أحمد
كوني على دين الكليم تعبدي
سأظل ذياك السموأل في الوفا
أَسعدت في بغداد أم لم أسعد
Though I take my faith from Moses
I live under the protection of Muhammad’s religion
And the tolerance of Islam was my abode
And the eloquence of the Quran was my inspiration
My love for Muhammad’s nation did not lessen
Though my devotion is to Moses’s religion
I will remain as loyal as Al-Samaw’al
Happy or not in Baghdad
Reluctantly, Shaul left for England in 1971 where he lived for some years until he settled in Israel. Just before his death in 1984, Shaul paid a final tribute to the country and people he still loved. Though he had been stripped of his Iraqi citizenship, he requested that his death certificate state his nationality was Iraqi, and Iraqi only.
Much of the Iraqi identity we have now, both socially and intellectually, is owed to Anwar Shaul. He symbolised how the love of a homeland can unite us, irrespective of religion and ethnicity. Not only does Anwar Shaul represent the terrible tragedy that befell Iraqi Jews, but also the similar oppression and forced exile of millions of Iraqis. And like Anwar Shaul, despite the injustices, they will continue to love Iraq until their very last breath.
Humans have always told stories. This is Anwar Shaul’s extraordinary one.
We are accepting submissions about Iraqi poets and artists. Read the introduction to the 'Meet the Iraqi poets' here.