‘Sumptuous… Compelling…’

lrbcover-copyFrom the London Review of Books, Vol.30 No.21 dated 6 November 2008. The full article can be found in Reviews and online at:


Memories of Eden


Adam Shatz writes:

Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule, seeking to expose the ‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. This tolerance, it’s argued, is a euphemism for dependence on the goodwill of capricious, if not cruel Muslim overlords. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews, however, tell a very different story: Shamash, who was born in 1912 and spent the last twenty years of her life recording her memories of ‘my Baghdad, my native land’, is not alone in describing her family’s life before the arrival of British troops in World War One as ‘paradise’. Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get. It’s a portrait of the city as seen from inside a qasr, the palace her merchant father built on the banks of the Tigris, facing what is now the Green Zone. Shamash’s extended family lived in the qasr‘s separate wings, connected by maslak, ground-floor corridors. The fragrance of walnut and apricot trees pervaded the garden; kebabs were grilled in a tanoor, a wood-burning clay oven. Europe exerted a strong attraction: the family shopped at Orosdi-Beck, the country’s first Western department store, and Shamash was sent to a school run by the Alliance Israëlite Universelle, a French network established throughout the Middle East. But local traditions held their ground: women wore amulets to protect themselves from the Evil Eye and Muslim healers were consulted when children fell sick. As in most memoirs by wealthy exiles, life seems idyllic until things go bad. ‘All the communities lived together peaceably, teasing each other good-naturedly and without inhibition about their religion,’ Shamash writes, until ‘the poison of Arab nationalism and Nazism entered the bloodstream’. Now it all seems a little unreal, even to her: ‘I feel as if I am telling you a dream and that it will be very hard for you to join the pieces together.’

(LRB, 6 November 2008)

lrbcover-copyWhen Violette Shamash was born in Baghdad in 1912, the city was under Ottoman rule as it had been for 400 years, and its population was around one third Jewish. Her compelling family memoir takes us back to a time almost impossible to imagine, when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side in conditions the author describes as ‘near-biblical.’ But in the wake of a pogrom (Farhud) carried out by Nazi sympathisers in 1941 Violette’s family and many other Jews fled the city, sounding the death knell for the oldest Jewish community in the diaspora. Violette’s account of these events occupies the first part of the book. In the second her son-in-law the journalist Tony Rocca delves into the history behind the Farhud, a pogrom in which more Jews died than on Kristallnacht and for which the British, whose troops were at the gates of Baghdad throughout the rioting, bore more than a little responsibility.