Growing up, I never heard the words, “Once upon a time…” before my father told a bedtime story. He always opened his made-up tales with the phrase, “I was a cook for the Queen of Iraq…” The adventures he described were filled with swords and daggers, Bedouins and camels, treasure and love.
I have these childhood fables to thank for inspiring me to write Sweet Dates in Basra, an homage to my Iraqi father and his rich cultural heritage. The novel takes place during the dramatic period following Iraq’s independence in the 1930s through the Second World War as two best friends, one Muslim and the other Jewish, relish the fresh promise of their youth and then struggle amid the war-torn chaos of their adolescence.
Along the way, one falls in love across religious lines with a beautiful maid who teaches him more about true romance than any of the couples in safely arranged marriages surrounding them.
It may sound like pure fantasy, this world where Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side more worried about which form of stickball to play on a hot afternoon than the religious differences dividing them, their country and the entire Middle East – but this was my father’s Iraq, the one he passed on to me through tales of his imagined days as a cook in the palace kitchen.
Beyond weaving tales, my father described the characters who inhabited his real-life adolescence, including a beautiful maid with black eyes and fair skin who he loved from afar.
The girl, named Kathmiya, was not only remarkably pretty, she was smart beyond her years, despite having no formal education. And she was a love child. In other words, she had all the ingredients necessary to be my perfect romantic heroine.
Imagining the adventures of this exciting character as I wrote Sweet Dates in Basra, I often wondered what had happened to the real Kathmiya. I only wish I could go to Iraq and find her.
Although that is virtually impossible, the close friendships that inspired other characters continued across generations and geography. When my father talks about the Muslim family that helped his over the years, and received help from ours in turn, he lights up.
“It started when our Muslim neighbor died leaving his wife and four children. The mother is afraid she is going to lose her house; she’s got a mortgage, and she comes to my father. And he says, ‘I will help you.’”
Years later, one of the sons became a judge. And when my grandfather’s name appeared on a list of Jews to be arrested, the judge crossed it out saying, “Not this one, he is my uncle.” In such a tribal society, there is no more powerful expression of solidarity than to declare that someone is your relative.
The other son, a doctor, smuggled belongings to my family members when they were forced to flee Iraq. “If he had been caught, he would have been killed,” my father explained. “It just shows you the extent to which people go to help their friends. Our Muslim friends.”
My family had the chance to repay this courageous act years later when their beloved neighbor sent one of his children overseas to escape persecution in Iraq. The young man arrived in England with nothing but a message to my relatives: “He is your son now.”
When my father tells the story, he says, “You know what the meaning of that is.”
I do know. I am grateful to him for having taught me that our shared humanity is infinitely more important than any superficial differences dividing us. Sweet Dates in Basra is an imagined story, but it is based on this timeless truth.
The author’s grandparents and uncle (center) with their neighbors. Over the years, each family risked their own safety to help the other.