Review: A Boy From Baghdad

A Boy from Baghdad

by Miriam Halahmy

Green Bean Books, 2024

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Sarah Sassoon

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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.” Unfortunately, the Middle Eastern life and mindset of Salman’s family is sorely challenged in Israel. The way things were done in Iraq is not the way of Israel. His determined, smart sister Naima joins a kibbutz, and Salman and his wheeler-dealer cousin Latif are left to fend for themselves and their families. There is the bitter breakdown of family structure and security, and the grievous shame Salman and his family experiences with obnoxious Ashkenazi discrimination. Yet there is sweetness, the knowledge that they are safe in Israel, with new opportunities and experiences for young people that weren’t allowed in Iraq. The story is also sweet with new friendships with Ashkenazi children from the Moadon youth club, and a very dear Holocaust survivor, the empathetic egg man from the kibbutz.

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.

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Reviewer Sarah Sassoon is an Australian, Iraqi Jewish writer, poet and educator. She is an editorial advisor for Distinctions: A Sephardi and Mizrahi Journal. Her debut picture book Shoham’s Bangle was named a Sydney Taylor Notable, and awarded the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. Her poetry micro-chapbook, This is Why We Don’t Look Back was awarded first place in Harbor Review’s Jewish Women’s poetry. Her forthcoming picture book is This is Not a Cholent (Kar-Ben Publishing), 2024. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four boys. Visit