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

poster

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