Digging into Iraqi Jewish History
When American troops raided the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service headquarters, they were looking for weapons of mass destruction. Instead, they found 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents hidden away in a basement — a record of the once-thriving Jewish community in Baghdad. The finding was an important link to people who had fled decades earlier, but there was a catch: The basement had been flooded, so the material was nearly destroyed.
Alumna and graduate student Ryann Craig is part of the team at the National Archives assigned to resurrect this unexpected legacy of Iraqi Jewish heritage.
Craig, who grew up the only child of a certified public accountant and a computer programmer in Chicago, is not Jewish and not Iraqi. Her parents spoke only English, and rarely traveled outside the United States. She herself has barely traveled outside her own country, having visited Egypt once. But in what could be described as a case of opposites attract, she is fascinated by Middle Eastern culture.
She’s also always been a bookworm, so it’s easy to understand how she landed in academia. Craig collects degrees the way other people collect employers: among them a degree in Islamic studies from the University of Illinois, an M.A. in international affairs from American University, a degree from the Reformed Theological Seminary, and an M.A. in Semitics from Catholic University.
She is currently working on a Ph.D. in Arabic through the University’s Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures. “The Semitics language program here is the best in the world,” she says.
Now Craig is an Arabic cataloguer helping to unravel the mysteries of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. The collection, which dates from the mid-16th century through the 1970s, belonged to Jews who were persecuted in Baghdad much as they were in Germany during World War II. During the flooding four feet of water had soaked books and manuscripts into a pulpy mess. Attempts to dry them out failed, and many became coated with mold.
Through a meticulous process of freezing (to stop the mold), washing, drying, and otherwise cleaning the material, conservators have managed to salvage much of the collection. The National Archives exhibited portions of it late last year, and it can now be viewed at www.ija.archives.gov. Archivists are digitizing the records so they are accessible to researchers and families from the original community.
“This is my room,” Craig says proudly, showing a visitor a collection of salvaged documents she translated from Arabic. She has spent hours poring over these records, which include government letters, marriage certificates, and reams of school records.
The material comes alive when put into context: Some athletic club correspondence, for example, indicates that Armenian Christians and Baghdadian Jews played sports together. “Everyone got along at one time,” says Craig. There’s also a letter from a German doctor inquiring about work in Baghdad during a time when Iraq looked safer than Nazi Germany. Craig and her colleagues still wonder whether he arrived in Baghdad only to realize anti-Semitism plagued that city as well.
But Craig’s favorite part of the collection is from the schools. She pauses before a framed transcript of exam grades for a boy, probably 11 or 12 years old, his fresh-faced photo in one corner of the document, his classes and grades handwritten, in Arabic, down the page. Several of these people have recovered their past through these reclaimed records, and Craig tears up recalling one man who was able to retrieve school papers for his deceased sister.
“Sometimes I get so immersed in it you forget these people are in their 60s now,” says Craig. “You’re saying, ‘here’s the cutest kid!’ and they’re someone’s grandfather now. You definitely develop an attachment.”
Craig’s work at the National Archives was made even more fascinating by her connection to her Arabic instructor, Shawqi Talia, who is from Baghdad. “He is from this community, he is very familiar with the schools,” she says. The people she’s documenting could have been his childhood friends.
Talia helped Craig land the job – despite the fact that, as she puts it, “I bombed the interview.” Because her expertise is in religious and philosophical Arabic, she failed to translate the modern Arabic on the application. She asked the interviewers to call Talia, who assured them she could do the job. He was right.
Now, she says, she sees there are opportunities in her field that go beyond academics and, in fact, touch people’s lives in an entirely unexpected way. “What I love about this is a lot of the community members were forced to flee with very little,” says Craig. “They don’t have photos from when they were 10.”
Now, thanks to people like Ryann Craig, they do.
The exhibit is now on display in New York City at the Museum of Jewish History from Feb. 4 to May 18.
To see a video on the exhibit, go to
Photo by Richard Schneider for the National Archives
Degree: M.A., Semitics, 2012; currently working on Ph.D. in Arabic.
Favorite place on campus: The pool, where she swims three times a week and frequently runs into President Garvey
Favorite course at CUA: Biblical Aramaic
Additional campus connection: She coordinates tutors at the Center for Academic Success.
Book on bedside table: For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
Favorite movie: Love Actually
Last job: church secretary