SAMS Roots Interview – Andrew Hougie

Andrew Hougie

andrewAndrew joined SAMS in 2013. Here he mentions his Sephardi roots, talks about his Iraqi Jewish family and tells the story of a Turkish carpet:

I found SAMS through my wife Debbie, who has been a member for many years. I like SAMS’ warmth and friendliness, and I enjoy being involved with the community. We’re also members of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue because of my Sephardi heritage. There are some differences in the Sephardi service, but it wouldn’t be completely unrecognisable to someone from an Ashkenazi community.

My father Edward was a dental surgeon, brought up by his Iraqi parents in Manchester. One day his aunt rang and told him he was to attend a bridge dinner. The story goes that my mother was the only single female at that evening. That’s how things worked in the Baghdadi community! My father’s mother and her mother died in a car accident when he was a young man, so I never knew them. My paternal grandfather had a better death – he went out one evening, played bridge, walked home, went to sleep and didn’t wake up. According to our family tree, my parents are third cousins, but they didn’t know that until I pointed it out to them.

My mother, Aida, came to England from Iraq after the Second World War, following her brother who had arrived here to study some years earlier. For Jews in Baghdad life became very difficult following the creation of the State of Israel. At first many of the Arab countries didn’t want the Jews to leave as it was feared they’d go to Israel, become soldiers and fight against them. By about 1950 that changed and they wanted to send as many as possible to Israel so that Israel wouldn’t be able to cope. The law said that Iraqi Jews could leave but would have to forfeit their nationality, and their assets. Out of a Jewish population of around 130,000, it was not expected that many would go, but 110,000 Jews took up the offer. As a result my grandfather was involved in organising Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, although he and my grandmother chose to stay in Iraq at that stage. He was the first Director General of the Treasury and, together with his brother, he helped draft the Constitution. I think he was very emotionally connected to the Kingdom of Iraq.

While my grandparents were in the air on their way to England to visit their children, the first army coup took place, so my grandmother stayed here and never returned to Iraq. One of my grandfather’s roles in the Civil Service had been lecturing to army officer cadets and by the time of the coup these officer cadets were running the army – it was their coup. So he felt he could go back relatively safely to sell what he could, and bring back what he could, so he did this, leaving Iraq for the last time. My grandfather had been compulsorily retired when Jews were removed from all public positions in Iraq. He went from tending his very nice garden by the banks of the Tigris to a third-floor Chelsea flat with window boxes. In Baghdad my grandmother played bridge with ambassadors’ wives. When they came to London they were nobodies.


Andrew and his grandfather’s Turkish carpet

On the wall of the dining hall in my grandparents’ flat was a carpet which I’ve seen since I was very small. I understand that in 1922, after the First World War when the Ottoman Empire had been defeated, my grandfather was sent by King Faisal to represent the Kingdom of Iraq at a conference in Turkey involving negotiations on dealing with the Ottoman debt, so he went to help negotiate who was going to pay which parts of the debt. While in Turkey my grandfather bought the carpet in a market and took it back to Baghdad. It was one of the relatively few things that he was able to bring out of Iraq when they had to leave.

My grandmother wrote a note of explanation to my mother, which was framed along with a more legible typed version, so the carpet was obviously of emotional significance. The note, written on a relatively scrappy piece of paper, explains that the carpet is an exact copy of a five-hundred lira banknote denoted by the word ‘bis’, meaning copy, and that my grandfather bought it for ten Turkish Gold Lira, a huge price at the time. When my grandmother passed away and we were sorting out her affairs, my aunt, uncle and mother agreed that I could have the carpet, and so it’s been on our dining room wall ever since.

Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 6 April 2016