A major event in London

Marsha Emerman writes:

I’m a documentary filmmaker in Melbourne, Australia making “On the Banks of the Tigris”.  It tells the story of Majid Shokor, an Iraqi-Australian from a Muslim background who discovers a hidden history – the Jewish contribution to Iraqi music. You’ll find our newest 5 min trailer on YouTube and my website: http://www.fruitfulfilms.com.au/films/tigris#viewtrailer.

On September 27th the Barbican Centre in London will host the Banks of the Tigris concert, which brings superb Iraqi musicians of all faiths together – Yair Dalal from Israel, Farida & her Iraqi Maqam Ensemble from Netherlands, and Ahmed Mukhtar from London. It will be a beautiful event and filming it for our documentary will send a message of peace and reconcilliation to audiences worldwide.

I enjoyed your YouTube video, have heard about but not yet read your book, and would like to be in contact, as our work is connected in substance & spirit.  Look forward to hearing from you. all the best, Marsha Emerman

Another review

Lev Hakak, Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at UCLA, edits Hador, the longest continuously published journal of Hebrew letters and culture in the United States. Only now have we become aware that he wrote this review of Memories of Eden in the 2009 annual volume.  Many thanks, Professor!  

In English:

This is the story of Baghdad in the first half of the 20th century. The author is born in 1912 and through her story the reader learns about the history, customs, and the way  of life of the Babylonian Jewish community in general.

The book is based  on letters, notes,memories and photographs sent to the author’s daughter Mira during a period of 20 years.

During the  author’s  childhood Babylon was under the Ottoman rule when harmonious relations prevailed among the different ethnic minorities.

In due course when Iraq was reborn under the British rule, the family of the author moved to a new house on the banks of the Tigris river.

The period of the 30s was different, the supporters of the Nazis proliferated, and in 1941 there was a pogrom , called “Farhud”,  of the Jewish residents of Baghdad.

In the last part of the book Tony Rocca, the husband of Mira, writes the story of the Farhud, when the camped British forces have not lift a finger to stop the riots.

 (Thanks to Mira’s cousin, Avner Muallem, for the translation)

From our mailbag

Mira writes: I was very moved to get responses to our new video, When Baghdad Was Beautiful, and I thought you would like to share.


I knew your parents from Baghdad. I was with Aunt Daisy in the same classroom. I remember your grandfather’s house in Karrada. The last time I saw them was in 1948 in Cyprus on my way to America. Thank you for sharing the memories with us.

Sincerely yours, S.S.K., New York

Dear Mira & Tony,

Great to hear from you! I missed the original 6-minute video, so I watched the new one first. Very nicely paced and good music as well.Then I had a brief look at the 6-minute version and realized that undoubtedly you made the right call to revise it. Lovely photos that were not in the book.

Good work!   S.K., Montreal

Thank you Tony and Mira,

The new video with its music is absolutely gorgeous.   My parents, who were born in Baghdad, went to Bombay in 1924, where I was born.   When I was 7 in 1933, my mother took me on a visit to Baghdad and I just loved it.   Your video brings back beautiful memories.

Best wishes,  H.B., Melbourne

Most interesting!. Although I grew up after most jews left Iraq, I have heard about the old way of life from my Mom and Dad but have seen very few photos of the old days. I was introduced to the customs from the paintings done by my brother in law, Eli Sawdayee, also depicted in the Utube film. – LJ

Dear Mira and Tony,

We have enjoyed the slide show very much and we sent it to all all our friends to enjoy it too.  Hope all is well at your end, we are now in Montreal and we hope that you will be able to visit us here.

All the very best,  Monique and Edward. Washington DC


Hi Mira and Tony,
I was delighted to see the slide show of old Baghdad. These photos are priceless. And your blog of course is great.
All the best,  R.K., Montreal

Hi Mira & Tony,

We would like to thank you for the wonderful slide show;  we enjoyed it enormously. Best wishes and may you go from strength to strength.

Nora & Oliver, New York

Dear Mira and Tony

It’s fantastic – I love it! The only thing is, at the speed the slides change I found I didn’t quite have time to take in properly the details of the photos or all the quotes. What do you think?

Best, R.Z., London

Hi:  It’s great!!!! I am forwarding it to my family and friends. In a few places the slides do move too fast.  But for the most part, they gave us time to look. Congratulations on a job very, very well done.  And thank you for sharing.

Warmest regards,  D.M., Toronto

I love it and wonder if you will consider movie adaptation someday, hopefully not Hollywood, but it looks like movie lovers outnumber book readers.

Good luck – LA, Amman

Hi Mira & Tony!
I looked at the pictures 3 times and it is very interesting. For me it advances too quick, especially because the comments are too small.
Best wishes,  M.T., Modi’in, Israel

I thank you.  Best wishes. Professor H.M., Basra

Hi Mira and Tony

Thanks for your beautiful work. Hope to see you on your next trip to Israel.

S.D., Tel Aviv

Lost Treasures of the Riverbank

THIS is Beit al Yehud (the House of the Jews) by the artist Lorna Selim – one of the wonderful old wood and stone structures that once lined the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad . In an earlier post we told how Lorna had contacted us and kindly sent us a previous picture she’d painted of a typical Baghdad qasr (castle, or palace) dating from the era when Violette spent her childhood in such a one, built by her father.

Is this Violette’s qasr?

We are going back to a time when up to 40 per cent of the population of Baghdad was Jewish  [Ottoman Yearbook, 1917] and Jews  were dominant in all walks of life – from commerce to culture, governmental positions and every element of artistic endeavour. The wealthy families of the day all aspired to live on the riverbank in the (comparative) luxury these ‘castles’ afforded, away from the crowded and unhygienic alleyways of the old city’s downtown areas like Hennouni.

Hennouni – the old quarter

The Iraqi qasr was a masterpiece of architectural design,and the area of Karrada, where the family home was situated, was one of the most sought-after locations. Some of the old photographs on our video give an idea of their imposing presence – until, of course, everything changed in the Saddam years.

In the late Sixties such old properties were thought worthless; the land value outstripped the value of the buildings themselves, which were crumbling and in sad need of repair. Their owners, nearly all Jews, had fled. With no respect whatever for heritage the city began tearing them down and replacing them with modern constructions of dubious architectural merit.

The Babylon Hotel

Violette’s qasr vanished, and the Karrada site was redeveloped to become a hotel – the Babylon – a modern monstrosity directly across the Tigris from where Saddam Hussein decided to build his bunker and command HQ.  Today it is in full view of the new American Embassy in the Green Zone.

Karrada itself, where Gertrude Bell used to take country walks in the 1920’s amid ‘exquisite gardens with their ripe oranges hanging from the trees and the green barley springing under golden mulberry bushes,’ has become home to the University of Baghdad.

Lorna Selim was an artistic witness to this wanton destruction, and rather as a court artist today manages to portray judicial  proceedings  (whether cameras were allowed in those days, or even thought necessary, is a fair question) she turned her skills to good use. As a house was being demolished she would quickly go to the site and bring out her sketchpad. She then went home to paint the base and outline, fully intending to return and fill in the details later.  Only by then it was too late: the house was gone. Her daughter Miriam tells us: ‘I recall reaching locations by six in the morning to get the early light and the empty streets as well as the cool morning air. By 8am it was insufferably hot and we would go home and she would be lost for the rest of the day in her studio.’ Lorna had to seek out details of other nearby properties that were the same, or similar, or work from memory in order to finish her paintings. The results are probably the sole visual trace left of the beauty of the riverbank in those distant days, from which we can only imagine how rich was the life shared by the community fortunate enough to reside there.

Here, thanks to her, are some more of her excellent drawings, (c) Lorna Selim, from which we can see the intricate way in which she developed  her final work such as the oil  painting of the  Beit al Yehud.   This was in an area Lorna calls Sinak.  She says: ‘I never took any photographs of the houses as I wanted the paintings to be my own interpretation of what I saw. I do regret that now, but I was right at the time.

‘The paintings were made between 1963 and 1970. Most of the houses were in poor repair or were falling down as I sketched them.’

Demolition in progress: the beginning of the end

We still don’t know if the original painting she sent us was the qasr at the centre of Memories of Eden, though she adds: ‘I believe it could well be. I stood on the suspension bridge* to sketch it, so I can place it exactly on a map which compares with the map in the book.’

Our thanks to Lorna for allowing us the use of her Copyright work.

*Built much later

Once Upon a Time in Iraq

Imagine a world with no running water or electricity, scorching heat and the constant fear of cholera.

Imagine a warren of alleys no wider than a cart. Cows are being milked on doorsteps, street barbers are giving shaves, pulling teeth and lancing boils. Barefoot water-sellers are bent double under their heavy goatskins.

It is 1912 and we are in old Baghdad. To us it sounds like hell. Yet Violette Shamash, born into an affluent family, adored its positive side: sleeping under the stars, hearing the call of the nightingale, smelling scents of gardenias and spices, riding to school on donkey-back.

For her it was a kind of Eden.

Violette was a privileged witness to a time when nearly 40% of  Baghdad was Jewish and Jews, Moslems and Christians embraced each other’s differences. Her insights into domestic life, and a society coming to terms with the 20th century, are candid, entertaining, and often very amusing. However, in 1941, disaster struck the oldest community in the Diaspora. A brutal massacre took place over two days of rioting and sounded the death-knell for the Jews of Babylon.

We have just uploaded to YouTube a slideshow containing images from Violette’s book, MEMORIES OF EDEN, which not only provides a unique insight into the culture and customs of the Jews of Iraq but also shows everyday life as experienced by everyone at a time when Baghdadis lived together side by side, in mutual respect, irrespective of religion.

William Shawcross has called the book “an astonishing record, telling the story of a cultivated and well integrated Jewish community in the heart of Muslim Arabia during the end of the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. A superb account of a long forgotten time which is barely imaginable now.” Further reviews and comments from academics and literary critics can be seen on our website

We would very much welcome your views and opinions here!

The book is available from Amazon:  http://tinyurl.com/2sadll