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 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 to seek out details, 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

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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

Cool Babylon

We originally thought of calling our book ‘Farewell to Babylon’, having checked and found only one title remotely similar, — ‘Adieu, Babylon’, in French. As luck would have it, when we were nearing production stage that book became translated into English as ‘Farewell Babylon’ (by Naim Kattan: a good read), so we had to think of something else.

Skimming through the Amazon book listings, ‘Babylon’ brought no fewer than 3,102 results. I noted 64 titles bearing the name before giving up. I have to admit, also, there are 8,865 entries bearing the ‘E’ word for Eden. We have hardly been original in our eventual choice.

What started me on this literary musing was a headline in last weekend’s London Sunday Times: ‘Villa Babylon’. It was above a piece by author Imogen Edwards-Jones whose latest book ‘Pop Babylon’ was published yesterday. It seems our Imogen is rather fond of Babylon: this is her fifth work using the name (the others being Hotel B; Air B; Beach B and Fashion B).

But Villa Babylon?

It turns out to be a whopping plug for her parents’ Tuscan farmhouse, which just happens to be for sale for £776,000. It is ‘1,500ft up, cool in summer and warm in a dank Italian winter.’ We know all about that, having been there, bought a farmhouse ourselves, made our sacrifices. Where we were in our own particular Tuscan idyll, also 1,500ft up, ‘cool in summer’ often translated as ‘hot as hell’ in late July or early August, and ‘dank Italian winter’ was simply perishingly cold and damp. We survived 14 years on the mountainside — the story I told in my first book.

Nothing against the family: we wish them the best of luck as they sell up and move on, now that ‘the world and his wife and their friends have poured into Tuscany.’ They are planning to relocate to Gascony. That’s pretty cool and dank; windy, too, as we recall. I hope the world and his wife might be put off visiting for a while, but I have my doubts.

Imogen started her piece by saying: ‘When my mother announced, 20 years ago, that she was selling up and moving to Italy, I thought she was joking. People just didn’t do that sort of thing in those days. There were no property programmes, no relocating shows, no glamorous presenters in flowered frocks poring over websites and telling us how to make the best of the burgeoning Spanish/Italian/Croatian markets.’ (No double-page spreads of free publicity in one of Britain’s best-selling Sunday papers, she might have added).

Well people did do it. We did it. As we recall only too well, we had no Internet, let alone broadband. No low-cost Ryanairs or easyJets. Frances Mayes had yet to discover Cortona, and turn it into an international tourist target through her seminal work, Under the Tuscan Sun. (It was a good read, though excruciatingly patronising and saccharine. By way of reprisal — not that I am in any way in the same league — I had thought of calling my book Under the Tuscan Tractor, but better counsel prevailed and we settled for Catching Fireflies. Go figure, as they say).

Now we live in France and love it for many reasons, none of which is exactly original. We’ve travelled a fair kilometre and have friends, Paul Eddy (the author) and Sara Walden (the journalist), living in the Luberon where France’s elite and what used to be called the ‘gauche caviare’ have holiday homes. Nowhere is immune from the phenomenon of ‘résidences secondaires’, and the tourist invasion. And although we do not know Gascony well (foie gras and Armagnac apart), it does stick in our memory for one outstanding reason. It is the only area where we have actually been shocked at the state of a toilet in a restaurant (which is saying something, as the general standard is shocking: a peculiar oversight for a nation rightly proud of its cuisine). ‘Primitif’ hardly comes close.

But that’s La France Profonde. I hope the family won’t forget that Peter Mayle did a pretty good job of promoting the southern French way of life (as he saw it) and that nowhere is now considered off-limts by the world and his wife.

‘Due to rural exodus,’ says Wikipedia, ‘Gascony is one of the least populated areas of western Europe, and so it has recently become a haven for stressed urbanites of northern Europe (chiefly France, England, and the Benelux nations) who, in search of quiet and peace of mind, are increasingly buying second homes there.’

Gasconyshire: the fire after the frying pan? For their sakes, I hope it does not turn out to be another Babylon.