Growing up in Tabriz and Rezaiyeh in the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism and religious discrimination, I always had a strong sense of being different and not belonging, and even being ashamed or afraid to reveal my identity. This feeling is embedded so deeply that even after immigrating to Germany and making Aliyah to Israel, home and safe haven of the Jewish people, I still hesitate before answering the question, “what’s your religion.” When we lived in Tabriz, once in a while, the synagogue would appoint a small committee to collect money, which the head of the committee would give to the local Muslim clergy in order to prevent them from speaking against Jews in their sermons in the mosque and inciting the people to attack us. When they didn’t, a few words from the clergy or Molla would suffice to spark raids of pillage and killing against the defenseless Jews, which unfortunately happened a few times throughout history.
My father describes one such event in his handwritten autobiography, The Adventures of the World ’s Luckiest and Unluckiest Man:
One of the bitter events that befell this family is the day a group of people attacked our house in order to pillage it. Simin, Mikhael’s beautiful wife, who was pregnant at the time, was in the house and came face-to-face with them. She was so scared, she threw herself out the window. She lost her baby and was badly injured herself. She suffered for some time, aching with wounds from the fall, and ﬁnally left this world and our mourning family.
One of the symptoms of this bigotry was that we, Jews, and actually all non-Muslims, were considered najes — impure. There were times when a Jew was not allowed to walk outside in the rain, lest a raindrop touch him and become deﬁled, and then a Muslim would step in the same puddle and would get deﬁled. Needless to say, Hamām, public bath, which was all water, was out of bounds for us — except one day a week, which was dedicated to Jews.
We all used to go with our father. In the Hamām, there was the kise-kesh — the person whose job was to rub the people who are coming to take a bath with a kise — a mitten-like soap sponge. One day, when I was ﬁve years old, we went to the Hamām with my father, and the kise-kesh told my father: “What a beautiful boy!”
If you think that’s a good thing to say, you’re probably not Iranian! Saying good things and complimenting, without mentioning the number ﬁve, horses, horseshoes, or garlic, gives one the evil eye, and the kise-kesh didn’t mention any of those! And indeed, during that same visit to the Hamām I slipped and broke my leg. Just imagine my father taking his children to the Hamām and coming back home with a broken-legged child! There were no hospitals at the time, so they took me to an ostokhun-band, a person who ﬁxes broken bones. Even now, more than 70 years later, I still have difficulty walking straight on this leg.
Impurity laws were also practiced at the bazaar, where coffee shop owners had special, separate glasses for Jews. Every time my father took one of his business guests for coffee or chay (tea) in the bazaar, he would tell the coffee shop owner: “Ali Agha! Get me three glasses of chay, one of them custom-made!” That was code word for “special for Jews.” More insulting was the fact that they would wash the special glasses with aftabeh water, water from the vessel used for washing the oriﬁces after going to the toilet!
My father’s Muslim business partners did shake hands with him, but would always wash their hands afterwards.
This was our ordinary life.
Urmia was no better. Here’s a memory from my cousin, Youssef Harouni, to give you an idea:
About 100 years ago, when the central government was weak, the city of Urmia (Rezaiyeh), located in the vicinity of the Turkish, Russian and Kurdish borders, was constantly under attack: One day, the Kurdish leader Esma’il Agha Simitqu attacked, pillaged and wreaked havoc in the city; another day the Russians attacked; and on a different occasion it was an Assyrian raid.
During the Assyrian assault, a group of musketeers on horseback entered the house of our grandfather Ruben — whom the Muslims called Sheikh Rahim — and began to plunder. One of them picked up a Qalyān (hoohak pipe) with an image of Naser ad-Din Shah Qajar that was standing in a niche in the wall, and started contemplating it.
My grandfather, who knew Syriac (Assyrian Aramaic), said to him: “God rest your father’s soul! You’re not gonna pay for it, are you? Why are you looking at it for so long? Throw it in your bag already!”
The musketeer did exactly that, and said: “Because you’re a good person, I won’t kill you.” He bid him pitra (Syriac for “goodbye”) and left the house.
It may sound odd, but our grandfather, Sheikh Rahim, was highly respected among the Muslims. Imagine how it was for people who were not respected!
The Jews of Urmia all lived in one neighborhood. On Fridays the sounds of mortar and pestle, used for grinding meat for gondi, deafened the ears. On summer Saturdays, some used to go to Sheikh Teppesi (Turkish şeyx təppəsi, the Sheikh’s hill) and eat berries, while others gathered in the Markaz (“center”) square, buy sunﬂower seeds from a man called Cherāgh (“lamp”), ten Shahis per cup, and then sit and chat. During World War II, the Muslims were expecting the German forces, and had already decided how to distribute the Jews’ houses among themselves. Suddenly, the Russian army entered Azerbaijan.
The city leaders did not know what to do: surrender, ﬂee or ﬁght.
At last they decided to consult the central government in Tehran. They called Tehran and got the answer: “Reza Khan is asleep.” This upset the general military commander of the city, who started shouting: “Why isn’t Stalin asleep? Why isn’t Churchill asleep?”
When the war ended, the British and Americans left Iran, but Russian forces remained in Azerbaijan, and formed a puppet state. There was a Jewish Russian woman-officer named Sara Khanom, also known as Bimbo Sara, who couldn’t ﬂee to Russia after Azerbaijan’s liberation. One day she came to our house in Tabriz with uniform and a gun, and said to my father: “Agha Cohen, you must save my life!”
My father had no choice but to grant her asylum, and hide her weapon and other equipment in an underground hiding place. We had a neighbor named Aziz Sha‘bani. When he saw her, he got mad and said: “At least change your clothes!” She changed from the uniform to civilian attire, and they burnt her uniform in the furnace. She stayed in our house for some time, and when things got calm, she went to Tehran.