Two Iraqi Cultures, Meeting at a U.S. Wedding

Recently, at a wedding, commentator Anisa Mehdi met an Iraqi family very different from her own. The bride was an Iraqi Jew, whose family stayed in Iraq longer than Mehdi's had.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Recently commentator Anisa Mehdi met an Iraqi family that was very different from her own.

ANISA MEHDI:

It's often thought that Jews and Arabs are ancient enemies. We forget that we're all the original Semites and, for thousands of years, wandered and shared the gardens and deserts of the Fertile Crescent. We've forgotten the PS to the biblical story of Abraham's two sons. Although their mothers may not have reconciled, Ishmael and Isaac buried their father together as brothers. And we've forgotten that many of the Jews exiled to Babylon stayed on, making Mesopotamia their home and eventually becoming full-fledged Iraqis, just like everyone else in the neighborhood.

I was reminded of this recently when an American Jewish friend told me he was marrying an Iraqi woman. I was curious. `Is she Muslim or Christian?' `She's Jewish,' he said. It turns out her family was one of the last Jewish families living in Basra. They'd lived there since the Babylonian exile, 3,000 years, more or less. Iraq was home. They left only under duress on the eve of the first Gulf War. Now they missed their street, their market, their neighbors, regular folks who didn't go around talking about religion, but wondered how was your mother, were you doing well in school and was your garden coming along this season. This Jewish family had stayed in Iraq longer than my father and my uncle, Muslims, who'd left their homeland 40 years earlier.

When I met my friend's fiancee, it was like meeting a long-lost cousin. She was, of course, fluent in Arabic and Hebrew and English. Her accent reminded me of my dad's, a slight roll in the R's and elongated E's. My friend's wedding was one big, fat, Arab-Jewish mazel tov and mabrouk-filled festival. Bride and groom were married under a traditional Jewish chuppah, accompanied by a chorus of (makes ululating noise), the Arab women's send-off, and the newlyweds were carried around on chairs over our heads. Only a jazz piano trio reminded us that we were, in fact, in New Jersey.

One of the bride's elderly uncles, who was born in Baghdad, spent some time scolding me for not speaking Arabic, our native tongue. He may have been Jewish and I Muslim, but he assured me there was no difference between us. We were Iraqis, Arabs. Granted, Uncle Jack was a bit idealistic. There really are differences between us, especially today: politics, Palestine, Israel, murder, mayhem; ugly, hate-filled language. But this feud is relatively new. Semites are ancient friends, not enemies.

Arab and Muslim societies have lost partners and friends as Jewish communities moved out in the 20th century. Fortunately, not everyone has forgotten the deep ties that bind.

SIEGEL: Anisa Mehdi is a filmmaker. She's based in Maplewood, New Jersey.

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