Marina Benjamin grew up in London, feeling estranged from her family's Middle Eastern ways, refusing to speak Arabic or eat their food. But when Benjamin had her own child a few years ago, she realised that she was losing her link to the past, inspiring a journey to Baghdad and into her family's history. Her discoveries will haunt anyone who seeks to understand a country whose ongoing struggles continue to command the world's attention. By turns moving and funny, Last Days in Babylon is an adventure story, a riveting history and a timely reminder that behind today's headlines are real people whose lives are caught in the crossfire of misunderstanding, prejudice and ambition.
Through the events of her late maternal grandmother's life, British journalist Benjamin tells the saga of the Iraqi Jews, who arrived during the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles from Judea in the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. and were once Iraq's largest and wealthiest ethnic minority. Born in 1905 in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, Regina Sehayek is a compelling character who lived in tumultuous times, witnessing as a child the British takeover of Baghdad and, as an adult, Arab nationalism and revolution. A moneychanger's bright and opinionated daughter, Regina was married off (and deflowered semipublicly as tradition dictated) to a virtual stranger, a prosperous merchant 30 years her senior whose ancestor was the Persian Jewish doctor for an 18th-century shah. Although indifferent to Zionism, Regina and her kin were victims of the rabid anti-Semitism that began to pervade Iraq in the 1930s. By 1950, the Jews' desperate situation forced a widowed Regina to thwart police and petty bureaucrats and flee, eventually settling her children in London. Benjamin (Rocket Dreams) honors her family by vivifying a once-thriving community that has dispersed worldwide, leaving only 12 souls struggling for survival in present-day war-torn Baghdad. Photos.