On her last flight from New York to Baghdad, Carole Basri’s carry-on weighed nearly 40 pounds. Forged of cast iron, her special cargo arrived via Kuwait in a C-130 transport plane, well in advance of its scheduled mission: To serve as the Chanukah menorah at Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in Saddam Hussein’s former palace.
“The plane before us — rockets were shot at it,” Basri, a New York-based lawyer doing legal work for the authority, said.
Basri had brought the lamp at the request of Frank E. Wismer III, head chaplain at the palace, who wanted it for Chanukah celebrations beginning this week, just days after U.S. troops captured the former Iraqi dictator in his underground hideout. “The first place we set it up was Saddam’s throne room,” Basri said.
“Hanukiah with Pomegranates, ” which stands 14 inches high and has candleholders in the form of the ripe, seeded fruit, was made for the occasion by Oded Halahmy, a Baghdad-born sculptor who works in Soho and Old Jaffa.
“The symbolism of something made by an Iraqi Jew in the royal palace that Saddam made his palace — that’s very significant,” said Basri, whose great-grandfather was Baghdad’s chief rabbi.
Col. Wismer made his own symbolic connection. In a letter to Halahmy, he wrote that personnel working at the palace “are experiencing something akin to what the Jews must have experienced when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and put an end to the pagan worship that had desecrated the temple.”
“This year,” Wismer wrote, “Chanukah will not only be a remembrance of our salvation history, but the celebration of our shared experience here in Baghdad.”
Halahmy, whose family immigrated to Israel in 1951, remembers Baghdad as a “garden of Eden.” He is currently working on a book of photographs to document Jewish holy sites — many in towns now familiar to Americans, like Mosul and Kirkuk. “This is something not to do with politics,” Halahmy said, “but more to do with understanding other cultures.”
The sculptor has been invited to join in cultural activities planned for Baghdad. And when the situation settles in his birthplace, Halahmy hopes to open a Jewish information center there. Meanwhile, through the Oded Halahmy Foundation, he organizes musical and literary events featuring Arab-speaking artists and publishes books, including “Iraqi Poetry Today,” now in its second printing (Zephyr Press).
Halahmy won’t be in Baghdad for Chanukah. Instead, he’ll light candles on other of his artworks at public celebrations in New York and Tel Aviv. (See Arts Guide on page 50 for details.)
“The candelabrum is a symbol of peace and hope for the Jewish people,” Halahmy told The Jewish Week. “I wish the same thing for the Iraqi people.” n