Book Review 1

Full Circle

Escape from Baghdad and the ReturnBack to Book Reviews

Saul Fathi’s autobiography, Full Circle…is a page turner. It fascinates for several salient reasons. Let us count the ways. Since the vast majority of literature concerning Jewish history is about, as well as by, Ashkenazim. Fathi’s account offers a perspective from the neglected matrix of Sephardic culture. The narrative reads like a picaresque novel with the narrator weaving a tapestry of adventure, near death experience, dare-deviltry, and survival. Another compelling reason to read this book is to observe a wandering Jew in modern clothes.

Born in Iraq to an upper-middle class family, the Fathi family enjoyed la dolce vita(the good life). Saul’s father, the patriarch ran a railroad station and provided an elegant life-style for his large family. While his wife bore children and ran an efficient household with servile assistants. Silas Fathi enjoyed the company of male peers and, as his son intimates, the comforts of attractive women at local clubs. Then the birth of Israel in 1948 arrived to spoil this almost Edenic life of affluent Iraqi Jews.

When Israel ousted Arab armies from the Promised Land, they administered a powerful blow to Iraqi pride. Seeking scapegoats, leaders turned their sights on local Jewry. One prominent Jew, Shafiq Addas was tried as a traitor and hung. A family friend Yehuda Saddik, only twenty three years old, confessed under duress that he was an Israeli spy and he too was hung. Patriarch Silas Fathi insisted that his son witness this public execution. Fearing further execution, the family went into hiding. Shortly thereafter, Saul and his young brother were squirreled out of Iraq in a high risk escape that cost the life of an infant a fellow-traveler on the road to freedom. After a brief stay in Iran, brothers Fathi found their way into Israel. Life on a kibbutz proved challenging for Saul, an adventurous spirit. And before he could plant deep roots after eleven years in Israel where he enjoyed an excellent education and labor for the Israeli Air Force, Saul ventured to Brazil. There he learned to cope with new challenges and taste the heady wine of love. A young man with shpilkes (ants in one’s pants), he came to America.

Here, more adventures with women and encounters with employers added Saul’s resume. Life in Greenwich Village proved exciting but the young and restless Fathi decided to see more of the world in a U.S. Army uniform. Promise of free education, board, and travel proved irresistible. Stationed in Korea, Private Fathi sampled the local color that embraced Korean as well as Japanese females. Upon his return to America, Saul found his life’s partner, a lovely twenty year-old woman Rachelle Gertel, daughter of Ashkenazim: both Holocaust survivors. Having sowed wild oats, Saul finally settled down. The marriage produced three accomplished daughters. Saul employed his multi-lingual skills and business acumen to achieve the American Dream in suburban Long Island.

Yet not all was well in suburbia. Saul alludes to business failure and bouts of depression. The death of relatives and friends led to a malaise which required psychological treatment. Fathi refuses to conceal life’s disappointments. His sense of humor is manifest throughout. One incident in the U.S. Army provoked laughter at Saul’s own expense. Saul literally tried “to shoot the shit” until he was informed that the phrase referred to intimate discussion, not fecal elimination.

Fathi’s story falls short of perfection. As in the Nixon Watergate Tapes, there are gaps. At one point, the narrative leaps from 1965 to 1981. A curious reader might want to know what happened in these years. To be sure, Saul venerates his father Silas; but he also shines some light on the double standard that Iraqi men of means, including Jews, operated under. Embedded in his recollections is a sense that father and son never fully resolved their issues so to speak.  In a more positive vein, however, the author provides important historical background for the various places that he inhabits and the decades that illuminate his life. Although this candid autobiography will not win a Pulitzer Prize for literature, it is often riveting and always provocative. Given the extraordinary range of Saul Silas Fathi’s experience that now covers more than seven decades, one should not be surprised if art imitates life in a play or a movie not to mention a sequel to this profoundly engaging saga.

Joseph Dorinson,
Long Island University

Leave a Comment

{ 0 comments… add one now }