Sabiha Jawary

Died Melbourne Australia,

Tuesday February 7, 2017, 10.45am.

On the second night of Chanuka, a stormy night, on a date not considered important, somewhere around 1920, in the home of her maternal grandparents Yosef and Misouda Hakkak,  Sabiha Abu Dawood was born. 

Her mother Gurjiyi, after whom my daughter Georgia is named, called her Sabiha, which means the very first light of dawn. Her brother, my late Uncle Sabih, also had a similar name, as he was born on the early morning of Simchat Torah, and Gurjiyi wanted the names of her children to balance.

Sabiha’s sister, born about eight years later, was named Suad, which means Happiness. And she brought my mother a lot of happiness. When she was born, Mum was so happy to have a sister that she held her all night.

Sabiha’s father, Abraham, was away on business at the time at the time of her birth, in India and then Paris, and sent letters home complaining of poverty, theft and too many bananas. He didn’t appear in Sabiha’s life till she was about seven years old.

Sabiha considered herself an orphan, and loved to stand in line each year at school when Jewish Welfare handed out new clothes for the needy at Rosh Hashana. It meant she had something new to wear each year, apart from the clothes made by her mother from the left-over fabrics of her clients.

I think the fact that her birthday was never recorded and never celebrated translated into the fact that she always made sure to hold huge parties for us, her children, inviting absolutely everyone she knew. Her parties were legendary and she would NEVER hear of my not wanting one.

Sabiha grew up very happily in Baghdad in her grandfather’s home, a three-storey affair which he built to house all his family- five daughters and their families.

When Sabiha’s father finally returned home to Baghdad, he removed his family to their own home, pulled Sabih and Shabiha out of their Jewish schools and put them in Moslem schools.

This meant that when Sabiha sat her final matriculation examination, she was taken for a Moslem. She topped all of Iraq in Arabic literature and, dressed in a very glamorous long black lace Arab robe and scarf, met with the top antisemite in Baghdad, the minister of Education, and received from his hand the scholarship that was to take her to the American University in Lebanon, and the happiest years of her life.

My mother once said to me, “I wonder why G-d sent me to this country, so far away from my family? Well,” she said, “maybe it was to record the way things were.”

And she did record it. In 2001 she published her memoirs, Baghdad I Remember, and she remembered it so well.

She wrote about their way of life, about Fadhil the coffee shop owner to whom she ran each morning after having to take a spoonful of castor oil. He would put  a spoonful of coffee in her mouth to kill the taste of it.

She wrote about Abud the Barber who snipped hair, gossiped and extracted teeth, and she wrote about the women in the kitchen and the synagogue where they all went to pray.

One of her most vivid memories was of Yom Kippur. She wrote:

“It is Yom Kippur morning. My mother is standing beside her mother and both of them are in white socks, white clothes and head cover. My mother has hold of my right hand, leaving  my other free to hold a little bundle of something to eat during that long period in the synagogue.

The food, I remember, was called zaarur, a fruit resembling cherries but with a different taste. I must have been around three years of age at the time and that was my favourite treat.

My mother and her mother hold no books. They could not read, but their hands are open to the heavens and with damp eyes they are asking their plea.”

Both she and my late father had a strong love of Baghdad and of Moslem culture. They did not experience the harsh anti-Semitism that other Jews experienced. In Sabiha’s suburb of Qanbar Ali, Jew and Moslem lived happily side by side and supported each other.  

She loved the sound of the Muezzin calling people to prayer. Her best friends were two Moslem girls and a Christian, and even in her nursing home in Melbourne, well into her 90’s, she still recalled them. Just two weeks ago she asked me, “How is Jameela?”

My mother always said her happiest years were the years spent in Lebanon at the American University.  

Her scholarship gave her an ample stipend and she used to constantly be at the dressmaker’s, making new outfits and having shoes made to match.

In  June 1941 Sabiha returned to Baghdad having graduated as a Sophomore from University, and she landed in the middle of the Farhud, the massacre of the Jews which came with the revolt of the Nazi sympathizer, Rashid Ali.

She had described to me the screams of their people at night, begging for mercy, and how the mother of her Moslem girlfriend arrived in  her chauffeur driven car during the night, picked her and her sister Suad up and took them to their home for protection.

They stayed there for several days till the danger was over, and they were sent home carrying baskets of gardenias from their garden.

Mum used to tell us that the Iraqi prided himself on being a good neighbour, and many Jews were saved because Moslem neighbours either took them in or stood at their front door with guns ready to protect them.

Sabiha could not take up the scholarship she’d been offered to study Medicine in America.  War was raging, antisemism was rife, and she had to return to Baghdad for good.

She taught at a high school for five years in Baghdad, but anti-Semitism was taking them by the throat. Jewish were being arrested for no reason.

In 1948 her neighbour,  a medical student by the name of  David Solomon, was wanted as a Zionist.  Mum was sitting in her front garden when a man came up to her and asked her where David Solomon lived. She pointed next door.

When she saw the same man return that night, she realised he was from the secret police.

She sent her brother Sabih to find David Solomon and tell him not to come home.

My mother made a vow. A neder, a vow that under no circumstances may you break, and she vowed to make a sacrifice to Hashem if He would keep David Solomon safe.

When they heard he had made it safely to Iran, she called the Shochet. He slaughtered the lamb in their courtyard  and they made the sacrifice.

She described to me how every part of the lamb was cooked in a different way, and the cooking went on all day. The whole neighbourhood was there, to watch and to eat. 

Cooking became a way for my mother and me to become close. She helped me write my recipe book.

Even in her nursing home, she would ask me, “What are you cooking? I’m writing you some recipes for another book.”

Sabiha’s family tried to organise a marriage between her and her cousin. She was extremely upset.

Her aunt Bunnet went to see a fortune teller to find out indeed if it would come to fruition.

He was an old blind Bedouin. He said, “The girl will travel far away across the seas for her future husband.” Bunnett beat him up for it because. What seas??!!! In Baghdad there was no sea, and Bunnett could not imagine such a bizarre future for her niece.

That night, the families quarreled, the match was off and my uncle Fouad arranged a marriage between Sabiha and his brother Anwar in Australia.

Her family objected: You’ll be eaten by kangaroos.

But she was adamant she would travel to Australia and she would be able to rescue her family out of Iraq.

She believed Anwar was wealthy. Though his letterhead said, Anwar Jawary, Baker, they all concluded, Jews aren’t bakers. He must be Banker.

Jews could not leave the country unless they were married to someone outside the country so Sabiha married Anwar Jawary by proxy through the chief rabbi of Baghdad and Uncle Fouad gave Mum the ring on our father’s behalf.

As a Jewish woman, she had to sign a document agreeing that neither she nor any of her progeny would return to Baghdad on pain of death.

In 1949 she arrived in Australia, and married Anwar Jawary in person through the late Rabbi Goldman.

I was born in 1950, my brother David two years later, and Ron two years later after that.

Anwar and Sabiha provided a home rich in colour and flavour. Mum was lonely. So to curb her loneliness, she asked our neighbours, one by one, to dinner. They became friends for life.

The late Rabbi Lubofsky called our mother the ultimate aesthete.

She was always decorating our home, making curtains, table cloths, cushion covers.

She had a love of fabric, which I’ve inherited, and if she decided to paint, she’d just do it.

Once she took a brush of gold paint to our loungeroom wall and painted a magnificent magnolia on it.

What she lacked in finance, she made up for in flair.

At the same time as David and I went to University, Mum decided to do her doctorate. She got her PHD in Biblical archaeology and we all three graduated at the same time.

Just for fun, she then translated the autobiography of the Jewish Iraqi poet Anwar Shaul from Arabic into English.

Whatever she wanted to do, she just did it.

Sabiha had the heat of the desert in her nature, its harshness and its generosity.

I remember one day at school. I must have been about 11 years old.

We were in the middle of a heat wave.

Mum decided that her children could not possibly get through  the day without an icypole.

She came to the playground with three large boxes of lemonade icypoles and went to buy more till each school child got an icypole.

Our late father used to say of her, “if you give her a crumb she’ll give you the moon.”

By the same token, if you cross her, she’ll never forget.

Sabiha found Australia hard: the cold, the alien western culture, and she never ceased to blame my father for luring her away from her family and friends to a bakery and not a bank. 

But she did appreciate Australia’s tolerance and the fact that people of all religions were given equal status and opportunity.

In her dementia it was her kindness that grew large. No matter how badly off she was, she always looked at others in the home and said a prayer for them. And she thanked anyone who came her way for every small kindness.

To the last, she was still my mother. She would tell me to go out, make friends. “Haven’t you met anyone special yet?” “Have you nowhere else to go?”

“Why don’t you wear makeup?”

“Did you make that dress!!”

And of course, “What did you cook for dinner? What will Georgia eat? You must eat well.”

Mum was thrilled at the birth of my three children, and was so proud of Ron producing seven gorgeous children in America. David had his child late in life and she was very happy for him that at last he did have a child.

Sabiha saw 11 grand-children and seven great-grand children, and will be missed by them all. My niece Talya in America wrote to me this morning telling me how much their skype sessions meant to her.

When I visited Mum, to the last, she would ask me about the children.

And when my youngest daughter Sally named her baby Sabiha, she was thrilled, and used to giggle every time she asked me, “How is Sabiha?”

A nursing home in Australia was a very cruel end for our mother.

She was an exotic flower, out of place in a foreign land, and no matter how much she appreciated the freedoms of Australia, she always remained a child of Baghdad.

The last words of her book, and I believe her thoughts, were for Baghdad. She wrote, “I farewell you Baghdad, my friend, with Love.”

And Mum, we all farewell you. You are much loved and will be missed.

And on behalf of all your family and friends I thank you for bringing that little bit of  Baghdad into our lives. 

Thank you all dear family and friends for being here to help me, David and Ron farewell our mother. 

Many of you have played a part in helping her in her difficult years, and I thank you all most deeply. I shall never forget. You showed me the meaning of goodness.

May  G-d bless you all and keep you safe.

And Sabiha, first ray of dawn, and every dawn for me, may G-d have mercy on your soul. 

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