By Iraqi in America on April 9, 2008
Both my parents were born in Baghdad, and my grandmother would have been about the same age and moved in the same social circles as Violette Shamash, the author, did. This book, therefore, takes me back to my childhood stories, of the homes that were left in haste, the great bounty of the land and rivers, the friendships with people from all religions and the lifestyle that is forever missed. This book is written in two hands, the first two thirds were written by Violette Shamash and tells her very personal story of Jewish life in Baghdad. It is told in great sensitivity and humanity, is mostly touching and frequently hilarious, especially if you can imagine the stories told in the dialect of Baghdad Jews. Violette’s stories provide different aspects of life in Baghdad in the 20’s and 30’s through her own experiences, from school days, through various festivals, religious opportunities, the seasonality of life, commerce and street life all the way to weddings, family life and the relationships with the muslim neighbors. The second part is an historical account of the role the English played in the establishment of modern day Iraq, especially as it concerns the overthrow of the regent in 1941 and the ensuing farhud, the slaughter of the Jewish community in Baghdad by some of their muslim neighbors. It focuses on the actions and inactions of the British ambassador, one Kinahan Cornwallis, that apparently had so much invested in the Iraqi project that it took priority over his loyalty to his country and prime minister. If this book touches your roots I am sure you will enjoy it greatly and will wish, like me, that you knew more and listened to more stories. If you don’t, this book will open a window for you into a world that, very likely, you never knew existed yet was so close.
Baghdad: The dream before the nightmare
By J.Cousins on March 11, 2008
This is a beautiful story, and a desperately sad one too. Violette Shamash started her life in pretty idyllic circumstances, as a member of the Jewish community in Baghdad. You’ll have to forgive me here, but I thought Iraq would have been pretty much top of the list for places you wouldn’t expect to find a Jewish person. Turns out, though, that between the wars Violette and her family were among 200,000 Jewish people living in Baghdad. It was a simple but delightful time. And, guess what? The Jewish community and their Muslim neighbours got along together just fine. Mutual respect… Violette tells charming stories of an uncomplicated life where everything was great. Until it wasn’t. Things changed, in a horrible way. Enough to make it vital that she, her husband and their children fled: first to India, then to Palestine, and finally to London. I defy you to read this book without being profoundly moved. Iraq is a fragile and complex place today. How desperately sad, therefore, to learn from this book of its former harmony. How come it all went so wrong? Today you can count the number of Iraqi Jewish people on the fingers of two hands. Please read this book, whose story must be more widely known.
By Dafna on January 9, 2009
GET THIS BOOK!! The book `Memories from Eden’ is a fascinating book about a world that was and no longer exists, as well as an important historical document. I read the book in one day; once I started I couldn’t put it down. The book is well written; the stories and the pictures do make you feel that life in Bagdad in the turn of the 20 century was as the title suggests a sort of a paradise. The historical synopsis and facts were smartly incorporated providing necessary historical context to the stories without being overbearing. For those who are like me, descendants of this world, the book provides an important connection to our past and heritage.
I enjoyed the book so much that in the weeks following reading the book I spoke about it with everyone I met and was somewhat obsessive in telling these stories to whoever was willing to listen. Maybe the best testament to how interesting the book is, is the fascination it created amongst my young nieces, ages 8 & 10. A few days after I finished reading the book, I visited my nieces and I started telling the younger one the stories from the book and she asked for more and more stories and was completely captivated by them. I think I told her all the stories in one afternoon. Later that day, when we met my older niece, the younger niece was so excited by the stories and enthusiastically started telling her sister the stories herself!
Touching personal history
This book was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t anticipate enjoying it so much. But I found myself not wanting to put it down. The author tells interesting and informative stories about life in Baghdad at a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in peace. She gives her perspective of Farhud and of the crimes which were conducted during World War II. Dispite the events which caused her so much pain and discomfort and eventually resulted in her departure from Iraq, I find her attitude refreshing. There are many lessons in this book if we will listen. Thank you, Violette, for sharing your story – a story with many elements – history, family, love, tradition, culture, tolerance, perseverance, and hope.
By Alvaro Zamarreno, on December 4, 2012
Violette Shamash makes you feel as if you miss a lost past in a city in which you have never been. So sad to think of the tormentuous history of Baghdad for most of the last 50 years.
By D&D on April 10, 2010
I heard snippets about life in old Baghdad from my wonderful “adopted” Iraqi Jewish aunty, now over 80. When she learned from cronies that memoirs were being published about life back then, she asked me to get some of them for her – and it turns out she knew each of the authors: they were actually her own old friends or children/in-laws of old acquaintances.
In this book Violette Shamash tells – in a delightfully dreamlike manner – her own very personal story of Jewish life in Baghdad with great sensitivity and humanity. My aunty’s entire family and predecessors were all born in Baghdad and she is actually only a few years younger than, and moved in similar social circles as, Violette Shamash so the book brought back many memories for her about her own life within this important Jewish community, at times a very large minority indeed in this Land of Two Rivers, and about being driven out after 2600 years in Babylon.
The next book I was able to get was “Last Days in Babylon: The Exile of Iraq’s Jews, the Story of My Family” by Marina Benjamin. Both Benjamin and Shamash provide picturesque detail by taking us through the main streets and shopping areas and also covering many of the customs and practices of that era.
Benjamin, a journalist, skillfully weaves in the history of Iraqi Jews in the first half of the 20th century with her own family history while the Shamash book is much more personal. Whilst Benjamin details, in a journalistic manner (and some claim incorrectly), the rise of Arab nationalism from the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and sheds some light on why the relationship between “cousins”, Arabs and Jews, who once lived in relative harmony in what is now Iraq, has so badly deteriorated, I found the Shamash book a much more touching and often amusing tale of daily life, giving a fascinating picture of a lost time.
I also sourced “Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew” by Sasson Somekh, “The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland” by Nissim Rejwan and “Farewell Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad” by Naim Kattan but these books did not recall her youth with nearly as much flavour for my auntie. They are more intellectual and offer much less detail about daily family life in that era, with more focus on educational challenges and leftist political leanings.
There are so few books on the Iraqi Jews that all these books are worth reading to obtain an introduction to the lives of Jewish communities from Arab lands. Together they make a great testimony to the Iraqi Jewish community and its legacy especially since so many Western Jews – let alone Westerners of other religions – apparently cannot even contemplate the possibility of pairing the words “Jewish” + “Arab” (to them an Arab Jew is an oxymoron) even though many millions can be so described (and in fact they actually form the majority in Israel, perhaps the only discriminated-against majority in any nation). Could this very inability be part of what may become one of the worst tragedies of this century, the increasing demonisation of the Muslims?
Hard to underestimate the importance of this book
By M Elliot on June 21, 2008
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this beautifully written and enlightening book. I was so impressed that I’ve since ordered three more copies, to give to family and friends. In addition to being a pleasure to read, and an enlightening window to another world another time, ‘Memories of Eden’ gives a disarming human perspective to a forgotten chapter in an ongoing saga, the twists and turns of which continue to decide the fate of the world today.
As with all good books though, it just tells great stories well, which, through their good humour and humanity, challenge our preconceptions of other people and the way the world works.
By D.G.Hill on April 22, 2008
An absorbing and moving firsthand account of life in the Jewish community of Baghdad during the first half of the twentieth century. Not only of enormous importance as a cultural and historical document but also the sensitive and beautifully written autobiography of a survivor of the 1941 pogrom.
Biblical Eden meets the Arabian Nights
By L. Julius on April 21, 2008
According to legend, the Garden of Eden was located here, in the Land of the Two Rivers. However, at first glance there seems nothing Eden-like about the hot and dusty Baghdad portrayed in Violette Shamash’s memoir.
Pieced together from 20 years’ worth of letters and notes sent to Violette’s daughter Mira and son-in-law Tony Rocca, Memories of Eden is a detailed record, written with a light touch and illustrated with diligently-researched, rare old photos. It gives an unusual woman’s perspective of a bygone age, lived to the rhythms of the Jewish community which was so prominent in old Iraq.
The book has an Arabian Nights quality – peppered with tales from the days of the Ottomans. Violette’s parents were among the first to move out of Baghdad’s cramped historic Jewish quarter, building a palace or ‘qasr’ in Karrada, then on the outskirts of Baghdad, that King Faisal himself would covet. There, Violette played among the fruit trees. Life was pastoral and idyllic on the banks of the Tigris and the minutiae of domestic living was alleviated by a staff of servants.
In the knowledge that Judeo-Arabic will soon be a dying language, a lexicon is thoughtfully provided. Anyone who grew up hearing words like ‘daghboona’, (corridor), insults like ‘booma’ (owl) and ‘wabba’ (plague)and the typically Jewish expression of wonder or shock ‘weh hoo weh’, will finally understand what they mean and be propelled on a Proustian journey back to childhood. But even if you had not the faintest idea about Jewish life in Baghdad, you would find it an entertaining and engrossing read.
Tantalising is the description of the run-up to the 1941 Farhud pogrom which sounded the death-knell for 2,600 years of Jewish presence in Iraq. Violette, who was about to give birth to Mira, sheltered with family while Jews were increasingly the object of attack during the `black month’ that the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali held power. Violette’s family was among the first to see the writing on the wall, six months later moving to India, then Palestine, Cyprus and finally London. The Jews of Iraq were `scattered like feathers from a pillow’ to the four corners of the globe. Today the community is virtually extinct.
Towards the end of the book there is a change of tone as Tony Rocca, a career Fleet St journalist and editor, takes up the neglected story, based on original research, of the one man who could have halted the Farhud slaughter of the Jews. Dubbed `Cornwallis of Arabia’, the British ambassador Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, as tall at six- foot-four as his role in the politics of Iraq has been inexplicably underrated, dominated Iraq for 40 years. While the mob went on a two-day murder and looting rampage, Corwallis refused to order British troops, camped out on the outskirts, into Baghdad, lest the British be seen by the Arabs as an army of occupation.