Joseph, the Youngest Jew of Iraq

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Monday, 19 October

Rabbi Rothschild has sent me an email suggesting that I meet with a Jewish refugee from Iraq who wants to talk to someone about the conversations amongst Syrian men that he has overheard in the German refugee camps, away from Western ears. I follow the e-mail chain, find the address, and send a note of invitation to talk, which is answered instantly. We agree to meet at the Zoologischer Garten U-bahn stop in Charlottenburg, not too far from the hostel where he’s staying.

A gray rainy morning. Walking from the station to the Platz, I go under an overpass populated by a dozen motionless human forms mummified side-by-side in dirty down sleeping bags. Open mit nehmen cartons and foil dishes with half-eaten left-overs mix with newspapers and magazines rescued from the trash bins — even the left-over news can be consumed. A few dogs curled and tucked in between the bags share the body warmth. One must be thoroughly exhausted and desensitized to sleep through the sounds of morning traffic — cars and trucks and busses, and the noise of walking bodies just a foot away from the crowded sidewalk margin of the truly marginal, too truly literal, the parallel society of scrapers-by. A rhythmic crashing crunching from across the street fills the immediate soundscape — some kind of huge construction drill excavating behind a metal fence surrounding the block. Waiting on the corner, Joseph recognizes me–he must’ve found my face online; we shake hands and look for a café.

A construction drill outside the Zoologischer Garten Bahn stop, Charlottenburg, makes sleeping on the street difficult.

Joseph Aish, 34, from Baghdad, is the self-declared youngest Jew of Iraq (there are only about 20 Jewish families left, he says). His father is an Arab communist, his mother Jewish (she died a couple of years ago of ALS). Although his father did not believe in practicing religion, Joseph’s mother created subdued celebrations on the Jewish high holidays — silent, except for the preparation of some special foods, especially nice table settings, what she simply called mitzvah to mark certain days. While Baghdad has always been a city in which Jews could live in relative peace, with relative tolerance (otherwise impossible in Iraq), the family never felt truly safe. The combination of Judaism and communism in the family, although not publicly or widely known, was a matter of record with Iraqi secret service. In 1990, when the US military dropped a bomb on the Iraqi immigration office, the family realized that it had the opportunity of a lifetime to change its entire identity. They commissioned forged documents and moved across town.

In 2003, Joseph (called Yusef throughout his childhood) was an engineering student at the university. He decided to act on his rejection of Islamic radicalism by trying to help the US military with some advice about how to take control of Fallujah, then under the command of Islamic extremists. He walked up to an officer stationed on the street, which eventually lead to a series of meetings with some generals (Joseph says he met with them maybe ten times). The US was approaching Fallujah from highways in the east, but without much success. Joseph recommended taking control of two points on the Euphrates river, running along the western side of the city — the river was the main thruway for supply transports. In addition, he says, he recommended taking control of the smaller city of Amiriyat Fallujah, to the south — that’s where the radicals were manufacturing munitions. Joseph thinks this advice helped the US. That’s an incredible story, I say. Joseph, in a baseball cap, red and blue but otherwise blank, tips his head to the left in modest acknowledgment. Yes, he says, I don’t know if it was me, but I hope so. They did what I said and it worked.

Joseph has learned German, also Dutch, English, Turkish, Aramaic, and he knows a few other Arab dialects. His English is very fast, his stories detailed and the situations richly textured. His understanding of the tensions and complexities running through Middle East politics is nuanced; he takes apparent pleasure in parsing the ironies embedded in regional ideological conflicts. His discussion of tactics and strategies has the verve others bring to sports, but he clearly carries the knowledge with a grim concern for its disturbing implications: the fate of people who are not radicalized at the hands of clever, ambitious, and utterly vicious Islamic fundamentalists.

Growing up, Joseph never considered himself to be Jewish — Arab Muslim descent is patrilineal; but his mixed religious/political background, and his collaboration with the US, put him in danger. In 2004, he went on the international move. In Holland, curious about his Jewish heritage, he made contact with a rabbi. I’m not really Jewish, he told the rabbi, but my mother is Jewish and I’m curious about the religion. Oh, said the rabbi, then you are Jewish. No, said Joseph, you don’t understand, my mother is Jewish, my father is not; I’m not Jewish. The rabbi explained that, unlike in Islam, Jewish descent is matrilineal. Curiosity lead to practice, and Joseph now wears a six-pointed star tucked beneath his shirt and always carries a kippah (though he won’t wear it outside of Jewish places for fear of being attacked). Your mother was Jewish, I say, but you also chose Judaism as the faith you wanted to practice, how come? I just feel it, says Joseph. He likes to wear tefillin, he tells me (the small leather boxes containing parchment with torah verses on them that are strapped to arm and forehead during prayer), but he doesn’t carry any with him — it’s too dangerous. Joseph has only learned a little Hebrew so far, about as much as casual practitioners use during services; but — as is often the case with converts and those new to the practice — he gravitates to the more orthodox congregations. There are more people, he says, than in the liberal congregations in Germany. And, he adds, you feel it more. Joseph is gregarious without coming across as pushy. He likes people, and big cities; with his smartphone’s GPS and social media, he is always finding Kaffeeklatch in neighborhood bars and cafés. Women are my weakness, he says. How do you pick up women, I ask, do you tell them that you are from Iraq, what language do you use. Depends, he says, sometimes I speak English, sometimes Dutch. Then I say I’m from Holland. I don’t tell them I’m from Iraq or Jewish until later. They don’t hear your accent, I ask. No — you hear it because you’re American, but if I speak English, others don’t hear it. Joseph has been on the move for the last two years, through Turkey, Jordan, Greece, everywhere, he says. He left Iraq for good in June 2014. He is surviving along the Jewish network in Germany, moving from Frankfurt to Hanover to Köln to Berlin and back and around. He’d like to settle in Köln because, in addition to being a place with open-minded people, it will be easier to find an apartment than in Berlin. He likes Berlin, he says, but he’s had more luck with women in Köln.

So speaking of hearing your accent, I say, what are you overhearing in the camps.  There are Syrians, he says, who think that Germany is a good place to come because Germans hate Jews. The Syrians think they can be violent against Jews and the Germans won’t care. The Germans that hate Jews, I say, also hate Muslims. Those Syrians are making a big mistake. Well, he says, I told a couple of people that I thought were open minded people in the camp that I am Jewish, and then it got around the camp, and some guys tried to stab me with a broken bottle. I went to the police, he continued, and they said it is a religious conflict between refugees, we don’t get involved with that. Anti-Semitic crimes, I say, are kept track of in Germany. Joseph’s baseball cap tips left in acknowledgment. Maybe because I am not yet a resident, he says. Where’d that happen, I say. The camp in Grosskrotzenburg, near Hanover, he says; I realized then that I could not stay in the camps; so now I am staying in the hostels and paying for it myself. You are a refugee fleeing from the refugee camps, I say. Yes, he says. We both laugh a little. Where do you get your money? The German government deposits 300 euro directly into my account, and my brother sends me 200 euro a month through Western Union. Where does that money come from? From an apartment rental in Baghdad. I’m getting confused, I say, in 2003 you advised the US military by meeting, like, ten times with generals about tactics to take Fallujah; in 2004 you left Iraq for the first time; where’d you go? First, Jordan, he says, we have an apartment there. Then Dubai; there I got a visa. Then in 2005, I entered Europe and went to Holland. I declared my Judaism there, in Holland, and re-did my chemical engineering degree so I can get a good job in Europe. That took until 2010. Then I went to Norway, returned to Jordan, then returned to Norway, and then returned to Iraq because my mother was ill. But she had left the country for treatment and they wouldn’t let her back in, and she died before I could see her. Then IS was growing very strong and I decided to leave for good. In 2013, our house — we had a very big house — was destroyed by a car wired into a bomb. Who did that, I say, do you know? Yes, he says, the same radical group that was in Fallujah. Who was that? First it was the old Revolutionary Guard of Saddham, then Thoar Al-Ashreen, then the Muhammad Militia, then ISIS — all the same people, he says. He lifts his pant leg and shows me some scars. It was a big house, he says, and we were in the back courtyard, so we survived. But I don’t breathe so well, he continued, and I have problems with my eyes. Joseph is holding a damp tissue that he regularly dabs his eyes with. The dust from the explosion, he says. He pulls some drops out of his pocket. These help, he says, but I need surgery after I’m settled here, and it’s hard to get medicine when you are always traveling. How’s the process going now, I ask. I’ve been waiting a year and a half, he says, because I’m Iraqi. But a rabbi and a lawyer have been calling the government, and now they say it will be maybe two more months. How long have you been traveling? Since last year: Turkey, then Greece, then Belgium; then I was on a train to Sweden, but passport control stopped me because they have my fingerprints here in Germany, so I must stay here and get asylum status before I can travel again outside the country. Okay, I say, I think I got it now. (Joseph’s sense of narrative time is not always chronological, but makes sense to him. Is it, I wonder, a way of storytelling in the Middle East with a different feeling for time than we have in the West?)

So in addition to some Syrians thinking Germany is a good place for Islamic fascists to join forces with Nazis, I say, — which is a big mistake, by the way — that goes back at least to Egypt and the false idea during World War I that German fascists would support the return of the caliphate (everything I know about that I learned from Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy) — what else do you want to tell me? When the US left Iraq, he says, that started the current problem. The border was left open to transfer the militias between Iraq and Syria. In 2012, driving from Baghdad to Jordan, you’d see all kinds of weapons, tanks, trucks that we’d never seen before — anti-aircraft, missile launchers — Iraq never had this before IS. I remember, he continues, seeing thousands of Toyota pick-ups in Baghdad — we had never seen that kind of car there. IS was buying directly from Japan, through Jordan military — commanders were ordering them and delivering them to IS in Iraq. The cars would come in a parade across the border.

Okay, I say, where are we going with this? Okay, he says, what happens is that there is a citizen’s revolt against the Iraqi government; thousands are killed by Iraqi military. (Joseph often speaks of past events in the present tense, as if we’re watching it all play out again in front of us). The radical militias see that people are rising up against the government; a week later the militias move in. When’s this? Beginning of 2013. And? The border between Syria and Iraq effectively disappears. Okay, I say, spell it out, I’m kind of stupid. Joseph smiles; he agrees. Between the Iraq and Syria border runs the Euphrates river, he says, and to the west is the desert area of Syria. This area is defined in a prophetic prophecy of Muhammad as the place of the great End War. How do you say it, Arma-jedine. Armageddon? Yes, Armageddon. Righteous warriors will move west and take control of the coast, then they will control the coast below Italy. When they take control of the Vatican, then the war with Europe will begin with great force. The great fight between East and West will take place in the desert regions of Syria—this is why IS is taking control of that area. And that is how they are convincing people to join them. Because this is the mythology. I don’t think that’s in the Koran, I say. No, he says, but it is their prophetic mythology, and they use it to convince people: they are in control of that region, so the End War must be beginning. ‘When you see the nations of the West collaborate against the East,’ they say, ‘then you will know that we are correct in prophecy.’ So, I say, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The baseball cap tips in acknowledgment.

If I were a US general, I say, what would you advise me to do? (This is the weirdest game I’ve ever played). Joseph smiles. 420,000 IS fighters, he says, move back and forth between Iraq and Syria with total freedom. You must break the mythology, he says. Iraq would welcome back US military now. If the US built an airbase at the western border of Iraq, where the Euphrates runs between Iraq and Syria, then the people would see that IS is not in control of the region and that would break the mythology — it would be more difficult to convince people. But, I say, wouldn’t an airbase be evidence of the West collaborating against the East? Maybe, he says, but the first fact of the mythology is the IS control of the Euphrates and the desert region in east Syria. How do people view Obama, I say. He is weak, he says, everyone thinks and says he is weak. Why? Because he shows no force. So, he continues, Obama is not showing force against IS, then he must secretly be supporting it. That’s what they are saying. Obama should demonstrate military force in the region, I say, people would like that. Yes, he says.

Joseph’s phone rings. He answers and an animated conversation ensues; Joseph’s responses are short and direct. He hangs up. That was a guy I met in the hostel asking me for information. About what? About other people who can help him, says Joseph. What did you say?  I try to help in the hostels with translating for people, but beyond that I cannot help. I need to keep my distance. It’s a dangerous situation for me, I cannot get involved with people. That guy, he continues, from Syria, I overheard talking to a guy from Kuwait. There are rich businessmen in Kuwait who are funding the movement of refugees to the West. Why? Rich guys, supporting radicals, he says, in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. They support families from Turkey and Syria who move to Europe, to spread Islam and slowly convert Westerners. Really? Yes, he says, there are three waves. First, Muslims come over; second, they invite other Muslims who can fight; third are those who will try to convert others from the West. When IS is ready, then there will already be people here. A Trojan horse, I say. Yes, like that. The movement from East to West to convert is like Muhammad’s immigration from Mecca to Medina. Right, I say, Hejira: Muhammad was an immigrant refugee fleeing political assassination. Joseph’s cap tips in acknowledgment.

How does the money system work, I say, is it just about funding people in the West? The traffickers are all Palestinian, he says, 100%. What happens is this. You call a place in Turkey, and you pay them the money to go across. Then you go to the Palestinians and they take you across to Greece. You don’t give them any money. When you get there, you call the place in Turkey and say you’ve arrived, and they pay the Palestinians. So they’re like brokers, I say. Yes, he says, then the Palestinians send the money to Hamas and IS. So they’re laundering money through refugees, I say. Yes, he says, the EU is a bit naïve. IS will try to take Rome; when Rome falls, Islam will control the world, then Israel will be destroyed. That’s an incredible plan, I say. Joseph smiles and nods. Yes, he says, but that’s the plan. I’ve been talking to some Muslims over at Lageso, I say, they don’t seem radicalized to me. Not everyone is, he says, it’s not known by all, just the guys who will fight. How can you tell if someone is radicalized, I say. One way is to ask a question, he says, is to ask the question: do you think that IS will go to hell for killing women and children? If a guy supports IS, he will say, ‘I don’t know.’ He won’t say yes, and he will not say no. Don’t lie, I say, but don’t tell the truth. Joseph’s cap tips. Be honest, I say, do you need a place to stay?

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