Book Review: The Dove Flyer: A Novel
Eli Amir was 13 years old when his family left Baghdad for Israel in 1950. They spent their first seven years in Israel living in tents, and the trauma of that experience led him to devote his career to issues of immigrant absorption. In this semi-autobiographical novel, Amir recreates the world of Iraqi Jews prior to the mass departure of the 2,500-year-old community.
The novel, narrated by a 13-year-old boy named Kabi, begins with the arrest of his uncle Hizkel, leader of the banned Zionist movement. While attempting to get him out of prison, Kabi’s family and friends debate their own options. Anti-Jewish tensions in Iraq had been brewing for a decade. Like the other Jews of Baghdad, Kabi’s family remembered the pro-Nazi government of the war years and the Farhud , the pogrom of 1941, which forced them to abandon their house in a mixed neighborhood and relocate in the Jewish Quarter. Since Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948 and the war with invading Arab armies that followed, life had become unbearable for the Jews of Iraq, with threats of violence and physical attacks.
At the same time, this novel shows us how deeply attached many Iraqi Jews were to their homes as well as to the Arab culture and language. The characters reflect many dreams; in fact, “the dove flyer” is a term that refers to people with fantasies. Kabi’s father is a Zionist who dreams of having a rice farm in Israel (no one told him that Israel has a desert climate), while his mother just wants to move back to her house in the old neighborhood. The headmaster of Kabi’s school, Salim Effendi, is a Communist who wants to see a just and equal society in Iraq, while a wealthy businessman called “Big Imari” is convinced that his relationship with the Regent Abdullah will protect him. Others, like Chief Rabbi Basri and old Hiyawi, the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery, simply feel too rooted in Iraq to leave. Meanwhile, no one is going anywhere because Jews are prohibited from leaving. Abu Edouard, who owns a dovecote, just wants life to become predictable again, like his doves that fly away and return every day. Meanwhile Kabi, who has the usual dreams of an adolescent boy, listens to everyone’s fears and dreams as they face an uncertain future.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.