A new edition for America

Mira and I are proud to announce the publication of a new edition of “Memories of Eden” for the US market, later this month, by Northwestern University Press. We have been collaborating with the Press, based in Evanston, Illinois, for nearly two years and are pleased to say this new version contains several new photographs as well as enhancements to those in our first edition. Some readers have added to our knowledge of the period and we have profited from their input by including the points they have raised.

The new cover is very different from our first effort, and the Press has done a great job of the entire jacket design. It is available for pre-order from Amazon.com now; please watch out for it in a bookstore near you in the States very soon.

We are heading for the United States next month to give a few talks to coincide with the launch, planning to visit Chicago, Boston and New York. We’ll post details as soon as possible.

Cover notes

According to legend, the Garden of Eden was located in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, and for millennia the Jews resided peacefully there.  Memories of Eden: A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad reconstructs the final years of the oldest Jewish community in the world, using the letters and other writings that Violette Shamash (1912-2006) sent to her daughter Mira Rocca and son-in-law, the British journalist Tony Rocca, over a period of twenty years.  Collected and edited by the Roccas, the writings compose a deeply textured memoir—personal, yet revealing of the complex dynamics of the Middle East.

Shamash creates an exquisitely detailed portrait of like in the City of Caliphs, beginning near the end of Ottoman rule in 1917 and running through the British Mandate, the emergence of an independent Iraq in 1932, and the start of dictatorial government.  Shamash clearly loved the world in which she grew up but is altogether honest in her depiction of the problems facing Baghdad’s diverse population.  That world was shattered by the Farhud, a brutal massacre of hundreds of Iraqi Jews over two days in 1941, which Shamash witnessed firsthand.  An event that has received very slight historical coverage, the Farhud is further described and placed in context by Tony Rocca in his afterword.

VIOLETTE SHAMASH (1912-2006) was born in Baghdad. In 1941, following the Farhud, she and her husband and their two children fled Iraq for India. They subsequently lived in Palestine, Cyprus, and Israel before settling in London in 1964. Violette began writing what would become her memoir in the 1980s.

MIRA ROCCA, Violette’s daughter, worked in the U.S. Embassy in London and Tel Aviv, and in the travel industry before she and her husband, Tony, became hoteliers and winemakers in Tuscany.

TONY ROCCA, a journalist, spent much of his career in London writing for the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, and in New York as U.S. correspondent for the Mail. His freelance work has appeared in a variety of U.K. and U.S. publications, and he is the author of a memoir, Catching Fireflies.

For readers outside the United States the original edition is still available from all good book retailers throughout the United Kingdom, price £14.99, and online at www.amazon.co.uk

READ Amazon’s customer reviews of the book HERE.


Joining us for our presentation next Sunday in London will be Wall Street Journal writer Lucette Lagnado, who was born in Cairo and grew up in the United States. Lucette is the author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, which tells of her family’s exodus from Old Cairo to the New World.

map2Full details of the event here

Discover more about the Jewish Book Week programme  here

Opening times and how to get there, here

The main venue is the Royal National Hotel, Bedford Way (off Russell Square). Our event is taking place in the Institute of Education, opposite.

Look forward to seeing you there!

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

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.