Revital Shiri-Horowitz’s novel “Daughters of Iraq” explores a story of generations in a Jewish family living in Iraq. We talk about the origins of the story, the transition from living in Israel to the United States, and the process of translating a novel into a second language.
ALEX: Thanks for joining me today, Revital. I sense there’s some family history in the roots of this story. Talk a little bit about how you got the idea for the novel and what research went into it.
REVITAL: Hi Alex, thanks for having me here. “Daughters of Iraq” is based on my family story. It is actually history fiction, close to a memoir genre. I decided to start writing out of passion to the subject, just to bring some knowledge about this Jewish family who lived in Iraq for hundreds of years and immigrated to Israel when Israel was established. I thought that it was important to bring knowledge of Sephardic Jewish families’ life, as we usually hear about Jewish life and the history of European communities. I thought that this part of the world had a very interesting history that should be seen, too.
ALEX: Many Americans don’t even realize that Iraq used to have a substantial Jewish population. The Talmud, I believe, was written in Babylonia.
REVITAL: You are correct — the Talmud was written in Babylonia (Iraq today). One of the main centers for Jewish life was Babylonia for hundreds of years. My grandfather saw himself as the luckiest person on Earth when Israel was established, being the one in his family so fortunate to finally immigrate to the holy land.
ALEX: Then the population gradually declined over the years. A mass exodus happened after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war because of persecution. Then the sectarian violence of the past decade has reduced the number of Jews to fewer than 100.
REVITAL: In general Jews lived a good life in Iraq, but in 1941 there was a terrible Pogrom in Bagdad: 138 men, women and children were murdered just because they were Jews, and over a thousand were injured. I think that the safe feeling disappeared then, and after Israel was established, Jews chose to immigrate to the land of their dreams and prayers. Jews lost their jobs in Iraq after Israel was established. My grandfather, who was an accountant, was laid off from his job. So many Jews could not support themselves any more and the Iraqis kept them out of the universities, so it was really tough. More than 150,000 Jews left Iraq, enforced to leave all properties behind, all they had! Not so many people wanted to stay there anymore, and did their best to leave Iraq.
ALEX: You grew up in Israel and didn’t move to the United States until you were an adult. I imagine it’s quite a shock to go from living in a place constantly under attack by its enemies to the Pacific Northwest, where life is pretty peaceful and they drink a lot of coffee 🙂
REVITAL: I think that the majority of people around the world do not really understand how hard life in Israel is. I am a mother of four boys, and every time I was expecting a baby I prayed for a girl, so she wouldn’t have to fight in the Army. (Israel added women to its military draft in 2000 but they serve behind the front lines. — Alex.) It’s the only Jewish country in the world and we need to defend it — it’s an everyday matter. Every parent in Israel prays for peace, since no one wants to fight. We all pray for a quiet, peaceful life with lots of good coffee like the coffee in Seattle.
ALEX: I don’t think many Americans get an accurate image of Israel and very few of them have visited the Mideast. What do you think is the biggest misconception that Americans have?
REVITAL: The very first thing that comes to my mind is how small Israel is. It is a really small piece of land. I live in Washington state, and can tell you that Israel is about one-tenth of the size of Washington, and has about seven million people.
ALEX: Why did you decide to translate “Daughters of Iraq” into English?
REVITAL: I really do see my mission in bringing this part of history to light. I hope to give a voice to people whose voices are silent, and this is why the book was translated. I dream of having all people around the world know about this community, and about life in Iraq for Jews, and about immigrating to Israel and starting a new life in a place where there isn’t one day that goes by without crisis.
ALEX: Were there certain words in Hebrew that didn’t really have an English equivalent? Some languages can have five or six words, each with a different nuance to them, and English might only have one word …
REVITAL: Translating is complicated, especially when it comes to slang. Hebrew has so much from Arabic, for example. I worked very closely with my wonderful translator, and sometimes we chose to keep some words in Hebrew. It was important for me to keep the voices of the characters, and I think we managed to do that.
ALEX: What are you plans for your second novel?
REVITAL: My second novel’s title is “Hope to See You Soon” and it tells a story in three levels. One is letters between two women, best friends since they were 14 up until they are 40-something. One lives in Israel, while her friend moved to Seattle. This level shows the relations between those two for many years. The second level is a woman at her late 40s, who has locked herself in an apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv, punishing herself for leaving her kids. Her story is about the process of her healing and opening to the world. The third level is my own family journey moving back and fourth from Israel to Seattle and back, never sure where is “home.” I am not done yet, but am hoping to finish my first draft by winter and publish next spring.
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