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. •

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