Hajj Khalil is the
last Muslim with Jewish roots in the Iraqi Kurdish
village of Akre. One of his dearest wishes is to
travel to Israel to apologise to his cousins for
failing in his duties as a host when they visited
him five years ago.
"In 2000, several of
them came to see me and I didn't even greet them,
let alone invite them to stay. Despite the autonomy
enjoyed by Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein had spies
everywhere," says Khalil Fakih Ahmed, a 74-year-old
wearing the traditional Kurdish headdress.
In Akre, a large
cluster of hillside houses some 420 kilometres (260
miles) north of Baghdad, near the border with Turkey,
place names are one of the few reminders of the
former Jewish presence.
The last Jews in
the region left Iraq between 1949 and 1951, just
after the creation of the state of Israel.
One block of houses
is still called Shusti -- or 'Jewish town' in
Kurdish -- but the old synagogue was destroyed long
In the mountains
overlooking the town lies a plateau called Zarvia
Dji (Land of the Jews) where the Jewish community
used to gather for celebrations.
converted to Islam when her husband died and my
father had just turned 10," Hajj Khalil recalls,
sitting in his garden with his children and
grandchildren around him.
"When the Jews left,
we stayed because we had become Muslims."
But in the streets
of Akre, Khalil and his family are still called "the
"If you ask for
Izzat or Selim in the street, nobody will know who
you're talking about," says the old man's
19-year-old grandson. "But if you say 'Izzat the Jew',
they'll know immediately."
According to the
United Nations, some 150,000 Jews still lived in
Iraq just after World War II, several thousand of
them in Kurdistan.
defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai was born in Akre.
In 1999, Khalil's
cousin Itzhak Ezra, who lives in the northern
Israeli city of Tiberias, arrived in Akre.
"We told the
neighbours he was a Turkish trucker who needed a
place to sleep. But Itzhak met an old friend who
recognised him after half a century."
friend said nothing and the story was kept secret,"
A few weeks after
returning to Israel, the long-lost cousin sent a
letter to thank Khalil for his hospitality.
found out and arrested our brother-in-law who lived
in Mosul," southwest of Akre, says Saber, one of
Saber went to see
the intelligence services in an attempt to secure
his relative's release but was arrested and detained
for a month in Baghdad.
me, I pretended to be illiterate and demented. Then
they offered me a passport to go and spy for them in
Israel before eventually releasing me," Saber says.
Between 1991 and
the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, some
Israelis were able to reach this area in autonomous
Kurdistan through the Turkish border. But Saddam
retained intelligence agents in the region until the
fall of his regime.
"When my cousins
came to visit me" in 2000, "they didn't understand
why we would not meet them but I could not explain
it to them. They were very offended and left," Hajj
Since then, he has
had no contact with his relatives. "My father is
hoping to go and see them to resolve this
misunderstanding," his son Izzat says.