Warm wishes from a correspondent

So far this year our travels to promote the book have taken us to events in London, Tel Aviv and Montreal. Towards the end of October we are planning a big trip to the USA and Canada again, with San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Toronto on the itinerary so far. More later as details firm up.

While the purpose of these events is to bring ‘Memories’ to the attention of a broader audience and sell books, one unexpected spinoff has been the way they have resulted in broken links being restored between people who have lost contact with one another. Most particularly, in Mira’s case, meeting up with long-lost relatives and friends whom she hasn’t seen since childhood. It’s a lovely surprise, greatly satisfying.

Mira has consequently acquired a whole new bunch of correspondents writing about family connections and the family tree. We have been particularly touched by an email this week from someone (who may or may not be a distant relation: she’s still trying to work it out) whose reaction to the book has been precisely what Violette was hoping for. She wrote with the younger generation in mind to make them aware of the bygone era which was so very different from the perception of the Middle East that is current today.

The message is from Elliot, a 30-year-old Londoner of Iraqi-Jewish extraction who has asked us to withold his surname. Here is an edited version.

Many thanks for the publication of ‘Memories of Eden,’ which I finished reading last week. I was so impressed that I’ve since ordered three more copies, to give to family and friends.

To me at least, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of the book.

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.

Particularly with my generation, there’s little awareness about the way our grandparents lived, the food they ate or the language they spoke. That world would seem so ‘Arab’ to us, and as British Jews, we associate being ‘Arab’ with an image of a backward enemy — a character in a reconstructed narrative played out on the daily news.

Likewise, amongst young British Muslims or British Arabs, there’s almost no knowledge that Jews and their grandparents once lived peacefully together in the Middle East — that there wasn’t always a divided ‘them and us’, just as it wasn’t always Shia against Sunni.

This is made all the more prescient to me through my partner’s family, who are Syrian Muslims. Between our own group of friends, all with a link to the Middle East, we founded a small and fleeting ‘Arab-Jewish’ organization called Yalla!, which made the Guardian news during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

So why am I writing all this?

Firstly – to thank you both and your late mother for a beautifully written and enlightening book. Secondly, as someone constantly reminded of my relatively unknown heritage by my own appearance, to reach out and make contact for contact’s sake.

Thanks again.

All the best,

Elliot M

Thank you, Elliot.

Vive le Québec libre!

Just back from Canada, and a fantastic time in Montreal (first visit). What great people, what a fine city. And we were so lucky with the weather — it only rained one day.

Our event, in Westmount public library, was 100% over-subscribed. A fantastic success (but so very sorry for those who were disappointed and had to stand outside in the corridor). The slideshow was the highlight,  a much-improved version of the small sample you can see here on the right and on the website.  There were many interesting questions about the book and old Baghdad. The books we shipped over for the talk all sold out, so now we are making arrangements privately to have a further small supply available. Watch This Space for details, or if you don’t want to wait for a copy please get it from Amazon (how to, on the right). 

Westmount is a lovely leafy suburb, and the library, built in the days of Queen Victoria, has undergone a massive facelift: a triumph of modernisation while maintaining the best of the old, such as the room in which we held our soirée, and the delightful greenhouse in the grounds.

As for Montreal itself, we liked: the broad streets with their trees and flower beds; the sense of space inside the department stores; the politeness and helpfulness we encountered everywhere; the life-size moose cut-outs lining Sherbrooke Street (they were just being installed, complete with a little name-plate that was still blank, prompting Tony to say they had to be Anonymoose); the Musée des Beaux Arts where they had two great shows: Cuba and Yves Saint Laurent (whose death we read about on our return home).  We disliked: the two taxes that are added to every marked price, putting it up by 15%;  the cost of wine in restaurants; the way pedestrian crossings at traffic lights are not always consistent. Some have a brilliant idea, a pictogram giving a countdown from 15 seconds to zero so you know how quickly you have to walk; at others you just have to wait until the traffic stops on red. As visitors we found this confusing. Not to mention how, to someone with a wonky hip, 15 seconds to cross a boulevard seems a bit ungenerous.

On the traffic front it appears Montrealers are quite well disciplined and patient, though it’s not what our friend David, who lives in the city, thinks. (He should try living in Italy or France!) Peculiar fact: vehicles in Quebec don’t have to have a licence plate at the front. This means cars look as their designers mean them to look — but I’m surprised the police have agreed to it. 

Following my architectural bent, it was gratifying to see buildings uncluttered with neon advertising slogans (banned, with one exception for a flour mill by the docks which escaped under the excuse of being an historic monument. A monument with neon? Go figure). The downtown skyline is quite restrained by North American standards, and of course the historic Vielle Ville just wows US visitors who think it is soooo European. It is, in a North American kinda way.  

But it’s underground, not overground, where Montreal shines. Did I read there are 33 kilometres of subterranean shopping walks and malls? They are stunning, all interlinked with the Metro, and perfectly clean and ventilated (air-conditioned, obviously; great carbon-footprinting). And absolutely essential in a place where cruel winters mean you poke your head out at your peril in January, February and March. It’s perishingly cold for much longer than that, too, with record snowfalls this winter. Ironically, says David, this is due to global warming.  Previously, the thermometer has stayed well below zero Celsius, too cold for snow.  By warming a few degrees it has brought prolonged periods of the white stuff.

Lastly, we were fascinated by Quebecers’ language skills, quaint in both accent and vocabulary.  With three million inhabitants Montreal is, I just read, the third largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris and, surprisingly, Kinshasa). Their French is ‘old French’, with an accent that’s totally impenetrable. I think it comes from eating too much poutine, that quintessential Canadian comfort food guaranteed to give you a heart attack and two inches on the waistline (Wikipedia:  a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown BBQ chicken gravy and sometimes other additional ingredients.) In Quebec French it’s pronounced putsɪn which gives you a clue to the rest of our problems, as we live in ‘old France’ itself, where the language has considerably moved on from Louis IV’s day. Hey, even down here in Provence where the accent is as thick as crème brûlée we can communicate perfectly well with the natives; there, it really does sound  foreign.

We enjoyed some rich moments, due partly to their knack of unnecessarily complicating matters. Where the French have WiFi (pron. ‘weefee’, and not to be confused with ‘wifey’) they have ‘Zone Internet gratuit’. A fridge is a réfrigerateur – not particularly surprising maybe, but over here it’s a ‘frigo‘. A bus-only lane  (marked ‘Sauf Bus’ in France) is ‘Sauf Les Autobus’ etc. You get it. I thought my judgement about driving conditions could be called into question, and there must be a massive road accident problem, when I saw car repair shops on every street corner… and then I realised a Dépanneur was a convenience store. A dépanneur here is someone who gets you out of trouble when your car’s broken down and is en panne.

But if the
poutine doesn’t get you, Colonel Sanders will.  Fancy a little PFK, anyone? You got it: Poulet Frit Kentucky.

Bon appétit!