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Eli Amir was born in 1937 in Baghdad and moved to Israel at the age of 13. The theme of ‘home’ and one’s quest for it stands at the very heart of his works. in his novels Eli Amir chronicles the search for a sense of belonging and a home that would accommodate his complex, multifaceted identity: someone who is part of Arab-Baghdadi culture on the one hand, but who is also seeking to carve out a place for himself in the hegemonic, Israeli sphere. In his novels, Tarnegol Kaparot (Scapegoat) (1983), and Na’ar Ha’ofanayim (The Bicycle Boy) (2019) – translated for the first time into English and published in Banipal 72 – Iraqi Jewish Writers – Amir describes the immigrant’s gruelling experience of integration and assimilation in Israel in the face of the local establishment, and his sense of alienation and foreignness.
At the same time, Amir never relinquishes his Arab identity. In his novel, Mafriach Ha’yonim (1992, The Dove Flyer) that was later made into a film (2013), Amir returns to Baghdad, its streets, and the Arabic language. It appears that critics have taken to describing the theme of one’s quest for home in Amir’s body of work as a chronological narrative of migration, settling down, and belonging. In this essay, I set out to explore the ‘quest for home’ theme as a mode of looking back; a regression to a past that has gone, never to return. It seems as if any sense of home and belonging was consigned to Jewish-Arab-Muslim life back in Baghdad – a time capsule of sorts that can never be revisited.
The question of home and the Jewish community’s place in Iraq is at the very centre of Amir’s novel, The Dove Flyer. In this book, Amir traces the life of Baghdad’s Jewish community between 1949 and 1950 (in the immediate aftermath of the founding of the State of Israel) and on the cusp of Iraqi Jews’ mass immigration to Israel. The novel captures, with poignance and sensitivity, the vast network of tensions, anxieties, and questions that arose with regards to the ongoing existence of Baghdad’s Jewish community specifically, and to Iraq’s as a whole: between the Zionist movement that was prominent at the time in Iraq, the rise of communism, and the desire to further sustain Jewish Iraqi existence and presence in Baghdad. This constellation of tensions proliferates after the events of the Farhud (the 1941 pogrom against Iraqi Jews) . . .
In the novel, Amir recounts Iraqi Jews’ loss of their sense of safety and security in those fateful years, and their quest for a place to call home: whether that be Iraq or Israel . . .
Whilst in The Dove Flyer, the protagonist realises that a sense of home, identity, and security only exist in his Baghdadi past, in the place where he was able to successfully merge the Jewish-Muslim patchwork of existence into a cohesive whole, in The Bicycle Boy (2019), Amir brings readers the story of Nuri, who had emigrated from Baghdad to Israel with his family, and whose journey of assimilation and integration the novel traces.
Three of Eli Amir's novels are published in English translation, while one, The Dove Flyer, was made into a film.
• Excerpted from the essay on Eli Amir and his work by Hadas Shabat Nadir in Banipal 72 – Iraqi Jewish Writers, entitledThe Quest for Home, the Quest for Identity: The Jewish-Muslim Prospect in Eli Amir