The ultimate luxury

By the 1920s, modern shops began to appear in Baghdad and, as Violette recalls, they even had that ultimate luxury: the department store. Mention the name Orosdi Back, and Iraqis of the older generation fondly remember the unheard of style and daring Western chic it brought to their erstwhile unadventurous lives with its luxurious commodities, fashions, novelties and — above all — the grandeur of what today we would call the shopping experience.

It was the Harrods, or Bloomingdale’s, of its day, complete with gilded fascias, plate-glass windows and one astonishing feature never before seen in Baghdad: a passenger lift. Another remarkable attribute in a land where bargaining for goods had always been taken for granted was that haggling over prices was banned. ‘We all knew it as Prix Fixe — the only place in Baghdad where there was no bargaining — take it or leave it!’ wrote Violette.

The shop traded on its European connections, promoting the idea of a sumptuous lifestyle only the top echelons had previously been able to aspire to. Violette says in the book: ‘Everybody loved to shop there, particularly for wedding presents and trousseaux. It was always the first with the latest fashions from Europe. We knew we were not going to be cheated there; it was so elegant, worth every penny, selling Bally shoes, cashmere outfits, silk ready-to-wear dresses, beautiful fabrics, the best china, silver cutlery, silk eiderdowns, underwear and even children’s ready-made clothes. It was like paradise.’

But what was Orosdi Back and where did that strange name come from?

The middle of the 19th century was boom time for the Western world’s entrepreneurs and merchants of vision. In 1856 London, Charles Henry Harrod had been running his successful enterprise for 15 years before moving that year to premises in Knightsbridge, the site of the store even now. In 1856 New York on the other hand, Joseph and Lyman Bloomingdale were five years away from starting their business, selling hoop skirts on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But in 1856 Europe, over on the continent two Austro-Hungarian Jews with a store in Vienna, Leon Orosdi and Hermann Back, were setting their sights on the Ottoman Empire and the rich prospect held out by the Middle East as a whole.

The golden target was Egypt, where (they weren’t to know) around a quarter of a million foreigners were to settle between the time they launched their business in Cairo in 1856 and the 1940s. Among them were at least 65,000 Jews, with considerable purchasing power.

It is almost as though the two entrepreneurs invented the term ‘globalisation.’ Within 30 years they had established branches in Bucharest, Plovdiv, Salonica, Izmir, Aleppo, Beirut, and Tunis, working mainly the wholesale trade with buying offices in a host of industrial cities in Western and Central Europe — and amazingly, even in Japan. The move into Iraq came later, after the First World War, with a store in Basra as well as Baghdad, by which time their retail network was enormous.

‘The Orosdi-Backs opened branches mainly in port cities, and major railway nodes, with sizeable minority and foreign populations,’ says Uri Kupferschmidt, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa, who has made a special study of the company history. ‘Each branch or succursale could, of course, tell its own story – if only we had more records.’

While the Baghdad store disappeared, the one in Cairo is still open today, albeit nationalised by Nasser, and bears the name ‘Omar Effendi’. The six-story rococo building opened in 1909; in its better days when it was still a private-sector company the globe above it was seen miles away as it shone its powerful beam each night, beckoning wide-eyed patrons.

Orosdi Back was registered as a French company, with a bizarre trademark of an elephant riding a tricycle. It is still in business today as Orosdi, based in Paris, listing as its principal activities the purchase, sale, import and export of novelty goods, textiles, costume jewellery, perfume and related products. The company owns shops in France as well as in Burma. — TR.