My Grandmother’s stories

My cousin Jonathan has recently started learning Arabic. He remarked to me that its “more of a nostalgia for the sounds of my childhood. I’m constantly surprised at the words that come back to me and the memories they evoke.”  I understand that very well. 

Listening back to my uncle Nessim Hay’s recordings of my grandmother Hanini Hay (née Dangoor) also brings back vivid memories of a sweet and gentle woman who married very young. Widowed at an relatively early age, which left her quite vulnerable, she eventually managed to get out of Baghdad in the 1960’s, a time of considerable unrest in Iraq, helped by my father who begged the Home Office to allow her to settle in the UK on compassionate grounds.

Here’s one of the stories she would tell to her grandchildren, about a tiny lady living in a tiny house…

And here’s the translation, also by my uncle Nessim:

The Story of Qasayruna 

Once upon a time there was a little woman called Qasayruna*, and she lived in a little house. While sweeping it one day she found a penny. She went and bought some halawa**, and put it on the ledge. The stork came and snatched it, so she jumped and snatched his tail.

“Give me my tail back” cried the stork.

“Give me back my halawa” she answered.

So they went for judgement to the Khadi of Islam.

“Khadi’l Islam, Khadi’l Islam!”

“Alaykum- al-salam.”

Peace be with you the Khadi replied.

“My name is Qasayruna.”

“What a pretty name.”

“And I live in a tiny house.”

“That befits a tiny dame.”

“I swept it.”

“How very tidy.”

“I sprinkled it.”

“How very cool.”

“I found a penny.”

“How very lucky.”

“I bought some halawa.”

“How very sweet.”

“I put it on the ledge.”

“How very elevating.”

“The stork came and snatched it!”

“How very infuriating.”

“So I snatched his tail!”

“That settles it very well.”

*Qasayruna means little one.

**Halawa is a sweet made from sesame oil and sugar.


The Jews of Iraq were bilingual in Judeo-Arabic and the local dialect of the Muslim majority (the more educated were also fluent in classical- standard Arabic). They would speak one language in the home and the other outside. In later years when they felt vulnerable and afraid they did so in order not to draw attention to themselves. Emile Cohen told me “there was a certain degree of humiliation, we had to change our dialect and our name…to hide our Jewishness.”

Unfortunately this wonderful and colourful dialect, which contains borrowings from Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish and Persian, is fast disappearing as the speakers grow older and pass away. However, Eli Timan (who came to England from Bagdad in 1959), has been working on a life-long project to preserve it. He has recorded over 100 hours of audio interviews with Iraqi Jews about their life in Iraq stretching from the 1920s to 2003, transcribing and translating some of them into English. These have been archived at SOAS language archives library, ELAR (The Endangered Language Archive) in London. You can hear some of his fascinating field recordings here and read more about his work here.

He writes Since the start of the project in 2006, sadly, twenty two of the people recorded have passed away, which underlines the urgency of this work as competent speakers are disappearing fast.

There is now a growing interest by 3rd generation Iraqi Jews in learning the language and efforts are being made in Canada and Israel to teach it. However, it needs an organised proper system of teaching and financial backing for revitalising the language.

If it succeeds, then future generations of Iraqi Jews will have access to a rich literature, both oral and written and continue to enjoy 2,600 years worth of culture and traditions in Iraq.”



Kanoun al-Nisa (‘The Law of Women’)

Kanoun al-Nisa (‘The Law of Women’) by Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, above, was written in Arabic but reproduced in Hebrew characters. This copy, found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive in the Baghdad secret police headquarters, was printed in Livorno over 100 years ago. There is presently some controversy as to who owns this amazing archive. After their invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Americans found this treasure trove in a basement of Saddam’s secret police where it was rotting underwater. There were photos, parchments and cases to hold Torah scrolls; a Jewish religious book published in 1568; 50 copies of a children’s primer in Hebrew and Arabic; books in Arabic and English, books printed in Baghdad, Warsaw and Venice and other fascinating minutiae of the community’s everyday life. After approval by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the archive was moved to the US for preservation. Now it has been digitised the Americans have to return it – but to where? There are only 5 or 6 Jews left in the whole of Iraq. One place that desperately wants it is the Babylonian Museum in Israel that is solely dedicated to Iraqi Jews. Then Jewish scholars can finally have easy access to the materials.

A personal appeal about the archive is here. For those of you interested, a petition asking for the archive not to be sent back to Iraq has been set up here.


11 thoughts on “My Grandmother’s stories

  1. I have a little prayer handbook that my late Mother Hanina Hay gave me where an Arabic transliteration of each page is shown.(Hebrew writing for statements in Arabic). I can send to Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is really wonderful listening to your grandmother telling the tale. As for the English translation it resonates as much as the Iraqi Jewish dialect. Great job archiving these tales in old wonderful voices.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How could you tire of her lovely calming voice? That takes me back to my grand mother telling us the story of the cow and the lion where the cow scares the lion regardless of his power and strength.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wondeful,Carol,all your late aunts, uncles and dear uncle Ikey ( your father) and auntie Claire, ( your mother) would have been so proud of your amazing vision to preserve Baghdadi Jewish culture so well and with such great love.
    Cousin Ann

    Liked by 1 person

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