MIDEAST TENSIONS FORGING UNITY FOR IRAQI AMERICANS
* Politics: Concern for homeland brings together Christians, Muslims and Jews
who fled violence.
By JOSEPH HANANIA, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES | Los Angeles Times Sunday November 23, 1997
Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk |
21 inches; 738 words
An estimated 15,000 Southland Iraqi Americans, many of whom were
forced to leave Iraq for political and religious reasons, are
increasingly coming together as a result of the standoff between Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein and the West.
Fears of another clash with the West--and further deterioration of
their country--have forced Jews, Christians and Muslims to focus on their
As a result, they say, they are finding their religious and ethnic
differences to be of less importance than their shared heritage.
"For myself, my roots are there. My education was there. I still have
a house [in Baghdad]," said Suad Killu, president of the San Fernando
Valley-based Iraqi Community Club, an association of 150 families that
sponsors social get-togethers every few months. "How can I turn my back
For Abraham Kattan, the tension over whether Iraq was risking attack
by blocking United Nations weapon inspections made him recall another
Kattan, a gray-haired Jewish man who gestures with his hands as he
speaks in an accented English, focused on a day in 1941 when he was 12,
and the Iraqi government--then under the sway of the Nazis--stood by as a
Baghdad riot resulted in about 100 Jewish deaths.
A Muslim neighbor he barely knew came to his door, declaring that
anyone who wanted to get to the Kattans would have to kill him first.
"He saved my life," Kattan, 68, said simply.
It is a story told to cherish the multiethnic history of Iraq, a type
of story that seems to be told more often as Iraq's future becomes more
Because Southland Iraqi Americans are widely scattered, they have no
hub. Yet in recent weeks, many members of the Iraqi Community Club have
been getting in touch far more frequently.
That reaching out is an effort to compensate for the fact that Iraq's
culture is increasingly falling victim to the country's wars and the
sanctions leveled against it, Killu said. Increasingly, he said, it is
Iraqis banding together abroad who are rediscovering their cultural
heritage and helping keep it alive, fearful that the nation could be
It becomes more meaningful, for example, to emphasize that in Iraqi
culture, "before you do business with someone, they invite you to tea and
coffee and pastries," said Killu, a Christian. "Only after they see how
you sit, how you eat, how you talk, will they talk business. They want to
first know who you are."
Iraqi Americans "have to be one solid community, not scattered
individuals, and we must help each other out," he said. "Whether we are
Christian, Muslim or Jewish, we all have relatives back in Iraq, and we
all care about our people."
Yasin Alkalesi, a senior lecturer of Arabic and culture at UCLA, and a
Muslim, phones Iraq at least once a month, often in the early hours of
the morning just to get through. The stories he hears when he does get
through haunt him, often the consequence of sanctions intended to force
Hussein from power.
"Every other person I knew and members of my family are dead," he
said. "I hear of friends' daughters who are on the street, doing
prostitution, because this is the only way they can earn a living."
A few years ago, Alkalesi heard that a friend with whom he had gone to
elementary and high school was to undergo a minor operation. But he said
the hospital surgeons had no disinfectant to sterilize their instruments,
and as a result the friend died of postoperative infection.
For Jewish artist Sara Shai, who left Baghdad when she was 3 in 1950,
her last memory of her homeland was that of authorities confiscating her
mother's china as her family fled the country.
She had never looked back.
"I feel a deep disappointment with Iraq," she said recently. "We were
one of the first civilizations in the world. Now we are one of the most
Yet last weekend, Shai found herself at a Middle Eastern cultural
salon in Benedict Canyon, practicing her few words of Arabic, discussing
news from Iraq, and listening intently to the type of Middle Eastern
music she had grown up with.
Elie Chalala, the Lebanese editor of Al Jadid magazine, a local
English language magazine of Arabic culture and arts, many of whose
readers are Iraqi, said most Iraqis in America "want an independent Iraqi
regime with free elections, securing basic individual rights." But he
said many Iraqis are afraid that their position will be misunderstood by
others, leading to reprisals back home, not just against the immediate
family, but even distant cousins.
Jordan Elgrably, 39, founder of Ivri-Nasawi, an association for mostly
Middle Eastern Jews, said recent events in Iraq and the Middle East have
sharpened the association's focus on "the deplorable lack of leadership
in Los Angeles, where dialogue between the Arab and Jewish communities
has broken down." Elgrably sees the coming together of local ethnic
communities as an initial step in stepping back from the brink.
To that end Ivri-Nasawi has tentatively scheduled an Arab-Jewish forum
for February, featuring six panelists on all sides of the religious
Says Sara Shai: "Iraqi culture is different from any other. As an
Iraqi Jew, I feel I have roots to the first Jew, who is Abraham, and to
the original Jewish community. That's the connection I'm missing now.
"Somehow, I'd like to reconnect. Especially now."