The incredible story of the uncovering of Saddam Hussein’s trove of priceless Jewish artifacts
Tewfik Boulenouar describes his awakening to the sacred in a place of evil, with the discovery of startling Jewish artifacts.
It was May 2003. The place, Baghdad.
The MET-Alpha task force, searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction, stood outside the Mukhabarat – the offices of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence center and secret police.
The building had been bombed and the whole structure was shaky; indeed, a huge bomb had cut through its floors and lay half-buried and unexploded just outside. Looters were still inside, ripping out whatever they could take.
The plumbing had burst; the basement was flooded with water and sewage.
A Mukhabarat official had secretly approached the Iraqi opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi, and asked for a promise of safe passage in exchange for information about what lay in the basement. He said that two rooms dedicated to intelligence about Israel and the Jewish community in Iraq held a huge trove of historical documents, including a 7th-century Torah scroll.
The scroll was there – and much, much more. There were thousands of documents illustrating centuries of Iraqi Jewry’s history. Saddam Hussein had taken them by force from the synagogue where they’d been stored for safekeeping.
Chalabi immediately turned to Harold Rhode, then the Coalition Provisional Authority liaison to the Iraqi opposition.
Together with three soldiers – Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, reservist and interpreter Tewfik Boulenouar, and Sergeant First Class Lou Diaz – and several journalists, they ventured into the flooded basement.
“We went down there, and from the stairs we saw the flooding,” says Boulenouar in a recent telephone interview.
Gonzales waded in and led the way.
“It was funny the way Gonzales did it,” recalls Boulenouar with a chuckle.
“He chose Diaz, who was a specialist in WMDs. And he said, ‘And you, Tewfik, because you’ve got a big mouth.’ I was always glued to his side, because of my fluent Arabic.”
Boulenouar was 48 when he was sent to Iraq as a translator. An American citizen since his twenties, he’d grown up in Morocco and Algeria.
“My parents were Algerian, political exiles in Casablanca. They were wanted by the French because they were activists for Algerian independence. After independence in 1963, we left Morocco and moved back,” he says.
“In Casablanca, I lived in a building with French, Moroccan, Italian and Jewish people,” he adds. “Everybody spoke French and Darija, the local Moroccan dialect. We were a close-knit community, so I experienced a mixture of people from an early age.”
Boulenouar has fond memories of a Jewish babysitter, a woman who lived across the hall.
“In her home, I was really exposed to Jewish culture. I saw their menorahs, sat with them at their festival meals. What I really remember, more than anything,” he admits, “was the food.”
He has lived in the US since 1974, serving in the army as a paratrooper.
After 9/11, he explains, “I felt I had to reenlist as a reservist. I was 48, divorced, with two daughters, the younger only five. I got called up and was deployed to Iraq as an Arabic interpreter. I had to do all kinds of things. Once, my team was stuck in a crazy traffic jam in Baghdad. I was the one with the Arabic, so I got out and started directing the traffic so we could get out of there and move on.”
It was a risky thing to do, as the man in the American army uniform was an easy target as he stood in the thick of a traffic snarl.
A few months later, Boulenouar found himself in the Mukhabarat basement.
“The water was up to our waists. It was filthy with
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