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A Boy from Baghdad (Paperback)

Children's Books

By Ms Miriam Halahmy
Imprint: Green Bean Books
Pages: 192
ISBN: 9781784389901
Published: 12th September 2023

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“Jews are no longer safe in Iraq. When are you going to get it through your thick head?”

It’s 1951, and twelve-year-old Salman Shasha is happy with his life in Baghdad. But trouble is brewing. Salman and his family are Iraqi Jews and their government has been turning against their community for years. Things become so dangerous that the whole family are forced to leave Iraq for Israel, the “Promised Land”.

Once they arrive, however, they realise that things are not what they dreamed they would be. Taken to a refugee camp, the Shasha family try to make the best of their situation. But the dominant group in the country – the Ashkenazi Jews – look down on families like Salman’s and treat them horribly. Salman decides to focus on his greatest passion, swimming, and beating his rivals in a race. Facing taunts from his bullying peers, Salman feels defeated, but he soon realises that with hard work and determination anything is possible.

An inspiring, atmospheric tale about the power of perseverance, friendship and family in the face of hardship, hatred and change, A Boy From Baghdad is an important story of diversity in the modern world. Essential reading for any child 8 years and over.

'A Boy from Baghdad is a heartwarming, authentic story about an Iraqi Jewish boy, Salman Shasha, who is suddenly uprooted with his family and the entire Iraqi Jewish community when they move from Baghdad to Israel. Not only does Salman’s family lose everything with the move to the refugee tent camps in Israel (home, language, identity), but Salman also loses his dream to be an Olympic gold swimmer for Iraq.

The Iraqi Jewish world is little known and Halahmy paints a vibrant, colorful picture of the smells and sounds of the souq, the beautiful, wide Tigris River which is Salman’s swimming haunt, and the close-knit family and communal everyday life and traditions, such as the lighting of seven homemade wicks in sesame oil for Shabbat. She also captures the tensions for the Jews with the rising antisemitism and anti-Zionism which culminated in more than 120,000 Jews leaving between 1950-1952.

Halahmy artfully captures the complexity of the Iraqi Jewish story in Israel through her characters’ bittersweet experiences as they arrive in the “Promised Land.”… Most of all, children will relate to Salman as a character with big dreams. It takes more than being displaced to destroy his Olympic swimming ambitions. He faces the sea, and stroke by stroke perseveres through many hardships. His story reflects a hope for a brighter future with the role of Iraqi and Mizrahi Jews being natural bridges between Israeli Arabs and Ashkenazim, as Salman grows with the understanding that it is who a person is that matters, not where they are from, and finds deep friendships with people from both communities. Halahmy writes from her Iraqi Jewish husband’s family story, and as a fun extra includes the recipe for Iraqi Jewish date cookies.

Now more than ever, A Boy From Baghdad is an important book for children and adults to read, in order to better understand the complexity of the Middle Eastern Jewish experience and Israel.’

Sarah Sassoon, Sydney Taylor Schmooze Blog

'In this unique story, Salman Shasha and his family leave persecution in Iraq for the "Promised Land" only to find hardship in a primitive refugee camp and prejudice from some of the Ashkenazi Jews they meet. Slowly, Salman and his family adapt, find friends, and begin to feel like real Israelis. There are so few books for kids about the Mizrahi experience, so this is an important contribution to Jewish children's literature.’

My Completely Unofficial 2024 Sydney Taylor Book Award Shortlist, The Book of Life podcast

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve always believed that books have a way of finding their readers. And I am delighted that Miriam Halahmy’s A Boy from Baghdad found me. Although it is a children’s book meant for 10–12-year-olds, I am confident even adults are going to enjoy this. At least, I certainly did!

Based partly on the author’s husband’s family, Halahmy’s storytelling transported me to the Baghdad and Israel in the 50s.

The narrative is skillfully driven by both character and plot. Salman and Latif’s optimism is infectious and it is impossible to not fall in love with these adorable boys. The secondary characters are equally well-sketched and play their roles to perfection.

This heartbreaking story portrays the prejudice, racism, genocide, and displacement faced by Iraqi Jews. For readers unfamiliar with this chapter of history, this book is a valuable resource. Kudos to the author for striking the right balance of honesty and sensitivity.

Despite these serious themes, the narration is filled with hope and empathy, encouraging readers to gain understanding and root for the people. This book can be a good resource for children and adults to discuss this chapter from history.

A Boy from Baghdad will remain a treasured and memorable read forever.

NetGalley, Chandra Sundeep

As featured in

Jewish Chronicle

Article: From Iraq to Israel

Jewish News

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the story of Salman, a young Iraqi Jew who moves to Israel after the Iraqi government turns against its Jewish people and suggests that they emigrate. The Iraqi Jewish people would have a year to leave, could never return and were not permitted to take anything of value with them. Salman doesn't want to leave his comfortable life in Baghdad or his much loved River Tigris, where he loves to swim and dreams of being an Olympic medalist.

When Salman and his family have to move to Israel, the Promised Land, a land of milk and honey, they find that things are not what they were told they would be and life, in the camp they now call home, is hard. Israel was at war with several of the surrounding Arab countries and this led to tensions between the larger population of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and the Arab Jewish people. Salman and his family face poor living conditions and abuse from others but he is determined to prove his and his people's worth.

I really enjoyed this book. I knew very little about the circumstances that provide the background to this story and am keen to learn more. I will be adding this book to our school library.

NetGalley, Georgina Carter

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I really love this little book, Salman/Shimon is a lovely boy who's dream is to win an Olympic medal. I did not know much about Iraqi Jews, nor did I know much about the first years of the state Israel. So this novel was not only entertaining because of the witty characters, but also because I got the opportunity to read about something new.
I hadn't expected this amount of prejudice. This story throws also a light on nowadays refugees. They all have a history and a reason for being where they are now and don't deserve living in camps like the ma'abara.

NetGalley, Barbara Tsipouras

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It's the 1950s, and 12-year-old Salman is happy in his home in Iraq. He loves swimming and dreams of being an Olympic swimmer one day and representing his country. His dreams are shattered when his father tells him that they will be leaving for the Promised Land immediately, to start a new life, as Jews are no longer safe in Iraq.⁣

What was promised to them as The Land of Milk and Honey turns out to be a hellish experience, worse than they could have ever imagined, an they feel trapped and dejected that their own people have misled and lied to them.⁣

The family struggles, starting over from scratch, and all the while, Salman doesn't give up on his dream of becoming a swimmer, even though the odds seem to be stacked against him. His ride-or-die is his cousin Latif, who will do anything to help his cousin and make his dream come true. ⁣

It's sad that though every Jew should be united towards a common goal, the Iraqi Jews and all the Jews from the Arab lands are treated poorly and discriminated against by the Ashkenazi Jews, who think themselves better and superior to the rest. This prejudice exists even in the little kids and teenagers, who have undoubtedly learnt it from their parents.⁣

Salman and his family are sweet, simple people, and I felt sorry that they had to go through all those hardships, along with so many other families. However, they stick together as a family and help each other out till they can better their circumstances. ⁣

The characters of Salman and his cousin Latif are very relatable. They are trying to live as normal a life as possible, torn between their old and new identities, and they have the added responsibility of trying to hustle and arrange for food or earn a few extra bucks to help out their respective families, which is not something a kid should have to worry about at that age, but such are their circumstances. ⁣

Everything is not all gloom and doom, though. There are some Ashkenazi Jews that are good and helpful, and no matter what the family is going through, you can always see the silver lining running just below the surface of the story. ⁣

The book is meant for YA readers, but it's a heartwarming story that even adults will enjoy. I know I did!⁣

NetGalley, Diana Swing

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Readers will love Salman from the start as well as his cousin Latif. While the world in A Boy from Baghdad, Iraq in 1951 and Israel, might be unfamiliar, the boys are entirely relatable. The author has done a wonderful job writing characters that both represent different reactions to their changing circumstances, Latif’s (Roni) willingness to embrace his new life and Salman’s initial reluctance to, and characters that feel real. The tension between the Ashkenazi community and the Mizrachi Jews is well balanced. The prejudice and deprivations that the Iraqi Jews faced is clear, but there still are Ashkenazi Jews that accept the newcomers as well. The complicated relationship between the new and the old, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, Jew and Arab are present on the page, but presented in a way that still feels organic. Readers will find themselves rooting for Salman to succeed. While this book is perfect for Middle Grade readers, it’s perfect for their parents too. Thank you to NetGalley for the advance electronic copy of this compelling novel.

NetGalley, Erica Lyons

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Beautiful story about the struggles of Iraqi Jews and their paths.

NetGalley, Sara Allison

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

You know a children's book is special when, as an adult, you both enjoy reading it and learn something new. I had no idea that the Iraqi Jews in Israel were treated this way. And it is a story that really must be told so that Israel can live up to its true potential and be a place more welcoming to those who don't fit the initial mold that the European Jews created. The author does an excellent job with this story and also avoids stereotyping any of the different groups that make up the story. It's readable and the storyline itself will appeal to anyone who loves to see the underdog win.

It's the kind of book that a 10-13 year old would easily get caught up in and reading it with an adult and then discussing it would make the experience even more valuable.

Highly recommended for children with an interest in the world and highly recommended for all synagogue and Jewish school libraries. It would also make a nice holiday gift!

Thank you to NetGalley for an advance copy of this book. We need more books like this!

NetGalley, sara aoyama

This is such an interesting and engaging book! It shows a side of Israel that many are not aware of - namely, the racism that some (mostly European) Jews can exhibit towards their fellow Jews. This is something that has most recently been seen in the Jewish State's treatment of the Falashas aka the Ethiopian Jews, but such attitudes go back much further than that.

For anyone familiar with Israeli society, the divide between the Northern Ashkenazi/European Jews and the darker-skinned Sephardic/Arab Jews is well-known. But others, who often see the Israeli population as fairly monolithic - in terms of rights and entitlements, if not diversity - are not aware of this very important distinction, which is reflected in the very different treatment meted out to those belonging to each of the groups.

Now to this book. It is 1951 and the Babylonian Jews of Iraq have been told in no uncertain terms that they are no longer welcome in their country of origin. Instead, they have one year in which to leave and relocate in the "Promised Land" of Israel.

However, 12 year old Salman Shasha is in denial. He loves speaking Arabic, living in his home city of Baghdad, and enjoying his secret swims in the river Tigris. Salman dreams of winning Olympic gold for Iraq by emulating his hero Johnny Weissmuller, hero of the Tarzan movies.

Instead, the entire Shasha family must move to Israel, where they end up living in unpleasant circumstances in a refugee camp that is very far from the land of milk and honey that they were promised by the Zionists.

Salman's cousin Latif adapts quickly and chooses to become "Roni". He is a wonderful character in the story, and epitomises the entrepreneurial spirit for which so many Jews have been reviled as much as they have been envied through the ages.

To make matters worse for him, Salman - who must adopt the Hebrew name of Shimon, as Roni does - soon finds out that the mostly professional Iraqi Jewish arrivals are seen as only fit to work as labourers in Israel, where the Ashkenazi Jews rule the roost...

The story is compelling, and readers will find themselves totally immersed in Salman's world from start to finish. What he must give up, and how he adapts to his changed circumstances, makes for a fascinating read.

The book also teaches some important lessons about the value of empathy through characters like Ilana, as well ah compassion towards others, as exemplified by concentration camp survivor Yizhak. Highly recommended.

NetGalley, Farah Ghuznavi

About Ms Miriam Halahmy

Miriam Halahmy is a prolific writer who has written novels, short stories and poetry for children, teens and adults. Her books include The Emergency Zoo, Behind Closed DoorsHidden and Always Here for You. She is twice-nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Miriam has worked with refugees in schools and in workshops in collaboration with PEN and the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture, and frequently visits schools, colleges, universities and literary festivals both virtually and in person, in the UK and abroad.

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