Amazon customer reviews

A funny world, Amazon. As I’ve said, we’re listed on both sides of the Atlantic but each ‘house’ treats its products differently, albeit the same product. So our entry for ‘Memories’ on the American and Canadian sites carries ‘customer reviews’ — they are spontaneous, believe me — that bear no relation to those on the British site.

Elliot M, the subject of our last post, has given us a lovely write-up on Meanwhile, the following has recently appeared on, for which we are also truly grateful.

I really loved this book. Both of my parents were born in Iraq and witnessed first hand both the delightful times as well as the periods of intense fear and uncertainty.

It is awful that centuries of good will between Arabs and Jews were to be shattered by the rise of Nazism and the Arab alliance with Hitler.

Much can be learned about where we are headed today by learning about this story.

The signature is “waldo558” — a resident of Mendham, New Jersey.

Warm wishes from a correspondent

So far this year our travels to promote the book have taken us to events in London, Tel Aviv and Montreal. Towards the end of October we are planning a big trip to the USA and Canada again, with San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Toronto on the itinerary so far. More later as details firm up.

While the purpose of these events is to bring ‘Memories’ to the attention of a broader audience and sell books, one unexpected spinoff has been the way they have resulted in broken links being restored between people who have lost contact with one another. Most particularly, in Mira’s case, meeting up with long-lost relatives and friends whom she hasn’t seen since childhood. It’s a lovely surprise, greatly satisfying.

Mira has consequently acquired a whole new bunch of correspondents writing about family connections and the family tree. We have been particularly touched by an email this week from someone (who may or may not be a distant relation: she’s still trying to work it out) whose reaction to the book has been precisely what Violette was hoping for. She wrote with the younger generation in mind to make them aware of the bygone era which was so very different from the perception of the Middle East that is current today.

The message is from Elliot, a 30-year-old Londoner of Iraqi-Jewish extraction who has asked us to withold his surname. Here is an edited version.

Many thanks for the publication of ‘Memories of Eden,’ which I finished reading last week. I was so impressed that I’ve since ordered three more copies, to give to family and friends.

To me at least, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of the book.

In addition to being a pleasure to read, and an enlightening window to another world another time, ‘Memories of Eden’ gives a disarming human perspective to a forgotten chapter in an ongoing saga, the twists and turns of which continue to decide the fate of the world today.

As with all good books though, it just tells great stories well, which, through their good humour and humanity, challenge our preconceptions of other people and the way the world works.

Particularly with my generation, there’s little awareness about the way our grandparents lived, the food they ate or the language they spoke. That world would seem so ‘Arab’ to us, and as British Jews, we associate being ‘Arab’ with an image of a backward enemy — a character in a reconstructed narrative played out on the daily news.

Likewise, amongst young British Muslims or British Arabs, there’s almost no knowledge that Jews and their grandparents once lived peacefully together in the Middle East — that there wasn’t always a divided ‘them and us’, just as it wasn’t always Shia against Sunni.

This is made all the more prescient to me through my partner’s family, who are Syrian Muslims. Between our own group of friends, all with a link to the Middle East, we founded a small and fleeting ‘Arab-Jewish’ organization called Yalla!, which made the Guardian news during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

So why am I writing all this?

Firstly – to thank you both and your late mother for a beautifully written and enlightening book. Secondly, as someone constantly reminded of my relatively unknown heritage by my own appearance, to reach out and make contact for contact’s sake.

Thanks again.

All the best,

Elliot M

Thank you, Elliot.

This is London

At last, a chance to bring Memories of Eden more to the front, courtesy of the BBC.

The fate of the Jews who left their homes in Arab countries following the birth of Israel is not nearly as well known as it ought to be. The world hears of the plight of the Palestinians but what of the stories of the hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews, such as those who had to leave Iraq, who were forced out?

Mira has been asked to participate in a BBC radio discussion on the subject and went to a radio studio in Monaco today to pre-record a couple of readings from the book: one concerning the harmonious state of affairs that prevailed between the various religious communities in olden days; the other, a vivid extract about the 1941 pogrom, the Farhud.

BBC World Service radio will be broadcasting the programme in Newshour, which goes out at 12.05 GMT tomorrow, 21 June. If you miss it you can tune in here and listen at a more suitable time.

In addition the BBC has started a blog on which people can leave comments: Have your say.

London event

We’d like to draw everyone’s attention to something unusual taking place in London this Sunday, 22 June: a celebration of Jewish-Iraqi culture that is shaping up to be something both remarkable and unique.

The flyer explains it all. Well, nearly all. The organisers invited us to attend to give a talk about Memories of Eden. Naturally, we were delighted — but there was no way that Tony could make it from our home in the South of France as he has just had a hip replaced and is hopping around on crutches. Mira is going, however, and will be appearing on the platform alongside our old friend and mentor, Professor Shmuel Moreh from the Hebrew University.

So please give support, everybody!

Place: Ohel David Eastern Synagogue, 4-14 Broadwalk Lane, off Golders Green Rd, London, NW11 8HD. Nearest Tube: Golders Green on the Northern Line

Time: Registration – from 09:00 for the morning session which will finish at 13:00
– from 15:00 for the afternoon session which will finish at 19:00

Price: to include refreshments & traditional snacks: £20 per session

Reservations (advised as space is limited): or 0207 244 0222

Awafi! — Bon appétit (part 2)

Mira’s blog —
So, t’beet (or not t’beet, says Tony; that is the question, for you have to be very enthusiastic to want to make this dish. Preparation time is long and cooking time longer!) This is the chicken dish our mothers would prepare on Friday for the slow cooking necessary to have it ready for Saturday lunch. The bird was most likely to have been a hen as there was more to it and nothing was wasted.  She would use the giblets (gizzards and heart chopped small in the stuffing); in the hen she would also find eggs in different sizes waiting to mature and be laid one by one – these were also cooked with the rice.  But the prize was the membrane through which the egg was laid, beit il weld, the house of birth. This too would be stuffed!
So now, if you are serving a family you should use a chicken or a capon for a party. A word of warning: before you set off, make sure you have an oven-proof dish with a tight lid large enough to hold it all.
1 fowl (see above)
2 cups of basmati rice soaked for two hours
150 gms chopped lean meat (lamb, veal or beef)
4 medium sized red tomatoes chopped, or two cans of chopped tomatoes
3 tsp tomato purée
1 small onion finely chopped
 a generous amount of vegetable oil (or duck fat)
2 tsp salt
The spices:
half tsp cayenne or more (optional)
2 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp ground cinnamon
half tsp gr. cloves
half tsp pepper
half tsp ground cumin
half tsp allspice
half tsp nutmeg
To prepare the stuffing – hashwah
Parboil half a cup of  the rice then drain.  When cool, mix with the chopped meat, half the spices and 1 tsp salt. Stuff loosely into the cavity of the fowl and close it.
Put a large pot on a medium flame, heat the oil then add the chopped onion and the stuffed chicken and sauté till golden brown. Carefully remove the bird.  Now add the rest of the chopped tomatoes the remaining spices and salt. Add the tomato purée and two cups of water. As soon as it simmers, turn off the flame.
Now bring out the oven-proof dish, put some oil on the bottom, then add the hot liquid, add the remaining rice, and carefully place the chicken on top and close tightly and slip it into your pre-heated oven at 200º.
After 30 minutes turn the temperature down to 130º and cook for five hours, or longer depending on the size of the bird.
There should be a thick crust at the bottom – the pièce de resistance, the h’kaka. Take it out of the oven and let it rest 10 minutes without lifting the pan lid to loosen the crust.
To serve, place the bird at the centre of the serving dish with the rice all around and carefully arrange the crusty rice on top.  If the crust is stuck add little water to the bottom of the cooking dish and it should soon come off.
The two photos I reproduce here show the dish in all its glory. They are from a brilliant website and blog run by a New Yorker of Iraqi Jewish extraction which I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in pursuing the subject further. His recipe differs slightly from mine, but I think you’ll enjoy

There is a more complicated way of making this dish involving skinning the bird first.  Take a look at this video:

Awafi! – Bon appétit! (part 1)

Mira’s blog —

Still thinking about Montreal: Diana’s family was particularly wonderful in taking us under their wing, and making sure everyone knew of the event. Most impressive though was the totally awesome Iraqi dinner. I haven’t enjoyed such a feast in years.

My mother’s Baghdad was a world in microcosm where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side and ate much the same kind of food. However, each group followed its own traditions and prescribed ways of preparing certain dishes. I have a small collection of some of the recipes, handed down through the centuries, which have survived among Iraq’s Jews wherever they are today, thus ensuring that while the community is no more, its spirit lives on at the table.
Mother used to say: ‘ Don’t forget, getting a meal ready in the old days was a big operation; all food had to be bought from the market daily and then prepared. The vegetables still had mud on them, beans had to be shelled, meat cleaned and koshered, chickens emptied and koshered, fish scaled and gutted etc. Ice was brought in every day but unlike today’s fridges they could not really keep food fresh for longer than 24 hours.’
Many of the dishes were prepared in advance and benefited from being served an hour or more later. The daddy of them all was baked chicken with rice, otherwise known as t’beet (from tybeyet, overnight) when it was eaten for the Sabbath lunch. It was prepared on the Friday and cooked on cooling embers overnight. (The same dish cooked by faster means at other times was known as tannouri (from tannour, oven).
In Part 2 tomorrow I’ll tell you how to cook it.

It ain’t necessarily so

Mira’s blog:

The audience at Montreal was an encouraging mixed bunch, not just community members; Donna Lach and Anne Moffat did us proud. They made an announcement in the papers and the turnout was vastly superior to the number of bookings.

For me it was very moving, and I did so wish that my late mother could have known of the excitement she has caused. One elegant lady who made herself known, reminded me that our parents were great friends and we children had fun being of the same age and still in primary school.

At the show I casually informed the man I was dedicating a book to that my family knew an older man by the same surname in our Cyprus years. He turned out to be the son. His father Ezra was the first health food person to enter our lives nearly 60 years ago. He had worked out that the healthiest persons must have been living in biblical times, for example Methuselah lived over 900 years (as the song said “but who calls that livin’ when no gal’ll give in to no man what’s 900 years!”).

So Ezra sought out only organic foods, although they were not known as such then. And only foods that were mentioned in the Bible — that is to say, no New World foods, such as tomatoes and potatoes. For water, he would seek out the nearest spring and bring back containerfulls to last him a week. No wonder he made such an impression and passed into our family folklore. Among Mother’s possessions I found two small jars of a spice mixture carefully marked with his name. She must have saved them for over 50 years. I might put them on E-Bay.

And then there were relations and friends I had not seen in very many years who gave us a very warm welcome. With Tony some even formed a Manchester brigade!

And it was all possible only because Diana and Avner were so hospitable.

Vive le Québec libre!

Just back from Canada, and a fantastic time in Montreal (first visit). What great people, what a fine city. And we were so lucky with the weather — it only rained one day.

Our event, in Westmount public library, was 100% over-subscribed. A fantastic success (but so very sorry for those who were disappointed and had to stand outside in the corridor). The slideshow was the highlight,  a much-improved version of the small sample you can see here on the right and on the website.  There were many interesting questions about the book and old Baghdad. The books we shipped over for the talk all sold out, so now we are making arrangements privately to have a further small supply available. Watch This Space for details, or if you don’t want to wait for a copy please get it from Amazon (how to, on the right). 

Westmount is a lovely leafy suburb, and the library, built in the days of Queen Victoria, has undergone a massive facelift: a triumph of modernisation while maintaining the best of the old, such as the room in which we held our soirée, and the delightful greenhouse in the grounds.

As for Montreal itself, we liked: the broad streets with their trees and flower beds; the sense of space inside the department stores; the politeness and helpfulness we encountered everywhere; the life-size moose cut-outs lining Sherbrooke Street (they were just being installed, complete with a little name-plate that was still blank, prompting Tony to say they had to be Anonymoose); the Musée des Beaux Arts where they had two great shows: Cuba and Yves Saint Laurent (whose death we read about on our return home).  We disliked: the two taxes that are added to every marked price, putting it up by 15%;  the cost of wine in restaurants; the way pedestrian crossings at traffic lights are not always consistent. Some have a brilliant idea, a pictogram giving a countdown from 15 seconds to zero so you know how quickly you have to walk; at others you just have to wait until the traffic stops on red. As visitors we found this confusing. Not to mention how, to someone with a wonky hip, 15 seconds to cross a boulevard seems a bit ungenerous.

On the traffic front it appears Montrealers are quite well disciplined and patient, though it’s not what our friend David, who lives in the city, thinks. (He should try living in Italy or France!) Peculiar fact: vehicles in Quebec don’t have to have a licence plate at the front. This means cars look as their designers mean them to look — but I’m surprised the police have agreed to it. 

Following my architectural bent, it was gratifying to see buildings uncluttered with neon advertising slogans (banned, with one exception for a flour mill by the docks which escaped under the excuse of being an historic monument. A monument with neon? Go figure). The downtown skyline is quite restrained by North American standards, and of course the historic Vielle Ville just wows US visitors who think it is soooo European. It is, in a North American kinda way.  

But it’s underground, not overground, where Montreal shines. Did I read there are 33 kilometres of subterranean shopping walks and malls? They are stunning, all interlinked with the Metro, and perfectly clean and ventilated (air-conditioned, obviously; great carbon-footprinting). And absolutely essential in a place where cruel winters mean you poke your head out at your peril in January, February and March. It’s perishingly cold for much longer than that, too, with record snowfalls this winter. Ironically, says David, this is due to global warming.  Previously, the thermometer has stayed well below zero Celsius, too cold for snow.  By warming a few degrees it has brought prolonged periods of the white stuff.

Lastly, we were fascinated by Quebecers’ language skills, quaint in both accent and vocabulary.  With three million inhabitants Montreal is, I just read, the third largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris and, surprisingly, Kinshasa). Their French is ‘old French’, with an accent that’s totally impenetrable. I think it comes from eating too much poutine, that quintessential Canadian comfort food guaranteed to give you a heart attack and two inches on the waistline (Wikipedia:  a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown BBQ chicken gravy and sometimes other additional ingredients.) In Quebec French it’s pronounced putsɪn which gives you a clue to the rest of our problems, as we live in ‘old France’ itself, where the language has considerably moved on from Louis IV’s day. Hey, even down here in Provence where the accent is as thick as crème brûlée we can communicate perfectly well with the natives; there, it really does sound  foreign.

We enjoyed some rich moments, due partly to their knack of unnecessarily complicating matters. Where the French have WiFi (pron. ‘weefee’, and not to be confused with ‘wifey’) they have ‘Zone Internet gratuit’. A fridge is a réfrigerateur – not particularly surprising maybe, but over here it’s a ‘frigo‘. A bus-only lane  (marked ‘Sauf Bus’ in France) is ‘Sauf Les Autobus’ etc. You get it. I thought my judgement about driving conditions could be called into question, and there must be a massive road accident problem, when I saw car repair shops on every street corner… and then I realised a Dépanneur was a convenience store. A dépanneur here is someone who gets you out of trouble when your car’s broken down and is en panne.

But if the
poutine doesn’t get you, Colonel Sanders will.  Fancy a little PFK, anyone? You got it: Poulet Frit Kentucky.

Bon appétit!