Memories of Eden is a vibrant and colourful tale of Jewish life in Baghdad from just after the turn of the 20th century until the terrifying days of the Farhud in 1941, which prompted Violette and her husband to leave Iraq. It is a fantastic read, full of humour and spell-binding story-telling, and tinged with the poignancy of the loss of a homeland, a community and an entire way of life.
Violette was born in 1912 into a wealthy Jewish family, and a Baghdad that was worlds apart from the violent and crumbling city we are presented with in newspapers and on television today. Soon after her birth, and after four centuries of Ottoman rule, the British took control of what became modern Iraq. The move was welcomed by the Jewish community who at that time made up 40% of the population in Baghdad. As Violette describes, ‘so important were our menfolk that when they shut their shops, banks and businesses for the Shebbath, commercial activity in the main street ceased…In this predominantly Muslim land, Saturday, not Friday, was in effect the Holy Day’.
In an intimate and familiar voice Violette describes frankly and vividly her feelings and memories of this lost world. To her young eyes it truly did feel like Eden. She talks of the stories her grandfather Heskel used to tell her ‘about the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, all of which were part of our fabulous heritage. And we were living right there.’ and her sense of pride and love for her birthplace is immensely powerful.
She brings alive the ‘primitive’ Baghdad of her early youth, with the ‘saqquas’, watersellers, hauling water in goatskins from the Tigris to supply each house. A time when a street’s name was simply the name of the richest family who lived there, and the narrow alleyways were filled with pedlars and barbers who as well as shaves an haircuts would offer less pleasant services such as ‘pulling teeth and lancing boils in full public view!’
As Violette grows, so too Baghdad flourishes and modernises. She describes a beautiful and civilised place where Jews, Muslims and Christians live in harmony. In each chapter she paints a picture of some of the most important elements of Baghdadi Jewish life in rich and tantalising detail – home life in the qasr (large house) built by her father and the glorious summer nights spent sleeping on the roof, the Sabbath and other Haggim filled with sumptuous foods and much entertaining, getting up to mischief at the Laura Khedouri School for Girls and the traditions surrounding marriage – Violette herself married David Shamash in 1937, an arranged match as was custom amongst the community at that time.
But this fondly recalled life was soon to be ripped apart by events taking place on a larger scale. In 1939 the world was at war, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who had been orchestrating a campaign of terrorist attacks on Jewish and British targets in Palestine, fled to Baghdad and began inciting hatred against the Jews there. The political climate was changing and local sympathies were swinging ever further towards the Germans.
Events were to reach a head when in 1941 a military coup led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani a ‘rabidly pro-Nazi lawyer’ seized control of Iraq. Over the following months things became rapidly worse for Jewish community culminating in two days of violence and murder – the Farhud – just as the British were about to regain control of the country.
Violette’s recollection of the Farhud is both gripping and tragic and by the end of those two days over 900 homes had been attacked, almost 600 Jewish shops had been looted and 187 people had lost their lives. Even more painful is the knowledge that British forces had been stationed just outside Baghdad during the chaos, but orders prevented them from entering and restoring peace to the city.
At the end of the book there is an excellent section written by Violette’s son-in-law examining the events occurring within British command that allowed this catastrophe.
After the nightmare of the Farhud, Violette and her husband decided Iraq no longer held any future for their family, and Violette movingly describes her flight out of Baghdad towards the uncertainty of a new life.
The rest of the family was eventually to follow, as in fact did all of this vibrant and ancient community now scattered across the world. In Violette’s own words, ‘Goodbye Baghdad. Farewell Babylon. Adieu Eden.’