Chapter Ten: (Full Circle.)
By Saul Silas Fathi
[When the Iraqi army returned from the war with Israel in 1948, defeated and humiliated, they tried to appease their Muslim population by blaming their defeat on the "Jewish Zionist spies." They began compiling a list of rich and prominent Jews, looting their possessions, jailing them, and hanging many of them in the main public square. My father took me there once to witness one of these hangings. Details can be found in previous chapters]
A few months later, my father's name appeared on a blacklist of Jews. Not knowing his fate, Father wondered if he would be hanged like other Jews had been. He decided that he must save some of his children by smuggling them out of Iraq to the new state of Israel. Father chose my brother Yeftah and me. I was ten years old, and Yeftah was only eight and a half. Father contacted some members of the Zionist underground, begged them to take his young sons, and paid them dearly for their help. He told Yeftah and me that we would be leaving one day soon but we did not know when.
One hot summer evening around 8 o'clock, I was in my room, with the door closed, doing homework. I heard a soft knock at the door.
"Come in," I said, as I looked up from my textbook.
It was my father, still dressed in his usual English-tailored suit and conservative tie. His normally smiling face looked grim as he sat on the edge of my bed. As he looked at me, I knew something of the gravest importance was about to be said.
"Saul, my son," my father began, in quavering voice, "it's time to get ready. You know what I am talking about." He cupped my face with his soft clerk's hands. I could see, for the first time in my life, a single tear welling in his eye. It was so rare a site that that tear was burned into my memory. We had always been taught not to show emotion, and father was a strict observer of that custom. "This is the day we have all been waiting for," Father explained. "You and your brother are leaving tonight. You will be joining a small group of people, starting a long journey toward the state of Israel, our promised land, the land of our forefathers."
Even though I had been preparing for this day for many months, I was stunned that it had to be now, without any warning. And, I was petrified about the journey and the dangers ahead. Still, I tilted my head up and tried not to show how I felt. "Really, Dad? Tonight? So soon?" I said.
"Yes, Saul, tonight," he answered as he stood up and paced the floor in front of me, laying out my next duties. "You had better change your underwear and put on some clean clothes, just as if you were going to school." He moved about the room, pulling out clothes for me to wear. "Your mother has already packed everything you and your brother will need. It's just outside."
My father put his arm on my shoulder and guided me to the bathroom. For the first time in years, he stood there and watched me as I brushed my teeth and washed my face, nose, and ears. He smiled as if he were proud of me.
Then he picked up a towel and vigorously dried my wet face and hair, pulling me against his chest in the process. It was a rare, tender moment, making me feel safe and loved. Father didn't express his affection openly, but all of us children knew he loved us very much.
"Let's get you dressed," Father said, pushing me away gently and combing my hair. "Hurry now. Mother is preparing your brother. I bet he's ready by now." Father rushed me back to my room and helped me dress. "You must keep warm and dry. Keep this nice sweater on all the time. And your brother, too, make sure he does the same."
He left me alone to go check on the progress in my brother Yeftah's room. Mother had already dressed him and was now in the kitchen preparing sandwiches for the road. I could see her from the doorway of my room as she whispered to my sisters and youngest brother Abraham. They were all gathered around her in the kitchen, sensing that what they were witnessing was an extraordinary event in the annals of our family.
Our parents were risking their lives to try to save Yeftah's and mine. There had been no other choice for them. Staying in Baghdad could mean that we would witness our father's hanging since he had been falsely accused of treason against the Iraqi government. He was accused not only of being a Zionist but also of being a Communist, just as every other wealthy and prominent Jew here had been labeled. Being thus accused was a double insult in the eyes of the citizenry. One charge offended their nationalism; the other, their religion. It was sure to arouse the hatred and outrage of the entire Muslim population.
While the whispering was going on in the kitchen, my father signaled to me to follow him quietly. He led me to his bedroom, where we were rarely allowed. He pointed to the bed. "Sit down, son. I have something very important to tell you." He sat down beside me and continued. "As you may know, we paid a great deal of money to the Arab guides who will lead you and the others across the border into Iran. Of course, we don't know these people very well. That is why they are not to be trusted. We don't know what to expect from them. They could take our money and lead all of you into a trap. If that should happen, you would all be caught and shot on the spot. Then, the authorities would seek out the families of everyone who attempted to flee and execute them as well."
I shrugged, pretending to be brave. So what, I thought, there are things worse than death, like living in fear here in Baghdad, where we are hated as Jews. We can't even be citizens here, even after our people have been here for 2,600 years."
My father smiled. "You know our history well, son. I'm proud of you." He patted my shoulder, then added soberly, "We will have no contact with one another till we meet again someday in the land of Israel, God willing. It may take years. But we need to know that you and your brother made it across the border." He then reached into his jacket pocket for something. He opened his hand out to me. "Look, here are two beautiful glass marbles. One has your name inscribed on it, and the other one has your brother's. These are not for you to play with. You must keep them hidden. One is for you, and one is for your brother. When you make it safely across the border, I want you to give them to one of the Muslim guides, saying to him, 'Here, take these marbles back to my father, Silas Fathi; he'll reward you handsomely if you do." When the marbles are brought back to us, we will know that you are safe, that, at least, you have crossed the Iraqi border alive."
I was puzzled and asked, "But, Dad, what if only one of us makes it alive across the border?" Father stood up suddenly. Then just as suddenly, he pulled me against him, burying my face into his stomach.
Finally, Father said, "Then, my dear son, give the guide only one marble to bring back to us." Father pushed me away to look at me. "You will have to give one of these marbles to your brother, to keep in his pocket, so that whoever survives will be able to give his marble to the guide. But, don't give the marble to your brother just yet. He is so little. He can't keep a secret like this. But, you are older. You're a man now. You have a great sense of responsibility. I know I can count on you." Father offered the marbles to me again. "Here, keep them inside your jacket pocket, and put your handkerchief over them."
I was ten years old, yet Father thought I was a man of great responsibility for I truly became my brother's keeper. I nodded as I took the marbles and all of the responsibility that they represented and put them into my pocket for safekeeping. Beaming with newfound pride, I looked at my father and said, "O.K. Let's get going."
Father and I walked to the front door where Mother and my sisters and brothers were waiting for us. Suddenly, I had a thought. I ran back to my room, closed the door behind me, and pushed the night table beside my bed away from the wall. It seemed fitting to mark the occasion in some way so I wrote in neat letters on the wall: "I left my room today, perhaps forever, August 12, 1948." I restored the night table to its original position, covering the note on the wall, and dashed back to join the rest of my family near the front door.
Father announced, "O.K., this is where we say goodbye. We can't go with you to the car. Someone may see us and get suspicious." Yeftah and I nodded and began hugging and kissing first Mother, then our sisters Berta and Yedida, who were choking and crying, with the palms of their hands over their mouths.
Father gently pulled us away from these prolonged goodbyes. "Enough now," he said. "You must go." He handed each of us a small valise and then said his last goodbye. "God be with you. And, don't worry about us; we will join you someday. Be strong now."
Father opened the door and gently pushed us out into the evening air, closing the door quickly behind us. As it shut, it forever separated us from this house and our family and a part of our lives in a country we would never see again. We were alone; just two little boys in the dark night. But we were also emissaries of hope for a future the rest of our family might never know. In the darkness, we could just make out the nondescript car waiting for us. I took my brother's small hand in mine as I took a deep breath and walked briskly toward the waiting car.
A door opened and someone reached for us, pulling us into the laps of two young men in the back seat of an already crowded car. When we settled on bony male knees, we turned to look at the men who had us firmly in tow. To our surprise, two familiar faces grinned at us. It was our Uncle Moshe, who was nineteen, and Uncle Salman, who was only seventeen. To stifle any surprised cries of recognition, they put their hands gently over our mouths, but kept grinning at us. Inside the silent car, we sat, surrounded by familiar arms, as we sped through the city, making stops in the dark, picking up others like us who were hoping for a way out of the country.
After a few hours when other cars fell in line behind us as we traveled in caravan through the city, I realized there were actually three cars involved in the escape plan, not just ours. The three drivers maintained about 100 yards distance apart, but they remained within sight.
The trip and the dark night seemed to last forever. Yeftah pretended to be asleep in Uncle Salman's lap. I kept my eyes open, looking through the car window, trying to figure out where we were. It was difficult to see anything. There were no streetlights; only the light of the moon and the stars were visible. Our driver, an Arab, who never spoke a word during the entire trip, smoked one cigarette after another, and some of us coughed and choked. Though we were all trying very hard not to make any noise as we tried to breathe in that smoky atmosphere, no one dared complain.
I craned my head around and tried to see who else was with us in the car. I saw two other children. One was about three years old. The other was an infant. Like my brother and me, they were held in the laps of two adults, who were most likely their parents and who kept the children's mouths covered with their hands. The family was snuggled under one blanket, leaving only the children's heads visible. In the front seat was man of 35 or 40. It seemed to me he was cold since his arms were wrapped around his wife's shoulders as they trembled uncontroll-ably. Now and then, on the slightest noise from the back seat, he looked over the seat and glared at us.
Uncle Moshe made a gesture to me to try to sleep by closing his eyes and tilting his head into the palm of his hand. I obeyed and tried to settle into his shoulder to sleep. Suddenly, I felt a kick on my leg. It was Yeftah, seeing if I really were asleep. I reacted like we always did, by kicking him back harder.
"Ouch!" he yelled.
The driver turned around and demanded total silence. Properly chastised, we nodded. The three-year-old looked at me and smiled, then he looked at Yeftah and made a face, sticking his tongue out and wiggling it. The boy knew he could get away with doing anything in our particular predicament. But I could tell my brother was having a hard time controlling his anger at the boy's antics. Yeftah was a person of action and revenge. Kicking the kid would have been a real treat for him, but it would have to wait for another time and place. Yeftah probably was plotting his own sweet revenge.
After almost eight hours of speeding through the city and the countryside, constantly on the alert for the police or border patrols that may have noticed us, we arrived in Basra, Iraq's main seaport. When the car stopped in front of a house, we were rushed one by one into the basement, which seemed uninhabited. There, eighteen of us-men, women, and children-lived in hiding in cramped quarters for sixteen days and nights. Food and water had been stockpiled in advance of our arrival so we did not get thirsty nor did we starve. Sanitation, however, was difficult to maintain, because there was only one toilet. We changed our underwear daily, but kept the same clothing on since many of us had little luggage with us.
We waited and worried. The adults feared that the longer we stayed in one spot, the easier it might be for the police or the patrols to find us. We lived each day in whispers among our own kin, not risking play or childhood interactions. I took care of Yeftah as father had told me to, but I wondered after all this time whether we would actually be able to leave Iraq. Maybe all of this was a big mistake and we'd all be sent back to our families. Maybe, then, I remembered that my father had been falsely accused of treason, and I knew that our little house was no longer safe. But what of father, and mother, and our sisters and little brother? Were they safe?
Then, one night unlike any other of those in that basement-hiding place, an Arab guide met with us. He told us to be completely quiet throughout the entire journey that night as we crossed the river into Iran. He made it plain what would happen if we were not quiet. "If the border patrol notices you crossing the river," he said, "they would shoot you and sink our boats. Don't say I didn't warn you."
One by one, we grabbed our small bags and bundles and filed into the waiting cars that would take us to the river. After a very short ride, we all scrambled out of the cars and ran to the river and waded in, up to our knees, to two small rowboats that were waiting for us. We climbed onboard as the unshaven Arab boat owners silently motioned for us to lay down in the bottom of the boats, which had been lined with bed cushions. It was dark and deathly still, except for the lapping of the water against the sides of the boats, the dripping of wet clothing as we came out of the water, and the little stirrings as people squished down onto the cushions.
I looked around for my brother who was nearby on the shore. Even fidgety Yeftah could sense the danger we were in and kept as still as he could. Without uttering a word, I pulled him closer to me and held his hand as we waded to one boat and boarded it. Down on the cushions next to us was the woman with the three-year-old boy and the infant. She again kept her hands over their mouths to make sure they didn't speak or cry. Just one little sound could endanger us all. Her husband lay next to the children and some other members of the group. We were packed liked apples in a box with little room to move. From the cessation of the muffled sounds, the other boat had just finished loading its passengers as well.
When everyone was on board, our boat owner signaled with his hand to the other boat. They began to row, slowly at first, then faster. With each labored stoke, we moved farther into the river and away from our native country, Iraq. Just on the other side of the river was Iran, our safe haven, where we would stop until we could make our way to the new state of Israel. O, Israel, the land of our forefathers, the hope of freedom and autonomy in a brand new land! Our first step toward that Promised Land and freedom wasn't far away now. It was just at the water's edge, just at the last dip of the boatman's oars, just a prayer away. I noticed some of the women were moving their lips in silent prayer and kissing the holy necklaces on their chests. It wasn't far, not now.
Then, as we came to the middle of the river, it happened. Maybe it was the fear in the air that the infant had sensed or its mother's own tension, or maybe it was just hungry or needed a diaper change. Out of its muffled little mouth came cries of discomfort. The boat owner waved his hand, trying to get the baby's mother to shush the unhappy child. Soon, others in the group began to whisper to the mother, "Hey, quiet. You're going to have us all killed." The whispers soon rose and profanities were used, creating more noise than the little child's cry.
Spurred by the fear in the voices of the others in the boat, the baby's father reached over and covered the mouth of the three-year-old. The mother then used both hands to silence her infant, with a hand over its mouth and another on the back of its neck. The baby's cries stopped, and it was quiet again. All we heard was the rise and fall of the oars.
Then suddenly, we heard the sound of rifles and a volley of bullets whizzed over our heads. The sides of the boats were thumped dully as bullets embedded in the wood. The border patrol must have heard the baby or the adult voices. They had found us and were intent on shooting in the direction of the sounds they had heard. But instead of maintaining our silence, members of our group started yelling and praying, "God, not here! Don't let them kill us now!" That only helped the border patrol correct their aim. The more the adults screamed and yelled, the more bullets hit the boat and passed over our heads.
The owner of our boat yelled at us, "I'll throw all of you into the river. You're going to have me killed and my boat sunk!"
That stunned the adults into silence. Everyone then huddled together, crying and praying in silence. We were trying to save ourselves, unaware of the fate of the other boat containing the other half of our group. We couldn't see anything in the darkness but the pale moonlight bouncing off the waves.
When our boat finally came near the far bank of the river, we all scrambled out into the water, running toward the shore, and collapsing onto the sand. We were alive and safe, and very grateful to be out of the nightmare on the water. Minutes later, the group from the other boat joined us.
Someone came down to the river from an open-bed truck nearby and told us to load up. We all climbed in and sat on the floor of the truck like cattle. Within minutes, we all were dashing through the desert toward the interior of Iran, away from the border patrol and the gunfire. One of the men from the truck looked back through the rear window and counted the number of people in the truck bed. He made a note in a little pocket notebook and tucked it away inside his shirt.
Suddenly, we heard a cry from the infant's mother. She was screaming and holding up her baby, "Oh, my heavenly God, my baby is not breathing! My baby is not breathing! He is dead! My baby!"
Her husband crawled rapidly across the truck bed toward her. He took the baby and shook it from side to side, confirming his wife's fear. "My beautiful baby is dead!" he cried. "Oh, God! Oh, God! What have we done?"
Everyone sat up and moved toward the poor parents. "You choked him too hard," said one of the men.
"I'm sorry for you," said another.
The three-year-old little boy put his hand on his infant brother's stomach, and said, "Wake up, Joseph! Wake up. We are free! We are safe!" But the child did not awaken.
By now, everyone was crying, feeling ashamed and guilty for what they had said earlier in the boat. Saving their own lives had been foremost in their minds, and blame was easy to cast when faced with their own possible deaths.
The Arab guide said nothing, but looked as if he had seen a lot of tragedy in this refugee business.
The mother snatched her baby back from her husband. She sat rocking the infant, murmuring to her dead child, "My baby! My baby! I'm so sorry. I will never forgive myself. Oh, forgive me. Forgive me."
Many of us clung to those close to us or held their hands. We felt the family's loss as if it had been one of our own relatives. We had all become one family in the life and death reality of refugees. Yet, we felt helpless. There was nothing we could do for this family to comfort them, and I as a child could only stare at their dead baby and hold onto Yeftah's hand. I felt that Yeftah's little fingers in mine had suddenly become quite large and heavy and almost more than I could be responsible for. But, I knew that I could not let anything like what had happened to that baby happen to him.
After about an hour of driving, the truck suddenly stopped, and the guide ordered us all to get out. The tailgate was lowered, and the men jumped out first to help the rest of us down. The infant's father was helped down, so that he could assist his wife, who still clutched her dead child tight to her bosom. When we were all out of the truck, the guide motioned for the driver to leave us.
As the truck drove away, we stood in the total darkness in the middle of the desert. Some of the group just sat down on the sand, wondering aloud if we had just been brought out here to be abandoned. The infant's mother sat on the ground with her legs folded under her. She put the baby in her lap and slowly rocked backward and forward, as if in prayer, murmuring unintelligibly.
The guide then spoke to us reassuringly. "You are safe now. Don't worry. You will be the honored guests of our friends, the Bedouins, who will offer you food and drink and a place to sleep for tonight."
In less than an hour, several men appeared silently out of the darkness. They were the Bedouin friends the guide had told us about. These men shook hands with some of the grownups in our company and told us in Arabic to follow them on foot. As the group moved out, the Bedouins conversed quietly in Farsi among themselves. We all were beginning to finally feel safe, but were still in shock about our ordeal and what had happened to the infant.
We walked about twenty minutes in complete silence, which seemed very unusual to our hosts, who were enjoying each other's good company. We soon came to a cluster of tents amid some cows, lambs, and camels. Children were everywhere, running and playing. Yeftah and I felt comfortable because kids could play and make noise and just be kids. We were greeted by the women of the tribe, who all wore colorful, long dresses, and some wore black veils over their faces.
We were motioned to enter a huge tent and sit on the floor, which was covered with colorful mats, like something out of a tale from long ago. We did as our hosts requested, all of us, except the parents of the infant, who were standing outside of the tent, sobbing and talking to their baby.
The guide frowned in sadness as he looked at the young family. Then he left to seek out one of our hosts. The guide whispered in the Bedouin's ear, probably telling him what had happened to the baby. The Bedouin then approached the parents, offering his condolences. He called to his teenage son and whispered something in his ear. The boy ran into another tent, brought a shovel and began to dig a hole in the ground, about a hundred yards away. He returned and told his father that the space was ready. His father approached the parents again and tried to convince them that they should bury their child there.
The mother cried out, "No! Please don't make me leave my baby here in the desert. Please, I can't!"
Her husband hugged her and begged her to listen. "It's the only thing we can do. I love him, too. But, we have to go on. We have to save ourselves and all these people. I beg you."
The three-year-old joined in. "No, please, Daddy, don't let them do this. I want to keep my brother with us. Let's take him with us to Israel."
Adults from our group came out of the tent and began to beg the couple's forgiveness, urging them to bury their child in this land that brought them closer to freedom. The mother continued to wail in mourning. But after a long time, she finally relented, and we all marched silently to the gravesite. The father jumped into the newly dug grave, and reached up for their infant son still wrapped in his blanket, taking him from his wife. He kissed the baby on the forehead and laid him flat in the grave, face up, and then climbed out. He clung to his grieving wife, with their three-year-old son between them, his small face buried in his mother's dress. All of them were sobbing and so were others in our group, and even some Bedouin women were crying quietly.
One of the men asked of the group, "Does anyone know the kaddish?" This was the Jewish prayer for the dead.
A woman stepped to the edge of the grave and began to pray. When the words "el malleh ra-ha-meem" (God is full of mercy) were uttered, everyone joined in with her, crying. When the prayer ended, the Bedouin boy motioned for all of us to leave, and he began shoveling the sand back into the grave.
We walked solemnly back toward the tents. The rest of the Bedouins were all sitting around a fire pit where a sheep was roasting, skewered on a rotating spit. The meat smelled wonderful. One of the Bedouin women began to sing a lullaby, and her children joined in. We were all served chunks of lamb in pita bread, and drank water from a military jerry can. Then they served hot tea and fruits and urged every one of us to help ourselves. The grieving family huddled together, eating slowly, without saying a word.
For about two luxurious hours, we sat eating and listening to the singing and the quiet talk around the fire. The stars were very bright in the night sky, far away from city lights, and Yeftah and I marveled at them.
The guide, having thanked our hosts and giving him a hearty farewell hug, confided to a man from our group, "I must leave now. You're in good hands. You all go to sleep in the tent, and tomorrow morning a truck will come to pick you up and take you to Ah-bah-dan. There you will board a train to Tehran."
On hearing that, all of us were full of apprehension. Our hosts had been very gracious, but they had only promised to care for us for one night. We were far into the desert, without our own food and water. Would the Bedouins move camp in the morning and leave us alone out here? Would anyone really come for us in the morning? Who would lead us after the guide was gone? Nevertheless, no one dared to question him.
As the guide was leaving, I pulled my brother close to me and whispered in his ear, "O.K., give me the marble that I gave you. I have to give it to this man before he leaves so he can take it back to father."
Yeftah put his hand inside his pocket and felt under three layers of clothing, but was surprised that no blue marble was there. "I can't find it," he said meekly.
"What do you mean you can't find it?" I asked him, anger and shock welling in me. "You must find it. Otherwise, Father will think that only I made it here alive and that you are dead. He will think I did not take care of you."
Yeftah searched all through his clothing, but couldn't find his blue marble. "It must have fallen out in the boat. I was holding it in my hand when we made the crossing, when they were shooting at us. I'm sorry."
The guide was leaving right then, and I didn't have much time. I had to let Father know that we both were safe. Quickly, I made a decision. I took a pen from the inside pocket of my jacket and wrote "Yeftah" next to my name on my marble. I hoped the ink will hold.
Then I ran after the guide and grabbed his arm. He turned. I said very quietly to him, repeating my father's words, "Take this marble back to my father, Silas Fathi, as a sign that my brother and I both survived. He will reward you handsomely when you bring this to him."
The guide took the marble, examined it closely, and understood. He nodded and said, "I will take it to him within three or four days. I promise." He gave me a small smile, then turned and slipped away into the night. Still, I wasn't sure I could trust him.
Reluctantly, one by one, we filed into the big tent that our Bedouin hosts had prepared for us to sleep in. There were some knitted mats and straw mats on the floor, but no pillows. Families and relatives bunched together, folding our jackets under our heads for pillows. Some rested their heads on their small suitcases, and some actually slept on them; fearing they might be robbed in the night. It was hard to fall asleep in this atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust. The grownups kept talking, advising everyone who could not fall asleep to do so. Finally, late into the night, we all managed to sleep a little.
In the early hours of the morning, we were awakened by a scream from one of thee women in our group. "No! No! Leave me alone!" she yelled.
One of the Bedouin men was standing over her with a drawn dagger in his hand. He was not trying to kill her, but was trying to remove the jacket and sweater from under her head. Some of the men of our group jumped to their feet and tried to subdue the Bedouin. He waved his dagger violently to the left and right of the men's faces, threatening to slash them. Even though he was outnumbered four to one, he kept them at bay. Finally, one of the men offered a compromise, giving the Bedouin his own sweater. The Bedouin accepted it reluctantly and left the tent in anger.
Everyone was awake by then, all of us frightened and hungry. No breakfast, however, was offered by our hosts. It was as if we had somehow broken some social or moral code, but we didn't know what we had done. We all gathered our belongings and left the tent, looking for the promised truck.
Around 6:30 AM, we spotted a truck on the horizon. We waved and called out to the driver. Within minutes, he stopped about fifty feet from us. The driver and another guide got out and motioned us to load into the truck.
Suddenly, three tall Bedouin men came running out of their tents, daggers in their hands, shouting, "We have given you food and shelter and got nothing back from you. Give us some clothing and jewelry."
That was the unspoken taboo we had broken. We did not know that Bedouin hospitality was meted out in a reciprocal format. They gave to us; they expected a gift for their generosity. I suppose if we had given to them first, they would have felt obligated to give us an equal gift. Everyone else in the chain of people who had helped in our escape had been paid. We did not know that the Bedouins had not been paid by our guides. The Bedouins were not thieves, and we weren't ungrateful guests. We had both not known what the customs and social rules were. That didn't stop us from being frightened or some of us from feeling that we had been robbed.
Two Bedouins posted themselves by the truck and kept us from climbing into the back. They pointed to some of the men of our group and ordered them to take off their jackets. Our friends were trembling with fear, but took out the belongings from their pockets and handed their jackets over to the Bedouins. As each man did that, he was allowed to climb into the truck. During all of this, the driver went to one of the tents and spoke with our Bedouin host. We could hear their loud interchange.
When we were finally all on the truck, the guide counted heads, like our other guide had done. We were now seventeen. The infant's mother looked out of the truck toward the hole in the ground where her son had been buried the day before. She began to cry again, quietly this time. Her husband put his arm around her and comforted her once more.
The driver finally emerged from the Bedouin tent. He appeared to be giving the host something, perhaps money. He walked to the truck, looked us all in the face, and without uttering a word, began to drive. We had no idea of what he had just done nor where he was taking us. We knew the city's name but had no idea in which direction it was since no one knew the local geography. After this last altercation, we had no idea if the driver would take us where we were meant to go or dump us in the desert somewhere to get rid of his troubles.
It was several hours more before we arrived at a train station outside of an Iranian town named Ah-bah-dan. We climbed out of the truck, making sure we had left no personal belongings behind. The driver and the guide helped us form a line by having us all hold hands as they led us to the back of the train. The guide pulled several train tickets out of his pocket and handed them to the infant's father, who appeared to be the leader among us. The driver and the guide shook our hands and assured us that someone would meet us at the end of the line at Tehran. The driver and the guide then left us at the station.
When it was time, we filed into the rear of the train, which was nearly empty. Only a few merchants with their live chickens, some in wooden crates and some strung up on leashes were on board. We were all smiling now. We were happy to have survived all of our ordeals. But, the adults kept admonishing us every time Yeftah and I talked as if our speaking aloud would somehow affect how we were treated. We held our belongings in our laps, trying not to make eye contact with the Iranian peasants. The infant's father appeared to be taking charge of the group, which was reassuring to us because we all seemed to need a leader. We also were glad that he was finding a way to put his own grief in perspective and taking on this responsibility. Everyone spoke to him with a great deal of respect and sympathy.
We spent nearly ten hours on the train. All of us heard horror stories about similar trips by others who had preceded us. Those stories were now passed around our group. One was particularly heart wrenching. Some months earlier, during the winter, the same train had been stopped because of a massive snowstorm. Emergency crews could not reach the train in time. Many perished, freezing to death or dying of thirst and hunger. We were told to count our blessings so far, and also to remember the benevolent Shah, who was friendly to Israel and the Jews, in our prayers.
Yeftah and I thought of our parents. We missed them very much. Did father escape from his sentence? How would Mother and our sisters and little Abraham survive without Father? Did our Arab guide bring them the one marble? Did my father understand that we both were safe? Was the Arab able to convince him?
Upon arrival in Tehran, our group was greeted by several well-dressed men, some dark and some blond, with baskets of fruit beside them on the ground. They bent down and picked up a fruit and offered it to us. "Have some," they said. "They are washed."
We were ushered into waiting cars and driven about forty-five minutes out of town to a gated camp. With fear in our hearts and memories of news reports of Auschwitz and Dachau, we all thought, This is a concentration camp.
But it was not. It was a refugee camp where young children from all over the world had been gathered for an organized trip to Israel. We were divided into several tents and wooden barracks, with beds and clean sheets. One of our new guides was a beautiful young girl with a khaki hat, who spoke fluent Arabic, Iranian, English, French, and, of course, Hebrew. She was a mad-ree-kha, an instructor. She told us that we were safe there and explained where the showers and the mess hall were. There was plenty of food and drink available, with three meals a day, a break in mid-morning and another in mid-afternoon. We were not, however, allowed to venture outside the camp. There were scheduled games, dances, and Hebrew lessons to fill our days until we made the voyage to Israel.
During the next three months, our numbers kept swelling. Every day, a new group of children arrived. They were mostly displaced children who had lost their families in the Holocaust. Each one could write a detailed book of the adventures he or she had experienced in their short lives. We played together and learned to understand one another, even though there were over thirty different languages spoken among us. We played outside with balls and jump ropes, and we learned to hold hands in a circle and dance the new Israeli national dance called the Horah. We also learned Hebrew songs and sang the Israeli national anthem, "The Hatikvah" (The Hope) every morning, standing at attention outside of the mess hall.
We were constantly assured that our parents would someday join us in Israel. Some of us wrote tearful letters to our parents, even though we knew there was no way we could mail them since many of our parents were under sentence like my Father. We gave them to the mad-ree-kha, and she kept them all.
Finally, the day of our relocation arrived. We were driven to the airport in several buses and put on an unmarked Constellation airplane. As the plane took off, all of the one hundred and fifty passengers clapped their hands and sang our favorite Hebrew songs. We all thought, Are we finally 100% safe? What if we get shot down over Arab land? What if we run out of fuel? What if? What if? A thousand worrisome thoughts swept through our minds. But, our guides, especially the young blond girl with the hat, kept reassuring us that everything would be all right. They said that we were now flying on an Israeli airplane, headed to Israel, but we would not be flying over any Arab country. The flight time would only be four to five hours, depending on several factors. She didn't explain what those were.
We touched down in Lud Airport (later renamed Ben Gurion Airport). We were still singing, laughing, and clapping our hands. We impatiently awaited the stewardess' direction to disembark. When we finally stepped off the aircraft and our feet touched Israeli soil, we all kneeled down and kissed the ground.
We young Jewish children were home at last.
It had only taken 2,600 years.
About the Author
Saul Silas Fathi was born to a prominent Jewish family in Baghdad, Iraq. At age 10, he was smuggled out of Baghdad through Iran and eventually reached the state of Israel. He began writing a diary at age 11 and had several stories published in Israeli youth magazines. In 1958, he worked his way to Brazil where he nearly starved. In 1960, he came to the U.S. on a student exchange visa. After basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, he was sent to helicopter school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and there enrolled at the University of Virginia. Within a few months, Saul was shipped to South Korea where he served with the 1st Cavalry Division, 15th Aviation Company, the famed helicopter division in the Vietnam War. Saul retired in 2003 and began writing his memoirs, "Full Circle: Escape from Baghdad and the return". Today, he lives in Long Island, New York, with his wife Rachelle.
from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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