Green Bean Books

Q&A with Miriam Halahmy for A Boy from Baghdad

1. You’ve been writing novels – as well as short stories, poems and songs – for years. Is this your
most personal book? Is it true that your husband’s family lived in Iraq?
My husband was born in Baghdad into an Iraqi Jewish family, part of the ancient Babylonian Jewish community. It is the oldest Jewish community in the Diaspora, dating back two and a half thousand years. My husband is the youngest of eight children. I have been part of the family for over forty years; yes, in many ways this is my most personal book.

2. How accurate is the book? How much time did you spend researching how things would have been in Israel and Iraq?
Like many Ashkenazi Jews, I knew almost nothing about the Middle Eastern Jewish communities when I met my husband. Their story is complex and fascinating. I was introduced to a completely different way of life, reflecting the Arab world in the way Polish Jews reflect the world of Eastern Europe. My husband’s family spoke Arabic, listened to Arab music, cooked Arab food and had the customs and outlook of people from the Arab world, including the enormous hospitality of the Middle East. It was a huge and wonderful learning curve; I threw myself into it with great pleasure. I asked lots of questions over the years, always with a notebook in my hand. This immersion laid the groundwork of my research for A Boy from Baghdad. However, I backed up all the details by questioning people outside the family, Jewish and non-Jewish Iraqis; I attended lectures, watched documentaries and read books about the Iraqi Jewish community and about life in Israel in the early 1950s. This was a personal journey over more than forty years. Once I decided to write the book, during the COVID pandemic, I did further research to check each fact in the book and make sure the details were as accurate as possible.

3. Is enough known, written and broadcast about the Jews of Iraq?
In recent years the Iraqi Jews and their descendants have written several books, published in the UK, about their history and the loss of their ancient homeland. I was asked to review these books for the Jewish Chronicle. In our times, identity is a hot issue, along with recognizing and celebrating diversity. The Jewish world is also on this journey, embracing the amazing diversity across our Jewish communities. I hope that my book will contribution to this journey and help to educate our children. I also hope that Jewish children from the Iraqi and other Middle Eastern Jewish communities will feel proud to see their culture reflected and celebrated in my book.

4. How do you expect young boy readers – and perhaps children with Iraqi heritage – to react to the story and the characters in it?
I hope that boy readers will identify with Salman and find his struggles compelling. He swims against his parents’ wishes and keeps his dream alive against the odds in the ma’abara. I think these are universal themes which children from any background will find interesting. However, as the book is set specifically in the Middle East, I think that children of Iraqi and other Arab heritage – whether Jewish or Muslim – will find the story engaging, as it depicts a world which they and their families come from. I think both boy and girl readers will find plenty of themes to keep them turning the pages.

5. Are any of the other characters partly based on people you know? Is your husband one of the characters?
I specifically chose not to base my characters on my husband and his family members. I wanted to create whole new characters to give my story depth and breadth. However, there are echoes of the family in the book as their stories have been the background to my research. My brother-in- law, Oded Halahmy, who is a well-known sculptor living in New York, was twelve years old when the family left Iraq and has excellent recall of his happy childhood in Baghdad. I have interviewed him several times over the years. His comment after reading the manuscript of the book was, ‘Everyone is here. I loved it.’ That was a very important reaction for me. I knew then that I had
recreated the world he came from in a convincing and vivid way.

6. Can you offer any tips or words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
To become a writer you must read and write. Read as widely as possible, not just the genre you are interested in. Write every day. Keep a diary, flex the writing muscle, otherwise it will never develop. Attend a good creative writing class, run by a published author. This will help you to focus
on the skills of writing: develop plot, character, a scene, dialogue, etc. Persevere. This is a very hard field to make progress in, but if you need to write, if you must write, then do it and keep going. Many people drop out. Be the one who keeps going. Good luck.

7. Which Jewish stories do you remember reading and enjoying as a child?
The only stories we had as children were Bible stories. Jewish children were never depicted in the books I read. I enjoyed the Bible stories but the pictures were set in a world I couldn’t recognize, with lots of desert and rocks, and people even seemed to sleep on stone beds! When I was ten I
read The Diary of Anne Frank. Her story is very difficult and sad. But I was also inspired to write my own diary to practise being a writer, like Anne. I have written diaries all my life and recommend it as one of my writing tips when I go into schools.

8. Where do you stand on the ‘Own Voices’ debate? For a Jewish story, do you think it’s important to have a Jewish author? Could A Boy from Baghdad have been written just as well by a non-Jewish author?
I feel that, as a writer, I would not want to support entirely the notion that only Jewish authors can write Jewish voices. Equally as a writer I do not want to feel that I don’t have the right to represent characters from outside my own cultural identity. I have written male voices, Muslim voices, black
voices, elderly voices, child voices, etc. in my novels and I have addressed some very challenging concepts of racism and refugees in my books. However, I feel very strongly that an author must do their homework if they wish to step into any character’s shoes. The Own Voices debate has also
stemmed from a very real issue that there are groups in society who have had their voices suppressed, including authors from particular groups, and they feel that their voices have too often been represented – and in some cases misrepresented – by authors not from their culture.

This is an imbalance which must be addressed. I support completely the levelling up which is taking place in the writing world, to allow all voices to have their place. In relation to A Boy from Baghdad, this story is so little known it is unlikely it would be tackled by a non-Jewish author. The
question also is whether this story can be told by a Jewish author who is not from a Middle Eastern background. I am an Ashkenazi Jew, telling the story of the Iraqi Jewish community. But I have been married into the Iraqi Jewish community for forty-five years and I believe that my interest, personal experiences and research underpin my work. The debate continues and I hope that my book will make a contribution to that debate.