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Savta’s Back From The War Zone

Aharon Granevich-Granot

She would stop at nothing to retrieve the ancient Torah scrolls left behind decades ago in the Kurdish village, but would she succeed in her mission? Sarah Hatan, a feisty grandmother many times over, snuck herself across the Iraqi border to confront the qadi who refused to give up the holy parchment — claiming it protected him from Saddam’s wrath.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The walls of the homes still standing were plastered with colorful posters in Arabic, their festive appearance clashing ironically with the desperate situation on the street. Each poster showed a smiling Saddam Hussein in army uniform, holding a rifle and calling on Iraqi citizens to stand strong. And amid all this, a woman was pounding on the office door of the local qadi, the village’s Islamic religious judge.

Two men emerged and asked what she wanted. They weren’t used to women coming to the office on their own, let alone knocking so insistently.

“Tell the qadi that Sarah Hatan from Israel wants to see him urgently,” the woman announced.

A Jewish woman? From Israel? In the middle of the war? They were shocked, but Qadi  Ali Hassan, curiosity getting the better of him, ushered her in.

Sarah Hatan, at the time an energetic grandmother in her sixties, strode confidently into the judge’s office. Without giving him a chance to say a word, she announced, “I’m here for the Torah scrolls from Koi Sanjaq’s synagogue. They belong to the Jews. I am a member of the Jewish community that made aliyah to Israel in 1950. I have come to get back our Torah scrolls.”

“How do you know there are any Torah scrolls here?” Ali Hassan asked in astonishment. When he’d agreed to receive her, he’d quickly considered every possibility for her visit — except this one.

Sarah Hatan, now eighty, relives that daring meeting from her home in Moshav Shetulah along Israel’s northern border. “When I got to the beit knesset in Koi Sanjaq and saw that the Sifrei Torah were gone,” says Mrs. Hatan, who with her daughters, runs an authentic Kurdish restaurant from her home. “I started asking people if they knew or had seen where the Sifrei Torah had disappeared to. Someone told me he knew where they were, but he wanted $20 to show me. For me, that wasn’t much; for him, it was a month’s salary. He was the one who brought me to the qadi’s office.”

Ali Hassan stood up, opened the nearby cupboard, and took out a Sefer Torah wrapped carefully in white material. “Listen,” the qadi said to her, “here’s the one Torah scroll I know about, but I can’t give it to you.”

“The Sefer Torah he showed me,” Sarah relates, “had forty-two segments and was written on the finest deer parchment. Its script was excellent, its letters still clear black; it was truly beautiful to see. I tried to imagine the rejoicing that would take place in the  moshav when I returned with it.”

Sarah took $2,000 in cash from her pocket and put it on his desk. The kadi gasped. He had apparently never seen such a sum in his life, and probably never would again. He hesitated for a moment, but told her, “Listen, Madam. I truly admire your courage. Not every person, and certainly not every woman, would come here in the middle of a war to get back a Torah scroll. But my life is more important than all that money.

“This Torah scroll is guarding us. Both the Turks and Saddam Hussein are at war with us. The Americans bombed the place out. Only my office has remained whole. Do you know why? Because this is the only place that has a Torah scroll. I’m positive that if I gave it to you now, by tomorrow this building would also be destroyed. But I promise that I’ll return it to you if things ever calm down.”

“Nothing helped,” Sarah relates in our interview. “The qadi wouldn’t give me the Sefer Torah — not for all the money in the world. This was a risky trip and I had to come home empty-handed.”


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