God is great: A musical fatwah

WALLACE LYON was Provincial Administrator in Kurdistan after World War One when Britain created Iraq and tried desperately to forge the new country from three broken pieces of the Ottoman Empire.  In Memories of Eden, Violette recalls how the Shi’a Muslims of Basra, the Sunnis of Baghdad and the Kurds of Mosul  had never been linked before; their people did not like each other, and the only thing in common they had was a dislike of central control.  Mr Lyon had other insights. He writes about “bringing Sulaimani under Iraqi rule” and the unusual difficulties encountered in relation to that  sacrilegious modern invention, the gramophone.

allahu“THE favourite relaxation of the local Kurds was to sit on benches outside the café exchanging gossip… while drinking endless glasses of sweet tea… There was also gramophone music purveyed from old-fashioned machines with wide trumpet-shaped horns. Across the mouth of the horns was a string net adorned with screwed up pieces of paper which attracted my attention, and on further investigation the following explanation was given.

When gramophones first made their appearance in Kurdistan the mullahs of the orthodox Moslem religion at once perceived that this new invention would encourage the people to stay around the tea shops instead, as was customary, of spending most of their time in the courtyards of the mosques.  For in those days the mosque was the centre of culture, information and learning, and it was common practice for the mullahs, who had the latest information on the bazaar, to advise the ignorant peasant to go with one of the mosque servants to one of their own agents, where they were told they would get an honest deal instead of going to the open market where they would be victimized.

Infidel music

This practice brought in good pickings for the Holy Men, though sometimes, when the peasant returned home with a wretched piece of short measure cloth, he would get a wigging, if not worse, from a long-suffering and over-worked wife.

So the mullahs issued a ‘fatwah’ or ban on the new machines on the plea that they gave forth infidel music and culture.  But the mullahs’ union was not a completely closed shop, and one or two junior and less affluent clerics saw their chance.  For a reasonable fee they wrote out some verses of the Koran, and these, when hung at the mouth of the gramophone, would act as a filter and all sounds passing through would be disinfected, pure, sanitary and inoffensive to the ears of  all true believers…”

An extract from  Kurds, Arabs and Britons: The Memoirs of Wallace Lyon in Iraq 1918-44  published by I.B.Tauris (2002) ISBN 1860646131, 9781860646133

‘Memories’ honoured

new Breaking news. The Jewish Book Council in the USA has just sent us the following: 

Dear Tony & Mira,

Congratulations!  On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Book Council, I am happy to inform you that, out of our many submissions, your book:

Memories of Eden


Violette Shamash; Mira and Tony Rocca, eds. 

has been selected as a finalist of the 


in the category of

Sephardic Culture


This book was selected after careful analysis by a panel of three judges who are all authorities in their field. The judges encountered a great deal of difficulty in making their decisions this year. Several categories offered many viable candidates, which made the selection even harder. It is gratifying to know there is a wide range of Jewish content books available. Your book now joins the ranks of the hundreds of well-respected, classic Jewish books that have been National Jewish Book Award finalists. The National Jewish Book Awards, now in its 58th year, is the longest-running program of its kind in North America. 

We recognize and appreciate your editorial decision to publish a book of such high quality; one that enlarges the whole enterprise of Jewish scholarship and contributes to informed living, understanding, and entertainment for the entire English-reading world.

Sincerely yours,

Mimi Frank



• The presentation of the National Jewish Book Awards will be at a gala ceremony, open to the public, at 7:30pm on Thursday, March 5th, at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York City

More from our mailbag

Recently we have received two letters from Iraqis of widely differing backgrounds and beliefs, who have been moved to write after reading Memories of Eden. The sentiments expressed embody the harmony that Violette talks about in her book, proving that the spirit lives on even if  the reality on the ground in today’s Iraq is somewhat different. Here they are in full, unedited.

‘As a community we will not survive’

Thank you a lot for showing the real Iraq and how we lived in harmony. I am born in 1960 in Baghdad, my doctor was a Jew his name Dauod Kubaya, and the nurse that used to give me injections and I ran away from her (Rahma) also she was a Jew. I remember her.

Classic Manean pictography. Iraqi Mandeans, an ancient Middle East religious group that reveres John the Baptist.

Classic Mandaean pictography. Iraqi Mandaeans are an ancient Middle East religious group who revere John the Baptist.

I am a Mandaean (followers of John the Baptist),we lived like you a good life, I spent all my school years in (Rahebat Altakdema),this was a catholic school on the Tigris river very famous.

My mother had many Jews friends.

We always think about you.

Although I cried a lot but for the first time I felt really as if I was there, all her discription was right.

Now I am living in Australia and nothing left for us just the memories.

We are scattered everywhere.  I have 5 sisters, 2 in England senior doctors consultants, another doctor in Canada, another in Sweden, and another in Holland.

Historically it is said that we are Jews originally and we came from Israel 2000 years ago.  We are Gnostic. I am not a religious person but I love  my people…the Mandaean.  Almost 90% left Iraq, we were about 60,000, now left only 5,000.

'Exterminating Mandaean culture'

Woodcut: 'Exterminating Mandaean culture'

As a community we will not survive.

Mandaeans are stranded in Syria and Jordan as refugees.

And all of them are very well educated and they have nowhere to go.

At least you have Israel, but we don’t have that backbone to keep us safe, our country Iraq has been taken from us, hijacked by those extremists.

The religion and the culture is going to disappear.

I heard a lot about the Iraqi Jews and how nice they were.

I heard stories from my father and the house where we lived in the late Fifties was owned by a Jewish man In Battawyeen (Bustan Al Kass).

And the Jewish man before leaving asked my father to take all the gold he had which was a fortune and just give him 100 Dinars, but my father refused, he said How can I receive that money? First because it was against his will to sell, and secondly it is not equal.

There were many honest people during that time and till now.

And the Jewish  man said Oh my God, you are an honest man and I am not lucky.

I am still afraid to speak out loudly because I have cousins still living in Baghdad. Forgive me, I don’t want you to write my name, just write what I said about our memories.

And thank you so much.

And maybe we will meet one day.

(Name withheld by request)


‘It’s your land as it’s ours’

Hi there,

I don’t know you but… I just want to say Hi for all Iraqi Jews in Israel or out of it.

I am a Muslim from Baghdad originally from Nineveh. I believe that it’s not fair what had happened to you and to all of us, it’s your land as it’s ours and now we are all out of it , the land means where you have …

During the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C., the city of Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and the cultural, economic and political epicentre of the world.

During the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C., the city of Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and the cultural, economic and political epicentre of the world. In an effort to preserve the rich archaeological history of Nineveh, the US National Endowment for the Humanities has provided funding for this digitization project, based at the University of California, Berkeley. There is a further description of the project here:http://okapi.wordpress.com/projects/digital-nineveh-archives

I lived from 1974 till 2003 in Eden, it wasn’t  good days but it’s really Eden. I believe that all Iraqi Jews should return to Iraq as before bcs religion is not a motive of nations, I mean any religion can live anywhere, it’s not a politic issue it’s personal think

Violence is now a part of the daily life world wide, but really I feel Iraqis are more than others who had suffered more than others: inside their land ( bcs always no fair governments ) as well as out side the land (bcs of hardly homesickness), drinking of dijla (Tigris ) water is another water.  You won’t understand my words, but I swear it has a great effect that remain all the life.

I am proud of what you did, this web site is so nice and full of good information in photos, I wish I can have some of them… I am doing now my PhD research in Italy about ‘ the architectural Identity of the city of Baghdad’ and I studied lots of our Jews history.

Just want to give you my compliments

— M.K.