My Big Fat Iraqi Hummus Joint–“Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman


Hummus from Robobby's photo streamIlana’s got that look on her face.

“It’s August,” she says, “and all our friends are going to Corfu, Barcelona, and Antalya. But us?”

“If you wanted fancy European vacations, you shouldn’t have married a freelance writer,” I reply.

“J.K. Rowling is a freelance writer,” Ilana observes, “and I bet she’s not vacationing in Baghdad this summer.”

“Who wants to go where everyone’s going?” I say. “Seasoned travelers know that the best spots are the ones no one’s discovered yet. Besides, don’t you want to reclaim your inheritance?”

“A burned-out store in the shuk? What good is that going to do me?”

“It may not be much now, but it’ll be prime downtown property in a few years when Iraq is a flourishing Western-style democracy and staunch Israel ally.”

That look again.

“Okay, okay,” I sigh. “What about this? The Babylon Hotel. On the banks of the Tigris, in Zuweia district, ten minutes from downtown. Two and a half stars.”

“I said I wanted five,” Ilana reminds me.

“It had five until half of it was blown up by a car bomb last year,” I say, pointing to the computer screen. “So there are special rates. We can just afford it.”

“Is it recommended?” Ilana asks, peering over my shoulder.

“Me and the boys make a trip every few months and always stay at the Babylon,” I read out loud. “No one bothers us as we carry a full complement of armaments including large caliber pistols, AK-4s, machine guns, grenade launchers, bazookas, and antitank missile launchers for our street use.”

“Doesn’t that sound, well, a little risky?” Ilana suggests.

“Risk? We laugh at risk!” I remind her. “Remember at the height of the Second Intifada when no one was going anywhere and we refused to give in? We were practically the only guests at that hotel in Haifa.”

“That was Zionism,” she points out.

“So is this! We’re off to return Jewish property to its rightful owners!” I bang the table for emphasis. The picture of the Babylon Hotel wobbles as if it might not stand much longer.

***

“Now I understand why Bush insisted on invading before summer,” says Ilana. We’re having a hard time pushing our way through the throngs of shoppers. Our guidebook has advised us that, to prevent heatstroke, we should not go out in mid-day without an intravenous hookup. I’m holding Ilana’s bag of saline solution and she’s holding mine.

“According to your mother’s directions, we turn left here,” I say. “Hey, here it is!”

“That’s a hummus joint,” Ilana says.

“It is now,” I say. “But before the Farhud, the Iraqi anti-Jewish riots of 1941, this was your grandfather’s thriving tailor shop, where he made dress suits for Baghdad’s wealthiest and most influential men.”

“May I show you to a table,” asks a neatly-dressed young man with a thin moustache who comes out to greet us.

“A table!” I cry. “You have the nerve to ask if we’d like a table?”

He looks uncomprehendingly at Ilana. Ilana gives me her look, but I ignore it.

“We’ll take all the tables!” I shout. “They’re ours!”

A slightly paunchy older man with a bushy moustache emerges from within. “Is something the matter?” he asks.

“If you don’t behave yourself,” Ilana hisses, “I’m going to drop your bag of saline and within minutes you will shrivel up into a human raisin.”

“This is a matter of principle!” I cry. “We are returning Jewish property to its rightful owners! Namely us.”

“Perhaps I can be of assistance,” says the older man. He gently pushes us into a pair of shabby plywood chairs and motions to the young waiter, who quickly returns with a pole for our IV bags and a large pitcher of iced lemonade. “I am Omar, and I am the owner.”

“No, you’re not,” I say. “I mean, you may well be Omar, for all I know or care. But we’re the owners. I’m Haim and this is my wife Ilana and her grandfather had a tailor shop here until anti-Semitic Arab rioters torched it in 1941. He was forced to flee to Jerusalem with his family and now we want it back.”

Omar purses his lips. He breathes in deeply. He begins to turn red.

“He’s going to blow up,” Ilana whispers nervously.

“Okay,” he says.

“Okay? Okay? All you can say is okay?” I scream. I place my face very close to his. “How dare you deny that this is our rightful inheritance!”

Ilana elbows me. “He said ‘okay,’” she points out.

“But he doesn’t mean it,” I retort.

“Oh, I do,” says Omar. He claps his hand, and the young waiter emerges with a manila envelope. Omar takes it from him and pulls out a sheaf of papers.

“Just sign here and here and here,” Omar says politely. “There, thank you. It’s yours.” And he walks away.

“Ha!” I say triumphantly to Ilana. “And you doubted me.” I look around at small crowd that has gathered around us. I stand up on my chair.

“Listen, all of you,” I proclaim. “No one pushes us Jews around, do you hear?”

The crowd, which consists of five Shiites, four Sunnis, a Nestorian Christian, three Mandeans (one lapsed), and two Kurds (one Yezdi, one Yârsân), applaud politely and then proceed to slaughter each other.

“Hey, Ahmed,” I shout to the young waiter. “How about some hummus? We’re hungry.”

“My name’s not Ahmed,” he says curtly. “It’s Fred, and I’m an American here on a Fulbright.”

Ilana, who is unsuccessfully trying to ignore the melee taking place right in front of us, wonders out loud: “Couldn’t you find a less bloody way to earn your tuition money?”

Fred shrugs. “This is nothing. I tended bar in Fort Lauderdale last spring break.”

“By the way,” he says, turning to me. “You might want to read the fine print on those documents you just signed.”

“What is fine print,” I say, “when confronted with a very large truth?”

“Omar’s not a local, you know,” Fred smiles. “He’s a Palestinian.”

“Palestinian shmalistinian,” I shrug. “I’ve turned the clock back. I’ve restored Jewish honor in Baghdad to where it was seventy years ago.”

Fred laughs uncontrollably, and the members of the crowd, or more precisely those who are still alive, join in.

***

We’re lugging our suitcases up the four flights of stairs to our Jerusalem apartment.

“Confess that you had fun,” I say to Ilana.

“I’d confess to anything at this point,” Ilana pants. “Did I ever tell you that I murdered Haim Arlorsoroff?”

“The ancient river, the hospitality, the quaint local customs.”

“I admit that I now have a much more vivid picture of what it was like to be in Egypt during the first plague.”

My key doesn’t fit in the lock. Neither does Ilana’s. “Weird,” I say.

I bang on the door.

It opens. I instinctively plant a kiss on the first available cheek, walk two steps in, then turn around.

“Omar?” I say.

“How’s the hummus business?” he inquires.

“What the hell are you doing in my house?” I shout.

“It’s my house,” he says politely. “But you’re very welcome.”

“What do you mean, it’s your house? Is this someone’s idea of a post-Zionist prank?”

“You should have read those papers you signed,” Ilana says. She’s giving me the look again. I remove the manila envelope from my bag and pull out the papers. I raise them high in the air.

“Petty legalisms can’t change the fact that this is a Jewish state,” I declare. “It’s the homeland of our people, where we have recreated our national and political life after thousands of years of exile.”

“The establishment of state of Israel created an entirely new mode of Jewish existence. It negated the exile. Isn’t that what you Zionists say?” Omar inquires.

“Precisely.”

“So why, in Baghdad, did you insist on returning to 1940?” he asks.

“To claim my rights,” I say.

“In 1940 you didn’t have a state of Israel,” he observes. “If we turn the clock back to 1940, then everyone has to go back to where their parents were then. I go back to Jerusalem, your lovely wife returns to Baghdad, and you …”

Omar hesitates and looks at Ilana.

“Cleveland,” says Ilana. “He goes back to Cleveland.”

“Ah, Cleveland!” Omar exults. “I have been there. Such hospitality. Such quaint local customs. And the river!”

“I would never live there,” says Ilana. “Although, now that I’ve been to Baghdad, I might consider it for a vacation.”

Is there a word for a deflated Zionist? I hand the papers back to Omar.

“Okay, okay. It’s been nice making your acquaintance,” I say, gritting my teeth. “And best of luck with the hummus joint. Now get the hell out.”

“Actually,” says Omar, “I kind of like it here. It’s so different from everywhere else I’ve been. No river. No quaintness. No hospitality.”

“Ha ha ha,” I say.

But Omar is already at the door. He makes a courteous bow to Ilana and salutes me. “The point I wanted to make,” he says, “is that if you are going to have the country, you should at least let us have the Exile.”

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5 thoughts on “My Big Fat Iraqi Hummus Joint–“Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

  1. This story also relates to the discussion about competing or coexisting historical narratives.

    Two words associated:

    revanchism: (from wikipedia)-

    (from French revanche, “revenge”) is a term used since the 1870s to describe a political manifestation of the will to reverse territorial losses incurred by a country, often following a war.

    irredentism: (summed up nicely, also from wikipedia)-

    “What was once ours,will be ours again”

  2. Nicely-written post. Wish I can write as well as you do, Haim. I miss Tel Aviv so much. I stayed there for more than five years. Hopefully, I would be able to go there again, as a tourist. See Jaffa. Buy some inexpensive clothes at George Hamelekh. Eat late lunch of a quarter chicken at Frank’s Nachlat Binyamin. Have a leisurely walk from Opera Tower (in front of the beach) to HaYarkon Park. I’d fly to Israel in a heartbeat if given a chance.

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