Spring in the air

Nice weather at last. Spring on the Riviera – the sky is blue, the birds are singing and the frogs are croaking. All the fragrant flowers are out, and it is quite heady. The wisteria, the pittosporum, the orange and lemon blossom and even the gardenia – the favourite of all flowers to the Iraqi Jews. We keep a beauty on our balcony.

But on Monday, we’ll be in London and they say the weather is improving there too. And the good news today is that Phil Brown of Frontline Club has said that Inigo Gillmore does not object if we sell a few books at event next Monday showing his documentary  The last Jew of Babylon. Don’t forget, Monday 28 April, Frontline at 7.30pm 13 Norfolk Place, London W2, Tel. 020 7479 8943.  See you there. — Mira

Press reviews

As a self published book it is even more important for us to have reviews in the Press, and we’re still keeping our fingers crossed that one of the big papers in the UK may carry a line or two soon. We are hoping that an established publisher will want the rights to publish in the USA or a paperback edition in the UK, and any review will help us in that aim.

The book is now listed on Ha-Safran (“The Librarian”, in Hebrew).  This is a listing that goes to librarians around the world who are interested in books on Jewish matters. But how does one get one’s book into the various university libraries?  If only just in the “Oriental Studies” section of every English-speaking university…

Not complaining though, because some readers have been posting their reviews on both Google books and the Amazon website.— Mira

Film news


We have heard of a short documentary to be shown at the Frontline Club in London next Monday, 28 April, called “The last Jew of Babylon” by journalist filmmaker Inigo Gilmore. It sounds very interesting.

The Last Jew of Babylon is the story of Ezra Levy, an elderly Iraqi Jew and his journey to Israel to find Daisy, a long lost lover…Once there, Ezra challenges the assumption that in an anti-Semitic world, Jews are better off in Israel than elsewhere. He is proud of his heritage, both Iraqi and Jewish, but struggles to overcome the cultural differences in his new homeland.
As a tolerant man in an intolerant society, he finds he no longer quite fits in Israel – an Arab-Jew in a land where even those who once lived in Iraq have lost touch with their Arabic roots and now no longer even speak the language. Yet he struggles on, determined to find his love, and keep a mischievous grin on his face while he does it.
In a very personal account, Inigo Gilmore befriends Ezra and follows him as he tracks Daisy down, bringing the old man’s journey to life.
But is Daisy alive and can anyone live up to a 50-year-old ideal?

Time: 7.30pm. Location: 13 Norfolk Place, London, W2 1QJ


Pessah,  Passover.  Hope you had a good one.

One of our readers has been commenting on the number of Hebrew words that crept into our Judeo Arabic. Only a few are mentioned in the book, but I had not thought of Hiddush — which we use as meaning good news. Comes from Haddashot in Hebrew.

Another reader commented on the superstitions that prevailed, and Mother expanded on in the book.  In particular when “crushing the evil eye” his family would say “Ib ayn el ‘adou”  In the eye of the enemy!

Talking of the book,  one embarrassing error was not picked up in time.  We say the Jewish population in 1941 was 300,000  — that should have read 150,000. —Mira

Smoked out

What a change the smoking ban in public places has made to our enjoyment of restaurant meals. Eating out used to be such a lottery: even when seated at ‘non-smoking’ tables you could never be sure of avoiding passing clouds (reminds me of the old days, flying Iberia. When it introduced segregation it was ‘Smoking on the left, non-smoking on the right.’ Truly.)

In France we thought things would get better when they decreed restaurants must have a smoke-free seating area. Net result: it was always a dingy back room, never the good part of the establishment. 

All that changed on January 1 this year when smoking in restaurants was outlawed completely, both in France and England. (In France, reluctantly, after a year’s grace for the last-gasp brigade.) We travel between the two countries so much we now take it for granted  — so it came as a shock yesterday to find someone next to us lighting up, exhaling like a steam engine, and nobody batting a blind eye to this blatant breach of the law.
Worse, the cigarette in question was actually being shared by a couple:  a drag by monsieur — pass  — a drag by madame — pass . . . with the effect of  a chimney fire. All this, at the upscale Café de Paris, Monaco, to which we had repaired for a late lunch. This, I hasten to add, is not our usual habitat: we were visiting the principality in our quest to find support for the idea of publishing  Arabic and Hebrew editions of Memories of Eden.

The suitably snooty head waiter seemed surprised when we called his attention to this outrage. There is no such smoking ban in Monaco, apparently. I guess it helps account for the nicotine effect on the Belle Epoque stained glass that surrounded us. – Tony

New work in progress

Tony is working very hard at renewing the website on his first book. It tells all about our Tuscan adventure (1989-2002) when we became “farmers”? “Chatelains”? Call us what you will… we spent quite a number of years restoring a medieval farmhouse and once that was done we ended up with 12 agriturismo apartments, a master house and a winery…We had never renovated such a huge project before, never hosted paying guests before, never made olive oil before and certainly never made wine before.

The book is Catching Fireflies, published by Random House. Why catching fireflies? Because it was probably what led us into this folly in the first place. It was early summer, we were driving back from a magical dinner in the Tuscan countryside with a couple of friends. Suddenly I thought I could see little pinpricks of lights winking at me. The rest of the party asked how many glasses of wine I had had. But Tony obligingly stopped the car and switched off the headlights. It was one of those sublime moments that happen so rarely in one’s life that it stays engraved on your mind forever.

There were two poppy fields on either side of the road and hundreds of thousands of pinpricks of light were flashing on and off as they moved about in complete silence enveloping us as they weaved around. We were entranced, and could only talk in whispers as they landed on us and continued to flash. It was so dark you hardly knew where earth finished and the firmament started.

The website should be ready soon. Watch this space! – Mira

Iraqi museums

A fascinating article appeared in the Sunday Times: “Days of Plunder” about the looting of the Iraqi museums in the aftermath of the present war. What a heartbreak for all the people of the world. This is World Heritage we are talking about here! Saddest of all is a beautiful ivory plaque from Nimrud circa 800BC which is still missing.

It has always been a cherished dream of mine to one day go to Iraq with Tony, as a tourists, to admire and take in this rich and wonderful heritage. That dream seems to be receding further than ever. – Mira

English or French?

Yesterday I spoke to my cousin Sa’ida who just finished reading the book. She told me how it evoked the old days so vividly for her, how she particularly enjoyed all the lexicon containing many words she had all but forgotten. Sa’ida was curious to know if mother had written in English or French. The answer was in English. You see, after she left Baghdad we lived in India where my sister and I had Indian Ayahs who spoke to us in English only. My sister Lena also went to an English nursery school – so our parents were obliged to converse with us in English. We went on to Palestine, Cyprus, Israel and eventually London – schooling was predominantly English. Once we moved to London in 1964 English became so matter of course, that she even alternated writing to her siblings and her father, Baba, between English and French.

One thing stood in Sa’ida’s mind, though. The description of the events leading to Baba’s exile during the First World War. Violette tells how it was dangerous to stay in Baghdad for fear of being conscripted by the Ottomans. So Baba and a few male friends made the dangerous trek through northern Iraq and into Iran. Sa’ida’s own paternal grandad stayed in Baghdad. The first time the Ottomans came for him he was able to bribe them and they left him alone. But then they came back early one morning and nabbed him as well as the Shamash at prayer at the synagogue. They were never seen again, and the family never found out what happened to them.

Violette says that when the Ottomans were faced with defeat at the hands of the British, they turned on the recruits and killed them all.

Funnily enough my friend Lyn also found this bit interesting. Her grandfather, Eliahu Meir, was with Baba Menashe on the trek when they were stopped by Russian soldiers. It seems Eliahu Meir also dined out on this story for many years. – Mira

Lost in translation

I’m still struggling to come to terms with French and Italian (that, having lived more than a quarter-century in the two countries). So when someone asks me, ‘Are you translating your book into Hebrew?’ my eyes glaze.

Bless you anyway, Shahar, for your very kind email today:

The Iraqi (former)-Jewish community who lives in Israel contain a few hundreds thousands.
Are you planning to publish a Hebrew edition of the book? I think there is a crave for literature which deals with the lives of this large, active and prosperous community.
Please let me know if it’s on your scope.

You bet it is. And an Arabic version too – and I’m not joking.

We are really keen to have an Israeli publisher pick up the (non-Olympic) torch and run with it. (Stand in line here pls…). Meanwhile our dear friend and mentor, Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been talking with his professorial colleagues around the world and a version of our ‘trade information sheet’ (aka advert) has been translated into Arabic.

I confess it is a corner of the market Mira and I had completely overlooked. But why not? Violette’s book is most definitely not a polemic, just a lovely narrative of how harmonious life used to be in an Iraq where inter-faith relations were based on mutual respect. Irrespective of religion I think everyone who lived through that period, and their descendants, would benefit from her personal account of their communal heritage. Let’s go for it.

A professor in Germany is travelling to the Middle East right now, clutching the above-mentioned advert. But I do wonder, would our efforts be better directed towards Beirut or Cairo? He’s going to Baghdad.

Answers please!