It seems I just can’t get enough of Levantine Jewish memoirs; after polishing off Aciman and Sciaky, I’ve embarked on The Last Jews in Baghdad by Nissim Rejwan, about his family’s life in Iraq before the mass exodus of the Jews in 1951. (I came to Rejwan via a recommendation by my man Ammiel Alcalay, who quotes him enticingly in his wonderful After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture.) You can read the first chapter here; I’ll quote this illuminating description of the hib, or terracotta water filter:

Whether drawn from taps or brought by the saqqa directly from the banks of the bountiful River Tigris, which ran right in the middle of the city dividing it into its two parts—Al-Risafa to the east of the river and Al-Karkh to its west—there remained the problem of where to keep the water clean and relatively cool. This was the easier part. On its arrival, the precious liquid was poured directly into a huge earthenware container usually standing in a prominent place in the inner courtyard. The hib—that is how it was called in colloquial Iraqi Arabic—was a center of attention and of a significance second only to that of the kitchen. Placed strategically in the shade, it was always carefully covered with a wooden top to keep away flies, mosquitoes, and other natural intruders from the air.

The hib was a many-faceted device. Apart from keeping the water clean and fit for drinking it also served as a kind of primitive refrigerator. The water was always cool thanks to the breeze which, no matter how burning hot it was itself, always managed to cool the outside of the hib by contact with its damp walls. Moreover the hib, which was rounded and with a very narrow base, was placed on a sturdy wooden “cage” with small holes that, while permitting the draught to circulate inside and out, kept the place out of reach of scorpions, cockroaches, snakes, and certain other intruders from land. It was in this “cage,” qafas, that some of the most valuable necessities were tucked away. Besides the special jug that was placed right under the hib‘s base to gather the water dripping therefrom, there was ample space in it to accommodate pots, bottles, and plates containing cooked meals, milk, yogurt, liquid medications, and fruit and vegetables, which were preserved in reasonable coolness through the sweltering heat of summer and kept out of harm’s reach. The qafas also prevented the cats from reaching the meats and the milk products. Ice and ice boxes were introduced only in the 1930s and were used in the better-off households to preserve meats, vegetables, and fruits.

This segues into a description of how people dealt with snakes, which they were forbidden by custom to harm (“In certain households, again, the mistress of the house left a plate of milk around so that a snake drinking it would become pacified and friendly to members of the household. In such cases the mother chants, ‘O snake of the house, do not do us harm and we won’t harm you!'”) I’m thoroughly enjoying it, even though the haphazardly transliterated Arabic sometimes gives me a hard time (in the book he calls his native neighborhood “Abu Shibil”; in this essay he uses the more accurate Abu Shibl).

And as lagniappe, in the course of investigating his “tcharkhatchi” (‘night watchman’), I discovered WikIraqi, which has an Expressions page that includes an entry:


Pronounced [CHARKHACHI]

الحارس أو الناطور الليلي. أيضاًأسم لعائلة عراقية معروفة. أصل الكلمة من اللغة التركية.

A night guard. Also the name of a well-known Iraqi family. The word is of Turkish origin.

The coverage is spotty and some of the explanations dubious, but it’s a valuable resource.

Oh, and if anyone can tell me more about the word hib or the Turkish origin of charkhachi (I presume it includes the –ji suffix), I’ll be grateful.


  1. According to Jacob Mansour’s “The Jewish Baghdadi Dialect” (and my Persian dictionary) čarx = “wheel”, its Turkish cognate being çark. How that lead to “night watchman”, I cannot say, so this is probably a dead end.
    FYI, Mansour gives – or rather his informants do – “naṭūġ” (naṭūr) for “watchman”.

  2. I’m reminded of T.E. Lawrence’s comment in the introduction to Seven Pillars of Wisdom that he deliberately transliterates all his Arabic words inconsistently in order to show what shite transliteration systems are: to the proofreader’s comment of the form “on p. 32 is XXX, but on p. 64 is YYY” he writes “Good. Also should use ZZZ, WWW, and QQQ.”

  3. eli timan says

    Another word for night watchman (used during the Ottoman rule and decades after) is Passwaan.
    For an interesting description of the hib (pronounced Heb where H is the pharyngeal phoneme, much like what you emit when you are strangled!, plural Hbiib)see the website: with lots of paintings of the Jewish way of life in the 1920s. Heb also means love in jewish Arabic, plural Hbaayeb. I will research the origin of the first Heb, undoubtedly turkish or Persian.
    You should also read :’The mother of the pound’ by david Kazzaz (if you can still get hold of it). it is by far the most detailed descriptor of Jewish life in iraq in the first half of the last century, written in english as a personal story.
    Good hunting!

  4. I’m reminded of T.E. Lawrence’s comment
    Yes, it’s a classic:
    Q: I attach a list of queries raised by F. who is reading the proofs. He finds these very clean, but full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names, a point which reviewers often take up. Will you annotate it in the margin, so that I can get the proofs straightened?
    A: Annotated: not very helpfully perhaps. Arabic names won’t go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some ‘scientific systems’ of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.
    Q: Slip 1. Jeddah and Jidda used impartially throughout. Intentional?
    A: Rather!
    Q: Slip 15. Bir Waheida, was Bir Waheidi.
    A: Why not? All one place.
    Q: Slip 20. Nuri, Emir of the Ruwalla, belongs to the ‘chief family of the Rualla.’ On Slip 23 ‘Rualla horse,’ and Slip 38, ‘killed one Rueli.’ In all later slips ‘Rualla.’
    A: Should have also used Ruwala and Ruala.
    Q: Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.
    A: Good.
    Q: Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.
    A: She was a splendid beast.
    Q: Slip 53. ‘Meleager, the immoral poet.’ I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.
    A: Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.
    Q: Slip 65. Author is addressed ‘Ya Auruns,’ but on Slip 56 was ‘Aurans.’
    A: Also Lurens and Runs: not to mention ‘Shaw.’ More to follow, if time permits.
    Q: Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein.
    A: Good egg. I call this really ingenious.

  5. eli: Thanks very much for the information and the recommendation! I found a website for the book; unfortunately, they want $45 for it, which seems like an awful lot. I hope some publisher picks it up and does a paperback reprint.

  6. The start of the relevant chapter in Ochsenschlager is in Google Books, with photo.
    Here is Lane (right-hand column about half-way down). He says it is from Persian. Steingass says خب is unsupported by examples; but there is خابئة.

  7. … and here (493.) is Horn on خنب / خم.

  8. I loved this book! There’s one point where he just keeps going on about a particular kind of bulgur-wheat dumpling, and the ethically awkward behaviour he would indulge in to get them.

  9. Excellent sleuthing, MMcM! And you’ve given me a couple of valuable bookmarks.

  10. Shoot, I can’t access Horn from here and same story with this one, which contains the word “charkhaji” and explains it as “skirmishers, voltigeurs”.
    Both Wehr and my Arabic-Russian dictionary give خبأ [xaba’a] for “hide, conceal” (I and II for Ar-RU, only II for Wehr), with optional gerund خبء [xub’] and [xab’] = “something hidden”. The Russian dictionary also lists the aforementioned خابئة as “large jar, vat or tank”.

  11. I dunno what’s up with Horn; it’s Full View for me. You want a PDF download?
    I also got stymied by Snippet View when I went after his Judeo-Persian Is. 13:12 (being actually unclear what word it translated). Even worse, WorldCat is confused and thinks a whole bunch more libraries have it than the one that actually does. (Their language tags are a bit embarrassing, too.)

  12. MMcM,
    please please.
    I’m assuming it’s a copyright issue or something like that – the library which owns the scan copy only allows access to IPs from United States/Canada.

  13. The water cooler works by evaporation, of course, and is surprisingly effective. The standard issue Israeli army water bottle works the same way, by having a fabric jacket that can be soaked at the time of filling.

  14. marie-lucie says

    In France there is a type of unglazed pitcher called un alcarazas, obviously a word of Arabic origin. Before everyone had refrigerators, people in the Southern part of the country used these pitchers to keep water cool in summer. My grandparents had one, made of a dull white clay, in which water was kept for drinking.

  15. eli timan says

    I promised to research the origins of the word Heb or hib, thinking it was persian or turkish. I should have known better because persian and turkish , both non-semitic would not have the phyringeal H sound. It is arabic in fact (see Al-Munjid Arabic to Arabic dictionary) It is defined as ‘a big jug or Al-Khabiya). Al-KhAbiya is translated as a large jar. ‘Bint el KhAbiya’ (daughter of KhAbiya) is the name given to wine, no doubt as it was the habit in roman times to transport wine in Amphoras. The nearest verb associated with it, is to hide/ protect/secure, reinforcing MMcm’s point above which he may have stumbled across it by chance entering KH instead of Pharyngeal H. Got the result though! well done MMcm.
    Charkh means wheel. I speculate that the word Charkhachi means the one who goes round (the watchman making his rounds).

  16. eli: Thanks again for your excellent research!

  17. A “Texas air conditioner”, I am told, was an electric fan blowing through a dense mat of fibers kept soaking wet. Such things work well in climates with high heat but low humidity. (Here on the ocean they’d be worse than useless.)

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