Home

Biographies

Nana

Nana Saida, was born in 1901 in Baghdad, Iraq. Her life represents a microcosm of Iraq's Jewish community in this century. One of eight children born to a family of tobacco merchants, Nana spent most of her childhood hidden behind a walled compound with the other women in the family. When she was old enough to study, Nana attended the neighbourhood school. She was often harassed by boys and men on the street, because she had not yet started to wear the veil and outergarment typical of the women of Baghdad. By the age of 15, however, Nana had adopted this custom and carried it well into her 30's.

Up until the time of the First World War, many young women were married off at the age of 12 or 13 without their consent. Nana remembers one of her sisters, Lelwa, describing the first week of her marriage.: "She was still a little girl and liked playing games, especially hide and seek. Her husband was somewhat older, maybe he was 30, and in the beginning he tickled and kissed her, affectionately. But...after awhile, he got tired of finding her hiding under the bed, and one day, he forced himself on her." In an environment where a stranger merely had to drop a coin in a girl's hand for her to be forced to become his wife, Nana avoided marriage until the unusually late age of 19. In 1918, Sion Balass, a money changer asked for her hand. Charmed by his unusual blue eyes and good looks, Nana accepted. Within a year of their marriage, the first of seven children was born.

With the opening up of the country to Western influences under the British mandate, many younger Jewish women including Nana gradually stopped wearing the veil and adopted Western fashions. By the early 1940's, the sight of a Jewish woman covered up in traditional style became quite rare. In the late 30's and early 40's, tensions resulting from the Zionist struggle in Palestine, Muslim Arab nationalism, and the anti-Semitic influence of Nazi Germany, combined to make the prospects of Iraq's Jews rather precarious. In 1937, pregnant with her last child, and worried about the future, Nana attempted to miscarry: "I locked myself in the bedroom and was hanging from the bed post, swinging and twisting around in gymnastic positions until I started bleeding." Her attempts failed. However, after the pogrom of 1941, she decided to send one of her sons away, to the relative safety of Iran.

At the beginning of the next decade, the Iraqi government concluded a secret agreement with Israel. For the first time in many years, Jews were free to emigrate. As a result, between 1950 and 1951, over 90% of Iraq's Jews chose to leave the country. Two more of Nana's children joined the exodus. However, Nana, her husband and four eldest children, stayed behind. The following years set the pattern of relative material comfort, denial of identity, fear and repression, which was to characterize the Jews of Iraq until persecution, poverty and terror became their lot in the late 60's. Many restrictions were placed on movement, employment, communication and education. The Jews remaining in Iraq could not visit or even communicate with relatives in Israel. Many received no news from friends and family for years at a time. The fear of reprisal was so great that even when an Iraqi Jew left the country for a holiday or business trip he or she still scrupulously avoided even indirect contacts with Israel. So, for example, when Nana was in London in 1957, she was afraid of placing a phone call to Israel for fear of it being traced. In 1963, Jews were stripped of their passports and additional restrictions were put in place.

In 1967, literally within minutes of her husband's death, the secret police came to take Nana's oldest son, Victor, to prison. He was held for several months on trumped-up charges of conspiring to aid the enemy. A period of constant mourning and terror ensued. One by one friends and family members, including two more of Nana's children, were rounded up and detained in miserable conditions. Many of them were tortured before being condemned to death, and then strung up for display in Baghdad's main public square. All this because they were Jews.

When a possibility for escape finally presented itself in 1970, Nana fled with two of her children and their families, despite enormous risks. By the mid 1970's, less than a hundred Jews, out of a total once numbering over 170 000, remained in Iraq.

Today, in addition to small groups dispersed around the world, there are large communities of Iraqi Jews in Israel, London, Montreal, New York and Los Angeles. Nana lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.

George

George Hayim is a Gay writer of Iraqi Jewish origin. He has led a remarkable life of passion and adventure and he is at once both a symbol of the Iraqi Jewish community in exile and an anathema to it.

A childhood of opulence in pre-war Shanghai, where money and isolation meant that one could indulge in whatever one fancied, (unlike in Iraq) meant that George came to embrace his homosexuality openly, from an early age. Haunted, however, by the strict authority of his tradition-minded father, George represents many of the contradictions of change and self-acceptance amongst Iraqi Jews.

After leaving China, George studied at the private boys school of Harrow in England. During World War II, he joined the Navy. Afterwards, he was never to hold another job--with the exception of a short stint as a loo attendant in London designed to humiliate his tycoon father into supporting him with a more generous allowance.

In the late 60's, George fell in love with a young Arab, living in France. This was George's most passionate love affair and led him to write a novel, Obsession. This book caused quite a scandal and many copies were bought only to be shredded and destroyed. Gore Vidal described Obsession as "a unique work; a story of sexual obsession that is marvelously funny".

Some 20 years later at the age of 68, George published his autobiography, Thou Shalt Not Uncover Thy Mother's Nakedness, which is part condensed erotic history, part family genealogy.

Today, George Hayim splits his time between Paris, London and Sydney, Australia. He has not lost his taste for scandal and likes to joke about having himself flogged in front of his window so that passersby may watch.

 

Me (Joe)

Joe Balass, the "me" in the film's title, was born in Baghdad in 1966. He escaped from Iraq with his family at the ripe old age of four, and eventually settled in Canada.