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Disrupted identity: Naim Kattan’s Farewell Babylon and the exile narrative of Baghdadi Jews

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In his multi-genre writings, the Québécois-Canadian author Naim Kattan often refers nostalgically to his early years as an Iraqi Jew growing up in the 1940s’ Baghdad. His autobiographical novel Farewell Babylon (1975) represents an important historical document about the complex reality of the life of Iraqi Jews, often referred to as the Babylonian Jews. Part of the novel’s historicity is the dramatization of the Farhud (violent looting) of 1941, which took place in Baghdad and to which the author was a witness as a young boy. The novel traces the trajectory of the coming of age of an aspiring intellectual, facing challenging personal, social and political obstacles in a fraught, alienating and bigoted environment, with exiting the country being the only possible salvation.

This article argues that both minority persecution and exile create identitarian havoc for those subjected to them, especially when evoking the vexed, often misunderstood, issue of the Arab Jew. Kattan’s novel, as well as those of the other forcibly exiled Iraqi-Jewish writers, illustrates nevertheless the notion that while uprootedness is painfully destabilizing, it carries with it a potential for rebirth, the reinvention of self and the accretion of layered identities. Moreover, the article foregrounds Kattan’s skilful deployment of the autobiographical novel as a genre to convey complex intellectual and political issues while maintaining his reader’s sympathy and interest. Finally, the article aims to pay tribute to Naim Kattan, an often-overlooked writer by both Iraqi and Canadian critics, and highlight his touching, lyricized narrative of nostalgia about his birthplace, Baghdad.
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Keywords: Baghdad identity; Iraqi Jews; autobiographical novel; exile narrative

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: MacEwan University

Publication date: 2012-09-01

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  • The International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies is a new peer-reviewed, tri- annual, academic publication devoted to the study of modern Iraq. In recognition of Iraq's increasingly important position on the world stage, the time is right for a new journal dedicated to scholarly engagement with the country.
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