TRANSLATIONS STORIES AND POEMS
CONTENTS OF THIS WEB PAGE
1. A short story from Professor Shmuel Moreh's memoirs: When Mrs Fatma
2. Something on Gad Ben-Meir, lawyer and writer.
|GAD BEN-MEIR, former director of the World Sephardi Federation in London, has until recently practiced law as a
Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. He is a published poet in Arabic
and now in English as of 2020. He has a keen interest in literature. He worked as a film critic in the early days of
cinema, in Baghdad, Iraq.
The story behind his writing of poems and lyrics is unusual. After matriculating from the Shammash School (1948) in
Baghdad, where he was a classmate of Shmuel Moreh (Sami Mu'allim) he worked for two years as a teacher at the
“Alliance Israelite Universelle,” a primary and intermediate French school in Baghdad. It was in this two-year period that he
also worked as a film critic. The Egyptian and Indian movies that he wrote about, and that he enjoyed, were full of singing
and dancing. It was at that time that he himself started to write poems of love. He wrote not only in literary Arabic, but
inspired by these films, in the Egyptian dialect as well.
It was only years later, however, that he had the chance to affectionately perfect his Egyptian Arabic through his close
friendships with Egyptian clients he represented as a lawyer.
In seeking to give joy and happiness to others, Gad Ben-Meir publishes his poetry. Two of his three volumes of poetry
and lyrics are mainly in literary Arabic, but the third volume Ya Manal Ya Manali is in the Egyptian dialect. Professor
Emeritus Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University in Jersusalem, who graduated with Gad Ben-Meir from the same
secondary school, Shammash, wrote the introduction to all three books. A well-known Israeli composer, Isaak Abu Izz,
composed the music for his poem “Ya Manal Ya Manali,” and Hiba Bat’hish, a gifted young singer from Nazareth, sang it
in 2006 to a cheering crowd in Tel-Aviv.
|ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND THANK YOU TO GAD BEN-MEIR
in regard to my screenplay "Blue Mist," an original screenplay by Aviva Butt published in On Screenwriting and Love and
Politics: The Screenplay "Blue Mist" (SBPRA: 2013):
I wish to acknowledge and express my gratitude to Gad Ben-Meir for his great contribution to my project of 2009-2010,
which became my screenplay BLUE MIST. I consulted with him in general and about legal issues raised in the story. My
book On Screenwriting and Love and Politics: The Screenplay "Blue Mist" bears a dedication to him for this reason.
-The character "Kevin" was inspired by Gad Ben-Meir's perception of the Mossad's methods.
-The "Case Officer's" threats to the protagonist "Nissim" were based on Gad Ben-Meir's understanding of the legalities
involved if a Mossad agent decided not to carry out his mission.
When Mrs. Fatma Kissed Me
a short story by Professor Shmuel Moreh
Initially published in the Sephardic Heritage Update, Issue 238 (2006), edited by David Shasha.
At Professor Shmuel Moreh's request, it was headed by the dedication:
Dedicated to Dr Naim Dangoor OBE
Later it was published elsewhere as it was actually part of Moreh’s Memoirs. The Memoirs were eventually published in Arabic and Hebrew, but
the English translation was to my knowledge never completed. Aviva Butt
WHEN MRS. FATMA KISSED ME
By Shmuel Moreh
Translated from the Arabic by Aviva Butt
This English translation is dedicated to Dr. Naim Dangoor OBE for his
award of Officer of the British Empire by the Queen of Great Britain.
Mrs. Fatma was pacing up and down. She was the history and natural science teacher at our model school, the elementary school
al-Sa’adun in Baghdad. She was smiling for the first time since our king Ghazi had died (1939). And she was telling us, the second
graders that on the morrow we would take part, together with all the schools in Iraq, in celebrations for the birthday of our beloved
young king Faisal the Second. The celebrations were to be held at al-Sa’adun Park, which was close by to our school. This park
was spacious, as the City Council had built it modelling it after Hyde Park in London. A surge of joy flooded us now after the deep
grief that had descended upon everyone when we’d come to know about the surprise death of our king Ghazi. Then we had turned
out in processions of mourning, headed by the matriculated of the pupils from other schools in Baghdad. At the head of our school’s
procession had marched the older pupils. Also joining us had been Abd al-Rahaman al-Jabi and his brother Talib; Iyad son of the
doctor Ali Ghalib; Faisal son of Rashid Ali al-Gailani who was later to be appointed Prime Minister in the period of the Farhud; two
sons of the Minister of State, Fadil al-Jamali; members of the family of al-Uzri; and Sadiq the Shii son of Mohammad Mahdi Kubba
acting head of the pro-Nazi Istiqlal Party, responsible for anti-Jewish incitement; Lu’ay al-Qadi; and others from respected families in
Iraq who learned with me at this model elementary school. We had marched along behind the older students of other schools, and
repeated after them the formulae intonation of mourning as we smote our breasts to the beat of the verses:
Allah is most great, O Arabs!
Ghazi is absent from his house
The vaults of Heaven shake
From the clash of his car.
Afterwards we went on to the elegy that moved us more intensely than the other:
Ghazi is dead and our enemies
Rejoice at the lament
Faisal the Second, may Allah help him
This verse especially called to mind the orphaned king, four years old, and the death of his father. The Iraqi people blamed King
Ghazi’s enemies, the British government, for plotting the murder. Only later did they understand that behind “the enemy” were not
only the English but also the Assyrian Christian minority that King Ghazi “had punished” in his father’s absence in Europe for their
nationalistic demands so that he would seem to be a heroic, forceful and ardent king, and in order that he would prove his manhood
to the Iraqi people and to the Arab nations. Afterwards came the Ba'th Party who claimed that the reason for his fatal accident and
death was an erotic and personal matter that defies logic as far as regards a king. The crux of our affection and compassion
revolved around the little orphaned king Faisal the Second his being young, close to our age, an age in which children fear the death
of their parents and that they will be left alone. Therefore our joy knew no bounds when our teacher Fatma told us about the
celebrations for the birthday of our beloved king on the morrow in al-Sa’adun Park and about how all the boys and girls would
take part in them. Now the time had come for us to let go the great grief that had enveloped Iraq for long weeks. The festivities
were to be held on one of the days of the Passover of us the Jewish pupils. My friend Zayd, the Minister of Education’s son,
whispered to me: “We wish we were in your place. Allah loves you and has given you many festivals.” I hurried with
the children on our street, which was near the splendid Meir Tuweig Synagogue in our Jewish neighborhood of al-Battawiyyin--
to take part in the celebrations. Those of my friends that always went around together were: Fodi Shamash, Sami Bakhash, and
the three brothers Menashe, Ya’aqoub and Nuri Hai, my cousins the two Shauls and my brothers Mordecai and Raymond who used
to go everywhere with me like my shadow. Al-Sa’adun Park, which was near our house, was decorated with Iraqi flags. The music
was playing at its loudest inviting the people to start their folk dance. The preachers were delivering their speeches with fervour,
since included were words of comfort for the royal family and the Iraqi people; and they put their hopes in the baby king. The singing
was here and there, everywhere, in the new park, which had spacious grounds with plots of greening lawn, flowers and plants in a
blaze of colours, with trees that were pruned into wondrous shapes, from them the gardeners had sculpted rows of animals; and
colourful saplings that were arranged in the shape of words of greeting: “Good morning” and “Welcome”, as well as rare trees and
flowers of all sorts. In the middle of the park stood a pole straight as a flagpole, high and smooth, that the teachers and pupils of the
different schools concentrated around. At the top of the pole was inserted a long rope the end of which one of the teachers held.
And the other end passed through a pulley’s steel rim; from it were hanging bundles of sweets and candies made in Europe wrapped
in coloured tinselly paper. Some of the boys and girls tried their luck at climbing the pole. The principal of the school, al-Taffayyuz,
the person responsible for this game, started to lower the bundles to near the heads of the girls even before the climbing started so
that they could more easily pluck them off. Each time that one of the pupils climbed and stretched forth his hand towards the
bundles, which were close to his head, the principal hastened to pull the bundles upwards, a short distance from the head of the
climbing child, so that he would go on trying. I looked with contempt at the repeatedly failed efforts of the older pupils to climb the
pole. I stood with my friend Iyad son of Dr. Ali Ghalib whose mother was Swiss, and he said to me: “Come let’s show them how to
climb!” He was, like me, a lover of climbing trees and poles in the spacious garden at his home. After some students had failed at
the climbing, I went up to the principal and said: “I want to climb!” The principal looked at me with contempt as someone who found
fault with my tender age, and added in a provoked voice: “Come on boy, yalla (move it). Let’s see how brave you are!” I went
to climb, accompanied by my brother and my friend’s enthusiastic cries of encouragement: “Sami, climb! Abdalak!
May I give my life to you! - climb! Don’t be scared!” The loud sounds of encouragement and the word abdalak revealed my identity
to all. And at the moment the palm of my hand rested on the pole, one of the teachers whispered in a derisive voice into the ear of
the principal: “Sir! Watch out. He’s a Hesqeil (Ezekiel: typical name for a Jew)!” Right away when the principal heard the word
“Hesqeil ” he looked furious, like a snake had bitten him. He pulled fast on the rope and behold, the multicoloured bundles went up
like a meteor to the sky with dizzying speed. Cries of astonishment and condemnation went up from the mouth of the pupils and the
onlookers, and these were mingled with cries of relief and derision. The principal smiled his viper-like smile, as he was proud of his
wicked deed overflowing with hatred: “Come on! Climb now, and show us how brave you are, Jew!” This open provocation
angered me and strengthened in me the desire to show him what this “Hesqeil ” could do. I continued climbing despite the great
height of the pole and despite the great distance that gaped and grew between me and the bundles of sparkling sweets, now
seeming to me associated with the principal’s contemptuous smile.
The sound of the assembled crowd gathered strength, as I went on stubbornly climbing: “Yes! Bless you! Climb now, hero...
climb...!!” I got to halfway up the pole but stopped when the pole started to sway right and left. Shouts of disappointment went up
from the onlookers; afterwards a deep silence prevailed. I said to the principal: “The pole has started to lean. I’m scared it will fall
down.” Three teachers hurried to hold the pole and to support it as they held on to me: “Don’t be scared! We are holding on to it.
Go up, hero!” When I felt sure that the pole actually was firm, I went on climbing fast, the overexcited voices once more
accompanying me: “Yes. God bless you, climb, climb!” And the rest of the pupils joined in, like in a rousing refrain, the rhythmic
pulse growing, as they repeated: “Go for the yellow... Go for the red... Go for the green one!!” And I went on climbing and the
bundles, the yellow, the red, the green and the blue, this time started to jump for joy as I drew near them with determination, full of
anger and defiance. When I had reached the top, I didn’t rush to take down a bundle; rather I halted when I felt the bundles
touching the hair of my head. The tumult grew, every one of the excited watching pupils asking me to take down the bundle in the
colour preferred by him. I stopped a little so as to gather strength, while this time the voices surged powerfully, encouraging me
and repeating: “the red... the yellow... the... the …”. I was seized with sudden anger against the red bundle, which seemed to me
to be the colour of the principal’s sunburnt face. I grabbed it furious and tore off the string it was tied to. The cheering voices of
those who had preferred the red bundle surged and applause and cries of joy and victory resounded from every side: Bravo, Bravo,
what a hero, God bless you! And abruptly I put the bundle to my teeth in great anger. I tore it open and threw its content onto the
head of the principal and teachers, and I quickly slid down. Some of the teachers started to gather up with their hands the candies
wrapped in tinselly paper and afterwards stuck them into my pockets. One of the teachers affectionately patted my cheek as he
said in wonderment: “By God, you’re a lion. By God you’re a hero!” The school principal of al-Tafayyiz pounced on me angrily: Why
did you tear the bundle open?” I answered him with pride and arrogance mixed with joy at the occasion: “I didn’t climb the pole for
the sake of the bundle with the candies, I climbed to bring honour to our school!!!” The principal was stunned at the meaning of my
answer that shut his mouth, and he said to his companions: “We find after all that this boy is a genuine Jew the son of a genuine
My friends surrounded me, as they demanded their share and the wage of their encouragement and applause. I handed out the
sweets to them and they were proud of the victory of their friend who hadn’t brought shame to their neighbourhood and their school.
I felt a bitter taste in the mouth and refused to take a sweet or to take part in the rejoicing for the victory. Relatives and friends
surrounded me with exaltation in a neighbourhood procession and said to the acquaintances encountering us on the way to
our house: “Sami climbed the pole and tore off the bundle and threw it on the principal’s head.” When my Father heard and
understood what had happened from my friends’ noisy and fragmentary story, he looked worried and said to me: “If that’s so, all
the teachers have turned into Nazis, May God protect us.” My Mother was furious and said: “Woe unto a principal like that. He’s
not ashamed to confront and abuse a child his grandson’s age.” My father replied to her: “Don’t you understand? He wanted to
say to him you’re a Jew, you’re not an Iraqi, you aren’t one of us. What! You’re that afraid for Sami? Do you think he could be put
into a little pocket easily?”
On the morrow I entered the school, as if nothing had happened. I didn’t think anyone at the school had heard how I’d answered
the principal. But behold my classmate Bettina al-Gailani said excitedly to our teacher Fatma: “Mrs. Fatma, Mrs.
Fatma! Yesterday Sami climbed the pole and tore off the bundle with his teeth and when the teacher asked him why, he answered
him: “I didn’t climb for the sake of the bundle and the sweets, I climbed for the honour of al-Sa’adun school.” My teacher Fatma
smiled broadly and the gold tooth that emerged from between her lips twinkled captivatingly. She patted my head affectionately.
Then she kissed my cheek, and said proudly: “You did well, Sami! By God you’re a hero and you’ll have a future! You’ll have a
brilliant future!” And only then did I grasp that I’d done something worthy of praise, otherwise why would my beautiful teacher kiss
me and show me affection?
On the Independence Day of the year 1999 in Jerusalem, when the Master of Ceremonies of the Israel Prize announced on
the decision of the Committee of Judges, the Israel Prize would be awarded to me for Oriental Studies, for research on Arabic
literature, and they invited me to approach the presidential platform--already standing there on their feet were the ex-President of the
Israel Mr. Eizer Weitzman, the Prime Minister Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Minister of Education and Culture Rav Yitzhak Levi,
Jerusalem City Council Mayor Mr. Ehud Olmert, and Supreme Court President Judge Aharon Barak, and others of the nation’s
senior civil servants--it was then that Mrs. Fatma joined me on the platform and she kissed me another time and reminded me:
Sami! Did I tell you that you’d succeed in life in the future!” I said to her excitedly: By God that’s right, you were right. But tell me is
there any truth in the rumours that when they said to Saddam Hussein that the Jews of Iraq did well in Israel and that most of them
got high positions in the country such as military Chief of Staff, Knesset Chairman, Ministers of State, or became lecturers at
universities, doctors, attorneys, writers and well-known poets, he answered proudly: “Why not! You can’t deny that it’s the Iraqi
genius?” Mrs. Fatma laughed and with her laughed the glitter of her gold tooth, and she said: By God, thus are the rumours, but
they also say: ‘When the Jews left Iraq, all the good and blessing left with them?’” I comforted her: Everything that the Jews of Iraq
do and all their achievement for the good of Israel, here is attributed to ‘Iraqis’, for indeed we are here still called ‘Iraqis’, you see...!
Listen!!” The Master of Ceremonies continued: The professor was born... in Iraq ... He went to school in Iraq ... And published his
poems in newspapers in Iraq ... And immigrated to Israel in the year 1951 with the mass immigration from Iraq ... And published
articles and a number of books dealing with Arabic literature and with the Judaism of Iraq... Iraq... Iraq... Iraq...”. Suddenly the
celebrated Iraqi poet al-Sayyab, his face pale, thin and sad, appeared on the platform next to the teacher Fatma. He said: “It’d be
a good idea now to read my poem “The Stranger on the Shore of the Gulf” which expresses more aptly your situation as an Iraqi
Jew, and that is where I say:
The wind cries out to me: Iraq!
And the waves wail to me: Iraq, Iraq
There is only Iraq!
And the sea how wide it is, and you how far you are
And it’s death beneath you O Iraq...
While al-Sayyab was reciting his verses, I became aware of a hidden multitude present on the platform. Hamza al-Hasan the
writer had arrived amongst others, forsaking his solitude in Ursta, Norway. He had stepped forward and was telling me about his
novel My Seclusion in Ursta in which he describes his correspondence with the poet Ibrahim Obadia (who now lives in Haifa) and
myself. He now said to me: “Look at us, both of us in the same fix. But you’re in a homeland and I’m in exile.” I commiserated with
Hamza: “We both believe in our own sacred books at the same time that we believe in human brotherhood. I came back to my
‘promised land’.” As I shook hands with the heads of state greeting me, I scrutinized their faces to see if they’d overheard me
conversing with the multitudes present, “the enemy”. Had they noticed my long conversations with "our enemies?"
The ceremony was just ending when Samira al-Mani', an Iraqi writer, I’d met recently in London, spoke to me: “Sami, do you
know we Iraqi Muslims in Europe will only return to Iraq after the Jews from Iraq return to their homes and we see how the Iraqis
treat them?” I smiled, and answered her sadly: “It’s already fifty years for us, Iraqi Jews, that we’ve hoped in vain that peace and
brotherhood would prevail amongst the inhabitants of Iraq and between Iraq and its neighbors. We’ve hoped that soon we Iraqi
Jews would be able to visit Iraq even once at the end of our lives, to drink of the sweet waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. These
waters, like a fountain of youth, might revive the wonderful days of our childhood.” Leaving with the multitudes, her eyes tearful,
Samira said: “Would that there will be better days for all of us and our dreams fulfilled.”
Professor Shmuel Moreh's short story When Mrs. Fatma Kissed Me (written end 2005) takes place in the period of the Farhud in
Iraq. It is literary autobiography, and is "true" in the sense that it expresses not only a story, but also the emotions and feelings of
the writer; it is rich in images, and full of suspense. Moreh, in Iraq known as Sami Mou'allim, lived, studied and worked in Israel from
the time of the Iraqi mass immigration in 1951. Now he is Emeritus Professor of Arabic Language and Literature, The Hebrew
University, Jerusalem, Israel, and Israel Prize Laureate (1999). His academic works, many of which were written in English in the
field of Arabic literary criticism, have been landmarks in international scholarship and some were translated into Arabic. With my
translations of this short story and an earlier one of his short stories A Dancer From Baghdad (to appear in a forthcoming anthology
of short stories by Jewish writers from Arab countries), I hope to make better known in the English speaking world the literary
writings of my most admired teacher and dearest friend of many years. The translation of When Mrs. Fatma Kissed Me was done in
consultation with the writer, and has a few additions over and above the Arabic original by way of explanation.
Translated from the Arabic by Aviva Butt
Queensland, Australia, August 2006