Once There Was a Babylonian Village
I recognize the rows of palm trees, the cereal field, the canal hugging the sides of the village of flat-roofed homes, the scatter of poplar trees, and more palm trees. I find the picture of my grandmother’s village, Al-Uzair, and aside from the turquoise tiled dome of Ezra the Scribe’s shrine, it’s very similar. It could be the same.
Under such a village 200 cuneiform clay tablets were dug up. Most were signed with a seal or, for those who could not write or read, a fingernail, in a place called Al-Yahudu—The City of Jews. My grandmother would have had to sign with her red-painted fingernail.
The Judeans were exiled by the Babylonians for the first time in 598 BCE. The exiles who Jeremiah says are “good” in the eyes of God, like “good figs” (24:5). They were settled in the south of Babylon, a land devastated by the Assyrian-Babylonian wars.
I see them sitting by the Chebar river, where God appeared to Ezekiel, I see them weeping and eating the last of their rations, what they could carry, ancient Judean dates.
They tossed the seeds. They had no strength to plant. They had to dig canals in the unforgiving, parched heat. Move the ochre earth aside.
I can almost hear my grandmother saying to me, “You are a good fig.” This is almost as big a compliment as when she tells me I have good hands.
The seeds germinated, sprouted; the canals were dug, taxes of barley, wheat, spices, linen and dates were paid. Sons were sent to work and war for the empire. All this was agreed upon, signed with family seals with Babylonian Jewish name elements, such as Ya, Yama and Yahu. Did King Zedekiah get used to his exile name, Siqi-Yama? We have three generations of Samak-Yama’s family. We know that they, their names and their date palms prospered.
I want to return to the land of these clay tablets and write new ones with dancing pigeon-feet marks. I want to tell them I am still here, like the date palms, but there are not many date palms left in the place I visit; it is desert, empty, the soil turning saline, there is no yahud here.
My grandmother, if she could write, what would she have written? About running as a young, unbetrothed girl through the date orchards, about her brothers, Reuben, Nouri and Ibrahim climbing the palms and picking dates. Did she ever try to climb a tree?
The palms stood like guards surrounding the compound. My grandmother’s family name was Shamash, Guardian. They kept the shrine, they kept the traditional Jewish laws, they kept the yeshiva academy, 30-40 families, all within this compound of a hundred rooms. Their dates must have been like Basra dates. All of the same black land. Basra was the nearest city to catch a train to Baghdad. Another land, another story.
Once Upon a Time I Never Liked Dates
It’s true, growing up I never liked dates.
I understand they have value when I see them lined up precious like fine chocolates, stuffed with a single, shiny walnut, in the glass display case of Selfridges’ confectionary section. This was a country where it rained real water, not the dew and date honey of Iraq. Both sets of my grandparents served dates in their glass dishes always filled for guests. Sometimes as a child I would take one and bite into it with a magical wish that it should taste like it looks, like Cadbury chocolate.
I mean I loved the Ba’aba Tamar my grandmother baked. Flat, round date cookies so much bigger than my ten-year-old hand, as big as the hand that types now. Crispy, full of secrets, not sweet or salty, but satisfying something in need of sustenance. Sometimes, as a child, if I was hungry I would eat the biscuit of it, all around, until the chocolate-brown date paste was left. I did not like dates. You cannot eat Ba’aba Tamar without eating some of its secrets.
Thirty years later I have a single Ba’aba Tamar stored in a Ziplock bag in my freezer. It was a Purim gift from my father’s cousin, Naim, who was born in Al-Uzair. I know I should eat it before it goes stale. I should eat it sitting down with a porcelain Royal Doulton cup with red and yellow roses, filled with black tea and cardamom. I do not want my round Ba’aba Tamar to be finished forever. I cannot keep eating my grandmother up. I should learn how to make Ba’aba Tamar, but I’m scared. How do you fold all the date details in without breaking this story?
This is how you make Ba’aba Tamar.
Maybe if I type the recipe out, my hands will learn the curve of confidence it takes to create a full moon.
Take flour, dry yeast, sugar, baking soda, hawaij and salt. Mix all the dry ingredients together, do not be too scared of the yeast, not yet, it’s when you add two cups of sad water that you can panic, because you need to mix it so it’s easy to handle. What in this world is easy to handle? The fact I did not ask my grandmother for this recipe whilst she was still alive, is hard. The fact that the dough will not become as malleable and docile as I, the oldest girl, was meant to be, is hard. The fact that I need to pour oil at the same time to keep it smooth, is impossible. No path I walk is smooth, I have travelled too far, too old to believe in smooth dough. But not too far or too old to give up trying. People who love me will eat my dough, rough and ridged like my path, because they have walked by my side.
With the rough dough make a ping pong ball. Do not allow your four sons to play ping pong with it, or eat it raw. Show them how to treat a woman gently, softly, roll her open so she will embrace the mushed date fruits. Teach them that their very sweetness is when they mush up the macho bravado. Then a woman will lie open to them, embrace them to withstand the oven’s heat, and it must be hot, but not too hot, just enough to bake something good, enduring, to share, to eat, to live off for the rest of your days.
The recipe does not tell me how many dates I need to make the filling. It does not tell me what I really want to know, how many date palms make an orchard? How female does a date palm need to be to survive?
Once You Could Not Live Without Dates
My great-grandfather Yousef said my great-grandmother Toba’s fingers were dates. When my grandmother was pregnant with one of her children, Emi Toba took the train to Baghdad from Basra, the big city closest to Al-Uzair, and stayed many months. Yousef threatened to take another wife if she did not return. Some threats are really date seeds of love.
In Iraq the Jews would decorate their booths for the festival of Sukkot with date palms. Especially at the entrance, there is no bigger welcome hand than the wide-open palm leaf. The palm is tallest, strong like a sword, part of the ritual lulav of Sukkot. Perhaps this is why the palm frond is engraved on ancient coins and on the modern-day ten-shekel coin.
Dates are harvested in the dying days of the summer.
So we don’t die.
A girl needs a mother to grow.
Once There Was a Date Tree on the Jerusalem Train Tracks
If you walk down the historic Jerusalem train tracks, now an urban path for runners, bikers, mothers pushing prams, know that once a train used to rattle and wheeze up the hill towards the old railway station where, once upon an Ottoman time, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his wife, the Empress Augusta Victoria, deigned to travel on the path of donkey trails. If you walk down, parallel to the street named Emek Refaim—the valley of ghosts—in the direction towards Beit Safafa, an Arab village of olive tree orchards, which used to be split in half between Jordanian occupation and no-man’s land, and then transferred to Israel for the sake of the Jaffa-Jerusalem line, stop and look up. If you crane your neck high enough, you will see a single date palm tree, hovering in the blue sky, over a hundred feet.
Five years living in the area and I had never seen it. Naim pointed it out to me. It is the date tree my great-grandfather Yousef planted. This was after they fled Iraq in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, from Al-Uzair via Baghdad to Lod airport, and were taken on cattle trucks to the infamous Shaar Aliyah camp—where no-one wanted to remain long. The Jerusalem, Mekor Chaim Ma’abarot they found themselves in— displaced persons’ tent camps, tinny and cold—were not much better.
Finally, they moved to a grand sandstone building, what used to be the Iraqi consulate on King Hizkiyahu Road in Katamon. But they lived in the basement. Buildings in those days were split up between families. My great uncle Reuven, his wife, Habiba, their nine children and my great grandparents lived in a grand total of two damp, below-ground-level rooms. Not that they were poor; even with no food on the table my grandmother’s family was never poor. They just didn’t have money. The money, which they had entrusted to be transferred to Israel with a friend’s son, was stolen.
In that basement they achieved the grand number of ten children and received the coveted Ben-Gurion grant of 100 lira and a certificate for this great achievement. This was not a small number, 100 lira; in those days a serving of felafel in pita cost 2.5 grush, and there are 100 grush in a lira.
How many servings of felafel does a child eat in a lifetime?
They moved to Emek Refaim—the sandstone house, next to which the date sapling, as big as my great-grandmother Toba’s hand, was planted. The beginning of a new orchard.
They named their tenth child, a baby girl, Tamar—the Hebrew word for date palm.
Sometimes I don’t know if I imagined the certificate or if it was real. What is true is that I did not used to like palm trees in gardens, they always looked out of place. Lonely. Especially this one, an odd, standalone, stray palm on a pathway by a modern parking lot, taller than the boxy buildings that did not exist when my great-grandfather sunk his hands in the earth to plant it.
I now count the date trees on the Jerusalem paths, and I wonder, why aren’t there more? I wonder, how many were planted by Iraqi Jews from Basra, Al-Uzair, Mosul, Kirkuk, Hila and Baghdad?
Once There Were Judean Palm Trees
I now know how to recognize them on my daily walks: Mexican fan palms, Canary Island palms, and plain palm trees. The only ones that count for me are those that fruit dates.
I see no Judean palm trees—yet.
I read that researchers have grown seven date palms from 200-year-old seeds found in the Judean desert near Jerusalem. They believe the hot, dry conditions helped preserve the leftover seeds.
What hard conditions help us survive.
I know a man who has a forest besides his house: seven pine trees, a view of Sur Baher’s minaret, and a baby palm with spunky, spiny fronds which sprung from the pine-needled ground.
“I don’t know how it got here,” the man scratches his ginger beard that’s going grey. “But it’s a blessing.”
I ask him if he wants to maybe cut back his pines. “Let it sun.”
He says, “No way.”
He’s precious about his pines. I’m precious about the audacious date palm.
How many feet can a date palm grow under another’s shadow?
One Day I Will Have a Date Tree
One day I will plant my own palm tree that will grow over a hundred feet. That will grow grace and blessings, sweet fingers. Bringing up sons and daughters to be fathers and mothers, who say mean words, and kind ones. Who know the sweat of the kettle boiling over a Primus lamp. Who know of exiled tears in rivers left behind. Who know that no good comes from cutting down trees, thinking they cannot regrow stronger, better elsewhere.
Sarah Sassoon is a writer of Iraqi-Jewish descent. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Lilith, The Roadrunner Review and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the Andrea Moriah Poetry prize, and a runner-up for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award. Her first children’s picture book, Shoham’s Bangle, is forthcoming with Kar-Ben Publishing in 2022.