Green Bean Books

A Boy from Baghdad

Written by Miriam Halahmy

Price: £9.99 / $12.99
Pages: 192
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781784389901

Highlights

  • Tells the story of the Shashas, a Jewish family that leaves Iraq for Israel in 1951
  • Details the family’s hardship as they are forced to leave their country and shows how they overcome these struggles to build a new life in their new home
  • Focuses on twelve-year-old Salman Shasha, an avid swimmer who, by means of his talent and his passion, finds a way to adjust to this new country while remaining true to himself
  • An accurate representation of the struggle of Iraqi Jews in the 20th century, Halahmy sheds light on a struggle that is rarely heard, and tells a story that is hugely important
  • Middle-grade novel for children between the ages of 8 and 12

Description

“Jews are no longer safe in Iraq. When are you going to get it through your thick head?”

It’s 1951, and twelve-year-old Salman Shasha is happy with his life in Baghdad. But trouble is brewing. Salman and his family are Iraqi Jews and their government has been turning against their community for years. Things become so dangerous that the whole family are forced to leave Iraq for Israel, the “Promised Land”.

Once they arrive, however, they realise that things are not what they dreamed they would be. Taken to a refugee camp, the Shasha family try to make the best of their situation. But the dominant group in the country – the Ashkenazi Jews – look down on families like Salman’s and treat them horribly. Salman decides to focus on his greatest passion, swimming, and beating his rivals in a race. Facing taunts from his bullying peers, Salman feels defeated, but he soon realises that with hard work and determination anything is possible.

An inspiring, atmospheric tale about the power of perseverance, friendship and family in the face of hardship, hatred and change, A Boy From Baghdad is an important story of diversity in the modern world. Essential reading for any child 8 years and over.

Author Details

Miriam Halahmy is a prolific writer who has written novels, short stories and poetry for children, teens and adults. Her books include The Emergency Zoo, Behind Closed Doors, Hidden and Always Here for You. She is twice-nominated Carnegie Medal. Miriam has worked with refugees in schools and in workshops in collaboration with PEN and the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture, and frequently visits schools, colleges, universities and literary festivals both virtually and in person, in the UK and abroad.

Reviews

“Salman’s dream is to win Olympic medals for swimming; he practises in the River Tigris, close to his home. But it’s 1951, Iraqi Jews are being forced out and his family heads for Israel, where life for the refugees is far from the idyll they d been sold in Iraqi Hebrew school; they are at best misunderstood and at worst despised by the established Ashkenazim.
The historical background of A Boy from Baghdad by Miriam Halahmy including tantalising glimpses of traditional foods, and Shabbat customs, will be new to many readers, and Halahmy makes it all wonderfully accessible, through the adventure-filled, heart-warming story of Salman, his wheeler-dealer cousin and his sister, desperate to train as a doctor. Nothing feels didactic. In the foreground is simply a A great story about believable kids, their scuffles and boasts at youth club, the scrapes, sweets, films and football teams. And yet there is so much more to discover. The metaphor of learning to swim in Israel’s sea, after knowing only the Iraqi river, the significance of changing to a Hebrew name, the power of speaking the “right” language (Arabic, Hebrew or English) at the right time, the friendship that grows between the Shashas and their Muslim neighbours, are all brilliantly woven together.” — Angela Kiverstein, the Jewish Chronicle

‘It’s a very, very good book, and I strongly recommend it.’ – www.awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.com

‘A powerful beautifully written story, historical and eye-opening and so relevant to today’s world, where many families are still forced to flee their homes to other countries.’  Penny Joelson
‘Halahmy brings Baghdad to life with sensory details, especially smells: the odor of the River Tigris, of the “stale, meaty smell” of carcasses at the meat market, and the “heady perfume of cinnamon, cardamom, and chilies” at the spice stalls. Halahmy does not shy away from the difficulties many Mizrahi Jews faced upon arriving in Israel, both socially and economically. But Salman—now Shimon—gradually acclimates to his new home, finding friends both Jewish and Arab… Although A Boy from Baghdad’s uniqueness lies in its setting, its power lies in its universality.’
— Rachel Fremmer,  Tablet Magazine’s Best Books of 2023

‘In this unique story, Salman Shasha and his family leave persecution in Iraq for the “Promised Land” only to find hardship in a primitive refugee camp and prejudice from some of the Ashkenazi Jews they meet. Slowly, Salman and his family adapt, find friends, and begin to feel like real Israelis. There are so few books for kids about the Mizrahi experience, so this is an important contribution to Jewish children’s literature.’  — My Completely Unofficial 2024 Sydney Taylor Book Award Shortlist, The Book of Life podcast

A Boy from Baghdad is a heartwarming, authentic story about an Iraqi Jewish boy, Salman Shasha, who is suddenly uprooted with his family and the entire Iraqi Jewish community when they move from Baghdad to Israel. Not only does Salman’s family lose everything with the move to the refugee tent camps in Israel (home, language, identity), but Salman also loses his dream to be an Olympic gold swimmer for Iraq.
 
The Iraqi Jewish world is little known and Halahmy paints a vibrant, colorful picture of the smells and sounds of the souq, the beautiful, wide Tigris River which is Salman’s swimming haunt, and the close-knit family and communal everyday life and traditions, such as the lighting of seven homemade wicks in sesame oil for Shabbat. She also captures the tensions for the Jews with the rising antisemitism and anti-Zionism which culminated in more than 120,000 Jews leaving between 1950-1952. 

Halahmy artfully captures the complexity of the Iraqi Jewish story in Israel through her characters’ bittersweet experiences as they arrive in the “Promised Land.” Unfortunately, the Middle Eastern life and mindset of Salman’s family is sorely challenged in Israel. The way things were done in Iraq is not the way of Israel. His determined, smart sister Naima joins a kibbutz, and Salman and his wheeler-dealer cousin Latif are left to fend for themselves and their families. There is the bitter breakdown of family structure and security, and the grievous shame Salman and his family experiences with obnoxious Ashkenazi discrimination. Yet there is sweetness, the knowledge that they are safe in Israel, with new opportunities and experiences for young people that weren’t allowed in Iraq. The story is also sweet with new friendships with Ashkenazi children from the Moadon youth club, and a very dear Holocaust survivor, the empathetic egg man from the kibbutz. 

Most of all, children will relate to Salman as a character with big dreams. It takes more than being displaced to destroy his Olympic swimming ambitions. He faces the sea, and stroke by stroke perseveres through many hardships. His story reflects a hope for a brighter future with the role of Iraqi and Mizrahi Jews being natural bridges between Israeli Arabs and Ashkenazim, as Salman grows with the understanding that it is who a person is that matters, not where they are from, and finds deep friendships with people from both communities. Halahmy writes from her Iraqi Jewish husband’s family story, and as a fun extra includes the recipe for Iraqi Jewish date cookies.

Now more than ever, A Boy From Baghdad is an important book for children and adults to read, in order to better understand the complexity of the Middle Eastern Jewish experience and Israel.’   Sarah Sassoon, Sydney Taylor Schmooze Blog