Iraq's Beacon of Literary Modernism and Law - World Jewish Congress
Iraq's Beacon of Literary Modernism and Law
Shalom Darwīsh

Shalom Darwīsh was born in the small village of ‘Ali al-Ghabri, near the Iraqi border with Iran, when Iraq was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Like many Iraqi Jews in this period, his family moved to Baghdad when he was a young child, allowing him to attend a Jewish communal school, in his case Rachel Shahmoon. After completing high school, he served as secretary of the Jewish community while studying law in the evenings. Upon graduating from the Baghdad College of Law in 1938, he left that position to practice law. Darwīsh was a self-avowed Iraqi patriot and nationalist. Like many Iraqi intellectuals of his era, he was active in both Jewish communal life and Iraqi politics. In 1947, Darwīsh was elected to the Iraqi parliament as a member of the Al-Ḥizb al-Waṭanī ad-Dīmūqrāṭī (National Democratic Party), although he later resigned in protest of electoral corruption.

Although Darwīsh had both a successful legal and political career, he is most well known as a writer and is considered one of the pioneers of modern Iraqi literature. Darwīsh began publishing short stories in Arabic as a young man. His first publications appeared in al-Ḥāṣidṣ, which published the works of Iraq’s leading intellectuals and was edited by Anwar Shaul. His work was later published in Iraq in two other collections: Aḥrār wa-ʿAbīd [Free Men and Slaves] (1941) and Baʿḍ al-Nās [Some of the People] (1948). His story Qāfila min al-Rīf [Village Caravan], in which he describes the family’s move from western Iraq to the capital city, is one of his most well-recognized pieces. He also wrote the drama Baʿada Mawt Akhīhi [After His Brother’s Death] (1931) as well as poetry and political and literary commentaries. His first volume of Arabic short stories dealt with the life of the common people of Iraq. His writing covered the arc of the Iraqi-Jewish Jewish experience in the first half of the twentieth century and touched on themes such as migration to Baghdad, the status of women in Iraqi society, and the shift in family relations resulting from changes in societal norms. Darwīsh perceived himself as part of the Iraqi intellectual avantgarde and openly mocked many social mores and customs in Iraq that he perceived as outdated.

Although a celebrated writer among many groups within Iraq, he eventually left the country in 1950 along with many other Jews, the majority of whom left Iraq between 1949–1951. Darwīsh was accused of being a Zionist, although there is no reason to believe this was true, and after enduring persecution, he was forced to leave, fleeing first to Iran and then settling in Israel. There Darwīsh practiced law, worked as a government representative in the Arab sector, and wrote weekly columns on legal matters for al-Yawm and al-Anbā’, popular Arabic-language periodicals. In 1976, he published a third story collection, Bayḍat al-Dīk [Chicken’s Egg]. Many of the pieces Darwīsh wrote in Israel depict the experience of the Iraqi Jews both before and after their move to Israel. Discouraged by his lack of readership, Darwīsh switched to Hebrew, publishing some short stories and the novella Phraim! Phraim! (1986). This story of a girl forced into an arranged marriage despite her extreme youth, and her love for her childhood friend, is said to be based on a wedding he attended with his wife in Iraq. To this day, the work of Darwīsh remains an important intellectual commentary on life in Iraq during the first half of the twentieth century. Darwīsh died in 1997 in Haifa.

  • Nancy E. Berg, “Darwīsh, Shalom”, in: Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Consulted online on 22 September 2022
  • Marmorstein, Emile. “An Iraqi Jewish Writer in the Holy Land,” Jewish Journal of Sociology 6 (1964): 92–100.
  • Bashkin, Orit “A History of Jews in Modern Iraq: New Babylonians” Stanford University Press
About Iraq

The ancient city of Baghdad was once the vibrant heart of the Jewish diaspora. From 586 BCE, when Jews first settled in Mesopotamia after the destruction of the First Temple, to the flourishing community of the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played a significant role in the region.

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