Jerusalem Report: Review, August 4, 2008

POSTCARD FROM ERETZ YISRAEL: Author Violette Shamash (left) and her sister Daisy in Tel Aviv, 1933

Babylon’s Golden Age

A vivid memoir of Jewish life in Baghdad
recreates departed glories in loving detail

Memories of Eden: A Journey through Jewish Baghdad,
By Violette Shamash
Forum Books
326 pages; 14.99 pounds sterling

Ralph Amelan

THE downward spiral of the Iraqi Jewish community, which numbered over 130,000 a mere seventy years ago, doesn’t have much further to go. The New York Times reported in June that not enough Jewish men remain in Baghdad to make up a minyan.

Yet another of the wealthy and influential Sephardic Diasporas that were once common throughout the Arab world has been driven to the verge of extinction. Most of their members were able to escape to other countries, mainly Israel, and thrive there. Some kind of communal continuity was thus assured. But the lot of the exile is a shared memory of loss of home, status and identity. The vastly greater devastation that overtook the Jews of Europe has overshadowed the largely forced flight from the lands of Islam. Nonetheless, the sense of a vanished world of tolerance, culture, and respect still haunts the descendants of these communities.

“Memories of Eden” joins a number of recent works that successfully attempt to recover in literature something of this world, most notably Lucette Lagnado’s “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” about her family’s move from Cairo to New York. Violette Shamash fled Iraq in 1941 with her husband and two small children after a murderous pogrom (known as the farhud) took the lives of around 150 Jews (the precise figure is disputed), and originally intended her recollections of the Baghdad, she had called home for nearly 30 years, for her family alone.

She died two years ago, aged 93. But her memoir, edited by her daughter Mira and journalist son-in-law Tony Rocca, and interspersed with contemporary photographs,recreates the world in which Violette lived with unusual vividness. The sheer breadth of her recall and her eye for the smallest detail is astounding. She moves seamlessly from describing the architectural features of a Baghdad mansion that enabled its inhabitants to keep foodstuffs cool in the summer heat (a ventilation shaft funneled breezes from the roof down to specially constructed semi-basements), via expeditions in the open-air markets, to traditional home-made meat and vegetable dishes, flavored with vinegar, fruit juices and concentrates. Even such basic ingredients as bread, butter, date syrup and rosewater were prepared at home.

Almost every item she encounters is set in the context of her life story and given the word she called it by (one of the minor benefits of the book is the opportunity to pick up a smattering of Mesopotamian Arabic, with some Arabic-influenced Hebrew and French thrown in). Of course, her nostalgia for a world and way of life now gone is almost tangible. Her father, referred to throughout the book simply as Baba (her mother is likewise called Nana), was a wealthy merchant and banker, and her life was very comfortable. But underlying this richly textured and colorful account, written in simple yet lively language, are two motifs, which both darken and deepen the picture.

“In our community, the birth of a daughter was perceived as a blemish and a burden.” This sentence on the very first page of “Memories of Eden” is preceded by the matter-of-fact statement that as the fourth daughter of five children, her birth was an “unmitigated disaster” for her parents. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the serpent in her personal Eden was the status of her sex.

Even her success at school was greeted with parental disapproval: it was thought that too much learning too soon would “clog up her brains.” Needless to add her marriage (a happy one, it should be noted, to David Shamash, a charming, musically gifted man) was arranged for her by her father. At least he rejected a grossly unsuitable proposal made by an elderly judge. But the author had the unnerving experience of being ushered into a crowded room to meet her fiancé for the first time without having a clue who he was or what he looked like.

Contrast this with a description of the two years the family spent in Mandatory Palestine in the early 1930s. “I could not believe the freedom of it,” she writes. For her, “swimming in the sea in full public view” was a liberating experience. But we are told nothing more. Her time there, in contrast to her life in Baghdad, is almost a blank home, however confining it may have been, at least gave her certainty.

The second theme that clouds the author’s world is the uneasy coexistence of the Jews and the majority Muslim community. Shamash emphasizes the warm relations that individual Jews and Muslims enjoyed. At odds with this idyll, though, are unmistakable signs of tension and hostility that surfaced well before the farhud. Some Jewish draftees into the Turkish Ottoman army were shot dead by their own officers rather than be released at the close of World War I.

During the war, prominent community leaders (including Baba) were briefly deported to Mosul by the Turks on suspicion of collaborating with the army. Even after they were allowed back to Baghdad, Baba judged it prudent to travel with a few friends across the border to Persia to wait there until hostilities ceased. His young family stayed behind.

Iraqi Jews unsuccessfully petitioned the post-war British occupation administration to be granted British citizenship. “The thought of any transfer of power to the Arabs filled us with apprehension,” she writes, revealingly, though their request was also motivated by pro-British feelings as well as commercial considerations: business relations between the British and the Baghdad community had long been good.

Throughout the interwar period, internal tensions exacerbated by the collapse of Ottoman rule and the weakness of the British-backed Hashemite monarchy increased. Anti-Jewish propaganda, fanned by the Germans, increased. After the outbreak of war in 1939, Muslim mobs began roaming the streets calling for a German victory.

The farhud, perpetrated against the Baghdad Jewish community by the defeated Iraqi Muslim soldiers who had backed an illstarred pro-Nazi uprising against King Faisal, ought not to have come as a surprise. But it ought to have been prevented. Thehastily assembled, under-strength but victorious British troops who had quelled the uprising were left fretting outside Baghdad as looting and mayhem erupted in the city. Tony Rocca throws new light on this incident in an extended coda to these memoirs that takes up almost a quarter of the book. Drawing on Foreign Office documents and the memoirs of leading British political and military players in Iraq, he puts the blame on the British ambassador at the time, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis.

Apparently Cornwallis, an Arabist with lengthy experience in Iraq, was worried about having Hashemite rule restored too obviously by British arms. He therefore used his authority to keep British troops out of the city, thus making Faisal’s return to Baghdad appear to be the result of popular support. This charade fooled nobody. All he did was create a power vacuum, which
a vengeful and greedy mob exploited to the hilt. The author had to shelter in her father’s home with her young children.

Luckily she was not harmed: a Muslim servant dispersed rioters trying to break in by yelling at them that only Muslims lived there. Nothing like it had happened to the Jews of Iraq for centuries, and the shock destabilized the community. A future of gradual social liberalization, modernity and prosperity, which seemed possible to Shamash and her circle until the late 1930s, was replaced by the realization that their Arab neighbors had turned covetous and hostile, and that the Iraqi authorities were too weak to perpetually hold them at bay.

The young couple, shaken by their ordeal, left Iraq for good a few months later. They ultimately settled in London in 1964 after spells in India, Palestine (the country’s descent into war in 1948 unnerved them and persuaded them to leave) and Cyprus. “The sight of all that gold colour glinting in the sunshine as they turned the pans by hand was so pretty,” marveled Shamash at the sight of copper pans being relined in the souk. “When they hung them up, it was like Aladdin’s Cave.” Not a bad metaphor for the rest of this wonderfully engaging book, especially when you remember that even caves full of treasure contain darkness as well as
light. •

For readers in the USA and Israel

GOOD NEWS: Our book is now available in the USA from the American Sephardi Federation in New York and may be purchased online using your credit card or by calling 212-294-8350.

American Sephardi Federation
15 West 16th Street New York, NY 10011 USA
Tel 212-294-8350
Fax 212-294-8348

Also check out and go to ‘used and new’ to find suppliers who offer fast shipping.

FOR ISRAELI READERS: Memories of Eden is currently available from

The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
Or Yehuda

Tel: 03-5339278 Fax: 03-5339936

The ultimate luxury

By the 1920s, modern shops began to appear in Baghdad and, as Violette recalls, they even had that ultimate luxury: the department store. Mention the name Orosdi Back, and Iraqis of the older generation fondly remember the unheard of style and daring Western chic it brought to their erstwhile unadventurous lives with its luxurious commodities, fashions, novelties and — above all — the grandeur of what today we would call the shopping experience.

It was the Harrods, or Bloomingdale’s, of its day, complete with gilded fascias, plate-glass windows and one astonishing feature never before seen in Baghdad: a passenger lift. Another remarkable attribute in a land where bargaining for goods had always been taken for granted was that haggling over prices was banned. ‘We all knew it as Prix Fixe — the only place in Baghdad where there was no bargaining — take it or leave it!’ wrote Violette.

The shop traded on its European connections, promoting the idea of a sumptuous lifestyle only the top echelons had previously been able to aspire to. Violette says in the book: ‘Everybody loved to shop there, particularly for wedding presents and trousseaux. It was always the first with the latest fashions from Europe. We knew we were not going to be cheated there; it was so elegant, worth every penny, selling Bally shoes, cashmere outfits, silk ready-to-wear dresses, beautiful fabrics, the best china, silver cutlery, silk eiderdowns, underwear and even children’s ready-made clothes. It was like paradise.’

But what was Orosdi Back and where did that strange name come from?

The middle of the 19th century was boom time for the Western world’s entrepreneurs and merchants of vision. In 1856 London, Charles Henry Harrod had been running his successful enterprise for 15 years before moving that year to premises in Knightsbridge, the site of the store even now. In 1856 New York on the other hand, Joseph and Lyman Bloomingdale were five years away from starting their business, selling hoop skirts on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But in 1856 Europe, over on the continent two Austro-Hungarian Jews with a store in Vienna, Leon Orosdi and Hermann Back, were setting their sights on the Ottoman Empire and the rich prospect held out by the Middle East as a whole.

The golden target was Egypt, where (they weren’t to know) around a quarter of a million foreigners were to settle between the time they launched their business in Cairo in 1856 and the 1940s. Among them were at least 65,000 Jews, with considerable purchasing power.

It is almost as though the two entrepreneurs invented the term ‘globalisation.’ Within 30 years they had established branches in Bucharest, Plovdiv, Salonica, Izmir, Aleppo, Beirut, and Tunis, working mainly the wholesale trade with buying offices in a host of industrial cities in Western and Central Europe — and amazingly, even in Japan. The move into Iraq came later, after the First World War, with a store in Basra as well as Baghdad, by which time their retail network was enormous.

‘The Orosdi-Backs opened branches mainly in port cities, and major railway nodes, with sizeable minority and foreign populations,’ says Uri Kupferschmidt, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa, who has made a special study of the company history. ‘Each branch or succursale could, of course, tell its own story – if only we had more records.’

While the Baghdad store disappeared, the one in Cairo is still open today, albeit nationalised by Nasser, and bears the name ‘Omar Effendi’. The six-story rococo building opened in 1909; in its better days when it was still a private-sector company the globe above it was seen miles away as it shone its powerful beam each night, beckoning wide-eyed patrons.

Orosdi Back was registered as a French company, with a bizarre trademark of an elephant riding a tricycle. It is still in business today as Orosdi, based in Paris, listing as its principal activities the purchase, sale, import and export of novelty goods, textiles, costume jewellery, perfume and related products. The company owns shops in France as well as in Burma. — TR.

Cool Babylon

We originally thought of calling our book ‘Farewell to Babylon’, having checked and found only one title remotely similar, — ‘Adieu, Babylon’, in French. As luck would have it, when we were nearing production stage that book became translated into English as ‘Farewell Babylon’ (by Naim Kattan: a good read), so we had to think of something else.

Skimming through the Amazon book listings, ‘Babylon’ brought no fewer than 3,102 results. I noted 64 titles bearing the name before giving up. I have to admit, also, there are 8,865 entries bearing the ‘E’ word for Eden. We have hardly been original in our eventual choice.

What started me on this literary musing was a headline in last weekend’s London Sunday Times: ‘Villa Babylon’. It was above a piece by author Imogen Edwards-Jones whose latest book ‘Pop Babylon’ was published yesterday. It seems our Imogen is rather fond of Babylon: this is her fifth work using the name (the others being Hotel B; Air B; Beach B and Fashion B).

But Villa Babylon?

It turns out to be a whopping plug for her parents’ Tuscan farmhouse, which just happens to be for sale for £776,000. It is ‘1,500ft up, cool in summer and warm in a dank Italian winter.’ We know all about that, having been there, bought a farmhouse ourselves, made our sacrifices. Where we were in our own particular Tuscan idyll, also 1,500ft up, ‘cool in summer’ often translated as ‘hot as hell’ in late July or early August, and ‘dank Italian winter’ was simply perishingly cold and damp. We survived 14 years on the mountainside — the story I told in my first book.

Nothing against the family: we wish them the best of luck as they sell up and move on, now that ‘the world and his wife and their friends have poured into Tuscany.’ They are planning to relocate to Gascony. That’s pretty cool and dank; windy, too, as we recall. I hope the world and his wife might be put off visiting for a while, but I have my doubts.

Imogen started her piece by saying: ‘When my mother announced, 20 years ago, that she was selling up and moving to Italy, I thought she was joking. People just didn’t do that sort of thing in those days. There were no property programmes, no relocating shows, no glamorous presenters in flowered frocks poring over websites and telling us how to make the best of the burgeoning Spanish/Italian/Croatian markets.’ (No double-page spreads of free publicity in one of Britain’s best-selling Sunday papers, she might have added).

Well people did do it. We did it. As we recall only too well, we had no Internet, let alone broadband. No low-cost Ryanairs or easyJets. Frances Mayes had yet to discover Cortona, and turn it into an international tourist target through her seminal work, Under the Tuscan Sun. (It was a good read, though excruciatingly patronising and saccharine. By way of reprisal — not that I am in any way in the same league — I had thought of calling my book Under the Tuscan Tractor, but better counsel prevailed and we settled for Catching Fireflies. Go figure, as they say).

Now we live in France and love it for many reasons, none of which is exactly original. We’ve travelled a fair kilometre and have friends, Paul Eddy (the author) and Sara Walden (the journalist), living in the Luberon where France’s elite and what used to be called the ‘gauche caviare’ have holiday homes. Nowhere is immune from the phenomenon of ‘résidences secondaires’, and the tourist invasion. And although we do not know Gascony well (foie gras and Armagnac apart), it does stick in our memory for one outstanding reason. It is the only area where we have actually been shocked at the state of a toilet in a restaurant (which is saying something, as the general standard is shocking: a peculiar oversight for a nation rightly proud of its cuisine). ‘Primitif’ hardly comes close.

But that’s La France Profonde. I hope the family won’t forget that Peter Mayle did a pretty good job of promoting the southern French way of life (as he saw it) and that nowhere is now considered off-limts by the world and his wife.

‘Due to rural exodus,’ says Wikipedia, ‘Gascony is one of the least populated areas of western Europe, and so it has recently become a haven for stressed urbanites of northern Europe (chiefly France, England, and the Benelux nations) who, in search of quiet and peace of mind, are increasingly buying second homes there.’

Gasconyshire: the fire after the frying pan? For their sakes, I hope it does not turn out to be another Babylon.