—The Versailles treaty, that shameful text, the Grand Mufti said one day to those around him, made Germany into a pariah. It’s because of that they have taken the side of the Arabs, the eternal pariahs. May God stop them from losing this war, because then we would lose Palestine to the Jews.***
Sherko Fatah brings us the story of Anouar, a boy from the streets of Bagdad who is swept up in the movements of his epoch, initially moving towards an involvement in an anti-Semitic movement in which he does not really believe. Fatah First paints us a story of prewar Bagdad, Of the growing tensions Anouar slowly discovers between the people and their British rulers and, through an involvement with the Black shirts, the growing hatred towards the Jews living in Bagdad:
—The Black shirts were grouped in front of the building waiting for Fadil’s orders. When I joined them I was accepted as a comrade, and was asked to carry one of the large paint containers…i thus learnt that the operation we were about to begin was of great importance for the fatherland, that it was aimed at the internal enemy who in association with the British was about to bring down the country’s rightful gouvernement….Fadil regrouped us around him.
—we will mark all of the shops owned by Jews. You know which ones are concerned. If you have any doubts ask me. Lets go!***
Anouar finds himself, through his links with the Black shirts, a factotum of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who is in political exile in Bagdad and is part of the team of people who accompany him to Berlin in 1941 when after a failed insurrection Bagdad is brought under control by the British:
He wanted to be an Arab partner alongside the Germans and not the lackey without hope that the French see in every Arab, nor the easily manipulated imbecile that the English took him for.***
Anouar describes their time in Berlin where their rallying to Hitler is used as propaganda, here in this second part of the story he is brought into contact with the day to day anti Semitic behaviour and expectations around him and where they spend most of their time just waiting as the war goes from euphoria to despair as illustrated in the opening quote.
The book then moves into the third and little known phase, where towards the end of the war Anouar is enrolled into the Muslim Legion of the Waffen SS, sent to fight on the eastern front where, during the retreat without hope from the Russian army, the Legion is used for the most dangerous work in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising as the Russian Army halt their advance to allow the SS the time to finish the job.
This book throws open a new window on the events of the twentieth century, seen from an unusual perspective including the tensions in the Middle East at the time. This was a thoughtful read.
First Published in German as “Ein weisses Land” in 2011 by Luchterhand Literatur Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’ and published by Métailié in 2014
*** My translation