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Last Days in Babylon: The Exile of Iraq's Jews, the Story of My Family [Paperback]

Marina Benjamin

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Book Description

June 24 2008
Marina Benjamin grew up in London feeling estranged from her family's exotic Middle Eastern ways. She refused to speak the Arabic her mother and grandmother spoke at home. She rejected the peculiar food they ate in favor of hamburgers and beer. But when Benjamin had her own child a few years ago, she realized that she was losing her link to the past.

In Last Days in Babylon, Benjamin delves into the story of her family's life among the Jews of Iraq in the first half of the twentieth century. When Iraq gained independence in 1932, Jews were the largest and most prosperous ethnic group in Baghdad. They dominated trade and finance, hobnobbed with Iraqi dignitaries, and lived in grandiose villas on the banks of the Tigris. Just twenty years later the community had been utterly ravaged, its members effectively expelled from the country by a hostile Iraqi government. Benjamin's grandmother Regina Sehayek lived through it all. Born in 1905, when Baghdad was still under Ottoman control, her childhood was a virtual idyll. This privileged existence was barely touched when the British marched into Iraq. But with the rise of Arab nationalism and the first stirrings of anti-Zionism, Regina, then a young mother, began to have dark premonitions of what was to come. By the time Iraq was galvanized by war, revolution, and regicide, Regina was already gone, her hair-raising escape a tragic exodus from a land she loved -- and a permanent departure from the husband whose gentle guiding hand had made her the woman she was.

Benjamin's keen ear and fluid writing bring to life Regina's Baghdad, both good and bad. More than a stirring story of survival, Last Days in Babylon is a bittersweet portrait of Old World Baghdad and its colorful Jewish community, whose roots predate the birth of Islam by a thousand years and whose culture did much to make Iraq the peaceful desert paradise that has since become a distant memory.

In 2004 Benjamin visited Baghdad for the first time, searching for the remains of its once vital Jewish community. What she discovered will haunt anyone who seeks to understand a country that continues to command the world's attention, just as it did when Regina Sehayek proudly walked through Baghdad's streets. By turns moving and funny, Last Days in Babylon is an adventure story, a riveting history, and a timely reminder that behind today's headlines are real people whose lives are caught -- too often tragically -- in the crossfire of misunderstanding, age-old prejudice, and geopolitical ambition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (June 24 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 141657204X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416572046
  • Product Dimensions: 21.2 x 14.2 x 2.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 318 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #275,986 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"A clever and thoughtful in ideas." -- Lynne Truss, Sunday Times (London)

"A pleasingly garrulous and inquisitive book...Benjamin is judicious, generous, and insightful." -- The Independent (London)

"An elegantly written memoir." -- Publishers Weekly

"Agile insights and melodic phrasing make the trip a lot of fun." -- The Evening Standard (London)

About the Author

Marina Benjamin has worked as a journalist for fifteen years. She was arts editor of the New Statesman and deputy arts editor at the London Evening Standard, and she has written columns for the Daily Express and for Scotland on Sunday. Her last book, Rocket Dreams, was shortlisted for the Eugene Emme Literature Award. Marina lives in London with her husband and daughter.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars recent history of Iraqi Jews June 16 2009
By Bookworm - Published on
I was looking for a book which told of Operation Ali Baba, the informal name for the flight of Iraqi Jews to Israel (and elsewhere) in the early 1950s. This book was informative about that time, since the author's mother, uncle, aunt and grandmother were among those who left, and ended up in London. The author tried to strike a balance between biographical, family stories and historical, geographical, political, economic details. It is a worthwhile book to help understand the background of the situation in Iraq today. She writes in an interesting and professional manner.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Valued Addition Despite Vexing Political Commentary Oct. 16 2010
By Search For Nuance - Published on
In the "Last Days of Babylon," Marina Benjamin provides a valued addition to the literature on the Iraqi Jewish community, both as a history and as a family memoir. Given its human perspective, the book is accessible, engaging and offers a more intimate portrait of Iraqi Jews, especially of the role of women in society, than any academic work could present.

Benjamin would better serve her audience though if she did not feel the need to offer her "unabashedly liberal, postcolonial, multiracial convictions." Symptomatic of this, she incredulously decided to devote the concluding pages of her work to condemning Israel's treatment of Iraqi Jews. Fortunately, Benjamin's views do not impair her ability to give a generally accurate historical account, though at one point she laughably describes the restrictive "dhimmi" legal apparatus formerly instituted on the Jews as "a fair deal by most measures."

Ironically, while Benjamin wrote this book to recapture her Iraqi Jewish heritage, her ideological worldview illustrates how alienated she is from her more conservative compatriots.

Despite these vexations, still highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars must read Sept. 10 2013
By Marina Benjamin - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As an Assyrian from Iraq myself i especially loved the book because it gave me a historical and political journey and facts about Baghdad and the Jews that lived there. I wasn't born when all this happened and I come from the northern city of Kirkuk and it was interesting to know so much about the capitol of the country of my origin. As a poet I always look back into history to find interesting facts to enrich my poetry. Thanks Marina for a great book
5.0 out of 5 stars History with a personal touch April 12 2013
By Susan Gabbay - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is the story of a family, part of the last generation of the 2500 years' sojourn of Jews in Iraq since the Babylonian Captivity.
Benjamin integrates the historical events leading up to, and during, her family's departure from their home. The focus is on her grandmother, but we become acquainted with other members of her family. We learn of Benjamin's return to present-day Iraq, its difficulties and its meaningfulness to her.
There are many parallels to experiences I have been told of by others in the same circumstances. An excellent read to highlight a lesser-known part of the Diaspora.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tells of the author's London upbringing and distance from her Iraqi past Aug. 15 2008
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
LAST DAYS IN BABYLON: THE EXILE OF IRAQ'S JEWS, THE STORY OF MY FAMILY tells of the author's London upbringing and distance from her Iraqi past. She rejected Iraqi-Jewish culture and her family's heritage - until she had her own child and in 2004 visited Iraq seeking her family history. LAST DAYS IN BABYLON charts her extraordinary journey and discoveries and is a fine choice for any general-interest lending library.

Diane C. Donovan
California Bookwatch

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