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

More from our mailbag

Recently we have received two letters from Iraqis of widely differing backgrounds and beliefs, who have been moved to write after reading Memories of Eden. The sentiments expressed embody the harmony that Violette talks about in her book, proving that the spirit lives on even if  the reality on the ground in today’s Iraq is somewhat different. Here they are in full, unedited.

‘As a community we will not survive’

Thank you a lot for showing the real Iraq and how we lived in harmony. I am born in 1960 in Baghdad, my doctor was a Jew his name Dauod Kubaya, and the nurse that used to give me injections and I ran away from her (Rahma) also she was a Jew. I remember her.

Classic Manean pictography. Iraqi Mandeans, an ancient Middle East religious group that reveres John the Baptist.

Classic Mandaean pictography. Iraqi Mandaeans are an ancient Middle East religious group who revere John the Baptist.

I am a Mandaean (followers of John the Baptist),we lived like you a good life, I spent all my school years in (Rahebat Altakdema),this was a catholic school on the Tigris river very famous.

My mother had many Jews friends.

We always think about you.

Although I cried a lot but for the first time I felt really as if I was there, all her discription was right.

Now I am living in Australia and nothing left for us just the memories.

We are scattered everywhere.  I have 5 sisters, 2 in England senior doctors consultants, another doctor in Canada, another in Sweden, and another in Holland.

Historically it is said that we are Jews originally and we came from Israel 2000 years ago.  We are Gnostic. I am not a religious person but I love  my people…the Mandaean.  Almost 90% left Iraq, we were about 60,000, now left only 5,000.

'Exterminating Mandaean culture'

Woodcut: 'Exterminating Mandaean culture'

As a community we will not survive.

Mandaeans are stranded in Syria and Jordan as refugees.

And all of them are very well educated and they have nowhere to go.

At least you have Israel, but we don’t have that backbone to keep us safe, our country Iraq has been taken from us, hijacked by those extremists.

The religion and the culture is going to disappear.

I heard a lot about the Iraqi Jews and how nice they were.

I heard stories from my father and the house where we lived in the late Fifties was owned by a Jewish man In Battawyeen (Bustan Al Kass).

And the Jewish man before leaving asked my father to take all the gold he had which was a fortune and just give him 100 Dinars, but my father refused, he said How can I receive that money? First because it was against his will to sell, and secondly it is not equal.

There were many honest people during that time and till now.

And the Jewish  man said Oh my God, you are an honest man and I am not lucky.

I am still afraid to speak out loudly because I have cousins still living in Baghdad. Forgive me, I don’t want you to write my name, just write what I said about our memories.

And thank you so much.

And maybe we will meet one day.

(Name withheld by request)

 

‘It’s your land as it’s ours’

Hi there,

I don’t know you but… I just want to say Hi for all Iraqi Jews in Israel or out of it.

I am a Muslim from Baghdad originally from Nineveh. I believe that it’s not fair what had happened to you and to all of us, it’s your land as it’s ours and now we are all out of it , the land means where you have …

During the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C., the city of Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and the cultural, economic and political epicentre of the world.

During the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C., the city of Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and the cultural, economic and political epicentre of the world. In an effort to preserve the rich archaeological history of Nineveh, the US National Endowment for the Humanities has provided funding for this digitization project, based at the University of California, Berkeley. There is a further description of the project here:http://okapi.wordpress.com/projects/digital-nineveh-archives

I lived from 1974 till 2003 in Eden, it wasn’t  good days but it’s really Eden. I believe that all Iraqi Jews should return to Iraq as before bcs religion is not a motive of nations, I mean any religion can live anywhere, it’s not a politic issue it’s personal think

Violence is now a part of the daily life world wide, but really I feel Iraqis are more than others who had suffered more than others: inside their land ( bcs always no fair governments ) as well as out side the land (bcs of hardly homesickness), drinking of dijla (Tigris ) water is another water.  You won’t understand my words, but I swear it has a great effect that remain all the life.

I am proud of what you did, this web site is so nice and full of good information in photos, I wish I can have some of them… I am doing now my PhD research in Italy about ‘ the architectural Identity of the city of Baghdad’ and I studied lots of our Jews history.

Just want to give you my compliments

— M.K.

 

 

London event


We’d like to draw everyone’s attention to something unusual taking place in London this Sunday, 22 June: a celebration of Jewish-Iraqi culture that is shaping up to be something both remarkable and unique.

The flyer explains it all. Well, nearly all. The organisers invited us to attend to give a talk about Memories of Eden. Naturally, we were delighted — but there was no way that Tony could make it from our home in the South of France as he has just had a hip replaced and is hopping around on crutches. Mira is going, however, and will be appearing on the platform alongside our old friend and mentor, Professor Shmuel Moreh from the Hebrew University.

So please give support, everybody!

Place: Ohel David Eastern Synagogue, 4-14 Broadwalk Lane, off Golders Green Rd, London, NW11 8HD. Nearest Tube: Golders Green on the Northern Line

Time: Registration – from 09:00 for the morning session which will finish at 13:00
– from 15:00 for the afternoon session which will finish at 19:00

Price: to include refreshments & traditional snacks: £20 per session

Reservations (advised as space is limited): halahel2008@gmail.com or 0207 244 0222