Click each title to read the full text‘…a book not so much about politics and history as about vanished pleasure.’
‘When Violette was born in 1912, Baghdad was, amazingly, one-third Jewish.’
‘A beautifully executed and richly textured account of a family and a community.’
The happy memories of a Baghdad Jew remind us that everything could have been so different
Ian Jack Saturday February 2, 2008
Living in a rich and relatively stable continent, we are sometimes unaware of how quickly and absolutely history can vanish elsewhere; in the words of Violette Shamash, of how a people and a way of living can be “erased like chalk from a blackboard”. In her case, the people are the Iraqi Jews and the way of life that of the city of Baghdad before 1941, but it has happened in many other parts of the world. Even in Britain, in Durham, say, or Ayrshire, you can stumble across a pattern on a hillside that marks the site of an old pit village that lived and died in the 20th century leaving no monuments and only the barest of records. Witnesses are needed – preferably articulate witnesses. In Violette Shamash, old Baghdad has found one. How many people should care about that? I think anyone with half an interest in the Middle East.
Shamash’s book Memories of Eden is published later this month. She died two years ago, aged 94, and the book has been edited from her notes and diaries by her daughter and son-in-law. Perhaps no man could have written it. As Professor Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, says in his foreword, memoirs of the Jewish community in Iraq have come chiefly from men and waver between “the sentimental and embittered”. Shamash has remarkably little bitterness. Even as she watches news reports of Saddam Hussein’s statue tumbling down in 2003, all she will say is that she was born 25 years before him, “before the creation of Iraq, before another foreign army, British this time, marched victoriously into the city in the name of bringing democracy to the people.”
And yet one might think there is good deal to be bitter about. In 1941, Jews in Iraq numbered 150,000 out of a population of around 2 million. Jews once made up 40% of Baghdad’s population. Their ancestors had been in Iraq since the Babylonian captivity 2,600 years before. Shamash, who was born in 1912, grew up in a harmonious city that at the end of the first world war had barely changed since the 17th century. As an outpost of the Ottoman empire, modernity had hardly touched it. “My earliest memories are of water and heat,” she writes of a city where the summer temperatures could easily reach 122F and most goods came up the Tigris on a guffa, a kind of coracle waterproofed in bitumen.
She was born into a prosperous family – her father, a trader and money-changer, built a big house across the river from where the Green Zone now lies – but the lavatory was still a repugnant slit in the ground. Simple things were unheard of; “when the first watches appeared, children would stand on the street corner, waiting to ask any prosperous-looking passer-by if he could tell them the time.” Houses had thick, windowless walls to keep out the heat and cold, and also to protect them from the great Baghdad problem, thievery. Doctors were few and medicine expensive; every year small plagues of cholera and dysentery claimed a crop of victims. Eden? Shamash concedes it was “primitive”, but then remembers the compensations: salads eaten with lemon and salt, orchards of oranges, pomegranates, peaches, almonds and walnuts, country excursions to see the shrine of Ezekiel.
More important, the Jews felt themselves integrated. Her father wore a fez and a big moustache. Jewish women dressed like their Muslim counterparts in long robes, pantaloons, headscarves and veils. Their influence on the city’s life was so great that Saturday rather than Friday became Baghdad’s day of rest. Jews were virtually the only instrumentalists in the whole of Iraq. The Baghdad Symphony Orchestra was entirely Jewish from conductor down to kettle-drum, and when Radio Iraq got its own band going in 1936 it contained only one Muslim musician. But by then Iraq was changing very quickly, as a new country cobbled by the British in 1921 out of three Ottoman vilayets or provinces and rewarded with a king, Faisal, imported from Saudi Arabia.
The Jews liked the British and that increased the distrust of the Muslims Oil, the principal reason for British interest, was discovered in vast quantities near Kirkuk in 1927. Though the British mandate ran out in 1932, Britain perpetuated its political control through Faisal’s playboy son, Ghazi, who inherited the throne and ruled ineffectually until his sports car met a tree in 1939.
Westernisation had arrived and was dividing the country between modernisers and traditionalists. Shamash chronicles its impact in small, specific ways: bobbed hair on women, the first cigarettes, cinemas showing Chaplin. The western import with the most far-reaching effect, however, was Zionism. Iraqi Jews were anti-Zionist, perhaps out of a self-interested desire not to rock their own boat, but that didn’t stop the “Save Palestine” movement spreading to Iraq and with it a rash of anti-semitic violence.
Then the war broke out and, as Shamash writes, “its contagious sickness spread to Baghdad”. Arab nationalism was pro-Nazi. She was married by now – an arranged marriage – and desperate to leave with her husband and child. A coup brought a pro-Nazi group led by a lawyer, Rashid Ali, to power in 1941 and sent the regent (the new king was only five years old) packing. The farhud, or pogrom, came soon after. In the first days of June, 1941, during the celebration of the Pentecost, at least 187 people died when mobs attacked Baghdad’s Jewish homes and businesses.
In an appendix to Shamash’s book, her son-in-law, Tony Rocca, shows clearly that it should never have happened. The new Iraqi regime had crumbled and the British army was already encamped on the outskirts of Baghdad, under orders from Churchill and Lt. General Wavell to take the city. If the army had entered as they wanted to, there would have been no massacre. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, the British ambassador, was the obstacle. He had signed a generous armistice which declared (not for the last time) that Britain’s enemies were not the Iraqi people but a particular personage: Rashid Ali. To re-install the regent with the support of British troops would have rubbed Iraqi noses in their defeat, and made the truth – that Britain ran the show – too obvious.
Shamash and her family escaped to India later that year and moved eventually, via Palestine and Cyprus, to London. Thousands followed them. Between 1951 and 1952, about 120,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq to Israel. In 2006, according to her book, about a dozen families remained in Baghdad, still with a rabbi.
Reading Memories of Eden, a book not so much about politics and history as about vanished pleasure, it is hard to resist the thought that everything could have been different were it not for the poisoned apple of oil. Iraq had for a time at least the roots of a harmonious, multicultural state, which in the Middle East is now only to be dreamed of. In this way, Shamash’s book is both a memorial and an instruction saying: “See, it is not impossible.”
• Memories of Eden by Violette Shamash is published by Forum on February 21
Memories of Eden By Tom Segev March 20, 2008
June 1, 1941 was the date of the festival of Shavuot. On that day, Arab hoodlums burst into the Jewish neighborhoods of Baghdad. The riots continued the next day, too. The rioters raided the houses, murdered, raped, looted, burned a synagogue and shops. Nobody knows for certain how many Jewish residents were killed; their number is generally estimated at over 150. Many hundreds were wounded.
The pogrom, which is known as the Farhud, was stopped by the Baghdad police. Arabs, too, were killed and wounded. Less than 24 hours earlier, Baghdad had been transferred to British rule. Churchill ordered that the short-lived regime of Rashid Ali al-Gilani, who had seized power with the help of the Nazis, be brought down. The British entry into Iraq was considered part of World War II.
The Farhud of Baghdad marked the beginning of the end of the most ancient Jewish community in the world, and some compare it to Kristallnacht in Germany and Austria 70 years ago.
A young couple, Violette and David Shamash, were celebrating the holiday with relatives; they had left their baby, Mira, with an Arab nanny. They experienced hours of terrible anxiety until the nanny brought the child to them. Meanwhile they began to move the furniture, in order to block the doors.
Violette heard women’s screams from the neighboring houses. Afterward she discovered that many of the Arab neighbors had volunteered to protect the Jews. This is a very Jewish story, not a Zionist one. Violette and David Shamash described themselves as Arabic Jews. The Farhud spurred them to leave their country. Like many Iraqi Jews, they settled at first in Bombay, but the British were about to leave India; Violette and David Shamash came to Jerusalem. The British were about to leave the Land of Israel as well, so the Shamashes settled in Cyprus. After the British left there, too, the couple moved to London.
Violette Shamash liked to write. When she died about two years ago at the age of 94, she left behind a large collection of letters and diary entries that describe the daily routine of the last generation of a community that had lived in Iraq consecutively for 2,500 years: What they ate and what they wore, how they fell in love and how they mourned. Aware of the changing times, she wrote about the appearance of the first matches and the first wristwatches, and also diligently recorded what happened to the Jews of Baghdad whenever a new ruler came to power.
Mira, the baby, grew up and married Tony Rocca, who was a Sunday Times correspondent, and the two edited Violette Shamash’s letters and diary entries into a captivating autobiography; shortly before her death, she managed to witness the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue. The book, which has just been published, broadcasts nostalgia; it is entitled “Memories of Eden.”
Rocca researched the events of that day and for the first time suggests a fully documented answer to the question of why the British did not act to prevent the Farhud. Its essence: The British ambassador, Kinahan Cornwallis, did not obey the instructions he received from London; he did what he wanted. As one of those who had invented the Iraqi nation, the ambassador thought that the residents of Baghdad should not be angered and should not be given a feeling that the British were imposing a puppet government on them. Therefore he left the army outside the center of Baghdad and allowed the Arabs to harm the Jews.
The Arabs hated them, one reason being that they were considered allies of the British in Iraq; and they also hated the British, one reason being that they were considered allies of the Jews in the Land of Israel. Everyone knew what was about to happen; ambassador Cornwallis didn’t care. Lawrence of Arabia described him as a man “forged from one of those incredible metals with a melting point of thousands of degrees.” The honorable ambassador spent the hours of the Farhud playing bridge.
Memories of Eden: A Journey through Jewish Baghdad by Violette Shamash, edited by Mira Rocca and Tony Rocca. Forum, 326 pp., £14.99, February, ISBN 978 0 9557095 0 0 Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew by Sasson Somekh. Ibis, 186 pp., £9.50, November 2007, ISBN 978 965 90125 8 9
On 27 April 1950 a man whose passport identified him as Richard Armstrong flew from Amsterdam to Baghdad. He came as a representative of Near East Air Transport, an American charter company seeking to win a contract with Iraq’s prime minister, Tawfiq al-Suwaida, to fly Iraqi Jews to Cyprus.
Only six weeks earlier, the Iraqi government had passed the Denaturalisation Act, which allowed Jews to emigrate provided they renounced their citizenship, and gave them a year to decide whether to do so. Al-Suwaida expected that between seven and ten thousand Jews would leave out of a community of about 125,000, but a mysterious bombing in Baghdad on the last day of Passover, near a café frequented by Jews, caused panic, and the numbers registering soon outstripped his estimate.
The position of the Jews in Iraq had been deteriorating with alarming speed ever since the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948: they were seen as a stalking horse for the Zionists in Palestine, and were increasingly rewarded for their expressions of loyalty to Iraq with suspicion, threats and arbitrary physical assaults. By the spring of 1950 the question was when, not whether to leave, and on 9 May NEAT signed a contract with the Iraqi government to organise their departure.
For Richard Armstrong and NEAT, the uprooting of the Middle East’s most ancient Jewish community was not a mere business transaction: it was a mission. Armstrong was really Shlomo (né Selim) Hillel, an Iraqi-born Mossad agent; NEAT was secretly owned by the Jewish Agency; and Israel, not Cyprus, was the refugees’ ultimate destination.
It’s unlikely that al-Suwaida and the minister of the interior, Saleh Jabr, were fooled. Hillel claimed to be the ‘swarthy-skinned son’ of a British colonial official who’d worked in India, but he didn’t look much like an Armstrong. And he’d been arrested a few years earlier in Baghdad, where, under the alias Fuad Salah, he’d been training Zionist militants in attics and cellars. But if the Iraqis knew who he was, they didn’t call his bluff: they owned shares in the tourism agency in Baghdad through which NEAT had chosen to operate, and stood to benefit from the deal. ‘We parted on the most cordial terms,’ Hillel remembered in his memoir, Operation Babylon.
By the end of 1952, almost all of Iraq’s Jews had fled, in what Mossad called Operation Ezekiel and Nehemiah. The exodus of Mesopotamia’s Jews, who traced their origins back to the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE, would have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. As Violette Shamash writes, Babylon was the home of ‘our patriarch Abraham Abinou’; the place where the Talmud was written and Jewish law codified. And if distant memories weren’t enough to bind Jews to their ancestral home, something more tangible did: security and the promise of a good life.
Of all the Jewish communities in the Middle East, the Mesopotamian Jews were the most integrated, the most Arabised, the most prosperous. Not only had they freely practised their faith under the Ottomans, they had become the country’s most powerful economic group. And there was hardly an area of Mesopotamian culture on which Jews had not left their imprint, from the style of music performed in Baghdad’s cafés to the wafting amba, a mango pickle that Baghdadi Jews working in India brought home with them.[*]
Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule, seeking to expose the ‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. This tolerance, it’s argued, is a euphemism for dependence on the goodwill of capricious, if not cruel Muslim overlords. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews, however, tell a very different story: Shamash, who was born in 1912 and spent the last twenty years of her life recording her memories of ‘my Baghdad, my native land’, is not alone in describing her family’s life before the arrival of British troops in World War One as ‘paradise’.
Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get. It’s a portrait of the city as seen from inside a qasr, the palace her merchant father built on the banks of the Tigris, facing what is now the Green Zone. Shamash’s extended family lived in the qasr’s separate wings, connected by maslak, ground-floor corridors. The fragrance of walnut and apricot trees pervaded the garden; kebabs were grilled in a tanoor, a wood-burning clay oven. Europe exerted a strong attraction: the family shopped at Orosdi-Beck, the country’s first Western department store, and Shamash was sent to a school run by the Alliance Israëlite Universelle, a French network established throughout the Middle East. But local traditions held their ground: women wore amulets to protect themselves from the Evil Eye and Muslim healers were consulted when children fell sick.
As in most memoirs by wealthy exiles, life seems idyllic until things go bad. ‘All the communities lived together peaceably, teasing each other good-naturedly and without inhibition about their religion,’ Shamash writes, until ‘the poison of Arab nationalism and Nazism entered the bloodstream’. Now it all seems a little unreal, even to her: ‘I feel as if I am telling you a dream and that it will be very hard for you to join the pieces together.’
Jewish life under the Ottomans wasn’t without its hardships: few Jews lived in palaces like the Shamash family, and as members of a non-Muslim ‘millet’ community they were obliged to pay a discriminatory tax, but they were mostly left to look after their own affairs, and further advance seemed inevitable. The vast majority lived in cities, apart from a handful of Kurdish Jews. As bankers, traders and money-lenders the wealthier members of the community had made themselves indispensable: so much so that Baghdad’s markets shut down on the Jewish Sabbath, rather than the Muslim day of rest.
By the 19th century, Baghdad was famous for its Jewish dynasties – the Sassoons, the Abrahams, the Ezras, the Kadouries – with their empires in finance and imports (cotton, tobacco, silk, tea, opium) that stretched all the way to Manchester, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Rangoon, Shanghai and Hong Kong. When Balfour announced Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, leaving Mesopotamia for the kibbutz was the furthest thing from the minds of Baghdad’s Jews. ‘The announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia, nor did it leave a ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad,’ Arnold Wilson, the civil commissioner in Baghdad, reported to the Foreign Office after a meeting with a group of Iraqi Jewish notables. Palestine, they had said, ‘is a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town to live in’: Compared with Palestine, Mesopotamia was paradise. This is the Garden of Eden, said one; it is from this country that Adam was driven forth – give us a good government and we will make this country flourish. For us Mesopotamia is a home, a national home to which the Jews of Bombay and Persia and Turkey will be glad to come.
Baghdad’s Jews failed to grasp that the rules of the Ottoman game, with its special protections for non-Muslim minorities, no longer applied in the British-ruled provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, where a mandate was established in 1919. Shamash writes that Baghdad’s Jews and the British felt an ‘instant connection’: ‘the British saw that there was much to gain from befriending us, with whom they had already had contact during a century of trade under colonial rule in India.’ True: but the wealthier members of the community expected more from this friendship than the British could offer if they hoped to maintain peaceful relations with the Muslim majority of what, in 1921, would become the Arab kingdom of Iraq. Jewish fear of majority rule led, early on, to fateful miscalculations.
When the British conquered Baghdad in 1918, the president of the Jewish lay council and the acting chief rabbi appealed for direct British rule, on the grounds that their Muslim neighbours weren’t ready ‘to undertake with success the management of their own affairs’. After this was rejected, a group of Jewish notables petitioned for British citizenship, giving the distinct impression that they regarded themselves as separate from and superior to the emerging national community. The British, seeking to harness – and neutralise – the energies of Arab nationalism, were in no position to grant this request. ‘The Jews of Baghdad were defeated from the start,’ Elie Kedourie, a British historian of Baghdadi Jewish origin, concluded in 1970 in The Chatham House Version. ‘The situation was completely beyond their understanding.’ Mesopotamia’s Jews resigned themselves to becoming Iraqis only when it was made plain to them that the alternative was not to become British subjects but to remain Ottomans and be treated as foreigners in their own country.
For the first decade of Iraq’s existence, they fared well under the protection of the country’s new king, Faisal, the former ruler of Syria and son of Hussein, the sharif of Mecca. Shortly after being installed by the British, the king met a group of Jewish leaders at the chief rabbi’s home. ‘There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims and Christians in the terminology of patriotism,’ he assured his audience, ‘there is simply a country called Iraq and all are Iraqis.’ Another powerful ally of the Jewish community was Nuri al-Said, Britain’s man in Baghdad, who served as Iraq’s prime minister a total of 14 times, until the overthrow of the monarchy – and his assassination – in 1958.
Urbane, Western-educated, often fluent in both Arabic and English, Jews staffed the civil service, ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state. Yet they were to suffer increasingly from their association with Faisal and al-Said. As Kedourie noted, the Iraqi political class disdained the monarchy as ‘a make-believe kingdom, built on false pretences and kept going by a British design and for a British purpose’. That design and that purpose found expression in a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away, and British dominance guaranteed, before the mandate came to an end. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930, for example, concluded three years after oil was discovered in Kirkuk, allowed the British to keep control of Iraqi foreign policy, itself partly directed by British advisers who stayed on after independence, notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, a severe Arabist who had attracted T.E. Lawrence’s awe and Gertrude Bell’s unrequited love.
As friends of the British, Iraq’s Jews were an easy scapegoat for anti-colonial fury. As if one mandate weren’t enough of a burden, they were identified with the British mandate – and with Jewish colonisation – in Palestine. In fact, they were indifferent, and often hostile, to Zionism: whatever pride some took in the creation of a Jewish ‘national home’ was more than offset by the worry that it would endanger them in Iraq. But the Zionists in Palestine claimed to speak in the name of the Jewish people, and thus in their name as well.
Already resented for their enormous economic power – 2 per cent of the population, Jews handled 75 per cent of imports – they were twice guilty by association. Nothing they said or did to oppose Zionism – even donations to Palestinian fighters – protected them from being portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column, especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine, imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country, and befriended Hitler’s assiduous ambassador to Baghdad, Fritz Grobba.
The Germans had their eyes on the country’s oil, and shrewdly cultivated Arab nationalists in the Iraqi army by playing on anti-British and anti-Zionist sentiments, as they were also doing in Jerusalem and Cairo. The Futuwaa, a paramilitary brigade modelled on the Hitler Youth, began to threaten Jews in the streets. As Shamash recalls, ‘our men started coming home early, worried about staying too long in the city.’ Jewish nerves were calmed somewhat when, in 1939, Ghazi was killed in a car accident – possibly an assassination engineered by Nuri al-Said and the British – and replaced by his pro-British uncle, Emir Abd al-Ilah. (Ghazi’s four-year-old son was too young to serve as king.) That same year, however, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, took refuge in Baghdad after the defeat of the Arab revolt in Palestine. The mufti launched a campaign of incitement against the Jews, and became a key adviser to the Golden Square, a group of pro-German, pan-Arab colonels led by Rashid Ali al-Gailani.
For the Golden Square, Iraq was part of a larger Arab nation, in which Jews were an irremediably foreign element. In April 1941, the Golden Square overthrew the regent and concluded a secret treaty with the Axis that would have allowed them oil and pipeline concessions, the lease of ports, and the right to build naval and military bases. In May the British invaded to restore the regent. Had they not done so, Iraqi oil might have fuelled Operation Barbarossa. The British invasion, however, led to the worst assault on Jewish life and property in the history of Iraq, the farhud (‘breakdown of law and order’) of June 1941. Despite threats from al-Gailani’s supporters that the Jews would be punished for ‘treason’, the British refused to secure the capital. ‘There will be many people killed if our troops do not enter,’ one intelligence officer warned, but Cornwallis ordered British soldiers to remain on the outskirts of Baghdad when the regent returned. The presence of British bayonets, he argued, would be ‘lowering to the dignity of our ally’. To preserve the fiction that Britain had not so much occupied Iraq as restored its legitimate government, defeated but fully armed Golden Square soldiers were permitted to enter Baghdad, singly rather than in formation.
It was 1 June, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. As these soldiers crossed the Khir Bridge to the western side of Baghdad that morning, they passed small groups of Jews walking in the opposite direction after prayer services to welcome the regent. They were furious to see the Jews in all their finery, and since it was Sunday, not the Jewish Sabbath, they assumed they had dressed up for the regent. The Jews were set upon, first with fists, then knives. The farhud continued for two days, an orgy of murder, rape and arson that left two hundred Jews and a number of Muslims dead. Most Jews hid in their basements; some, like Shamash’s family, were given shelter by Muslim neighbours. No help came from the British, who remained on the right bank of the Tigris, out of respect for Iraqi sovereignty.
After the farhud wealthy Jews began to leave Iraq; some, like Shamash and her family, joined relatives in India, where there were entire communities of Baghdadi Jews. Yet Sasson Somekh insists that the farhud was not ‘the beginning of the end’. Indeed, he claims it was soon ‘almost erased from the collective Jewish memory’, washed away by ‘the prosperity experienced by the entire city from 1941 to 1948′.
Somekh, who was born in 1933, remembers the 1940s as a ‘golden age’ of ‘security’, ‘recovery’ and ‘consolidation’, in which the ‘Jewish community had regained its full creative drive’. Jews built new homes, schools and hospitals, showing every sign of wanting to stay. They took part in politics as never before; at Bretton Woods, Iraq was represented by Ibrahim al-Kabir, the Jewish finance minister.
Some joined the Zionist underground, but many more waved the red flag. Liberal nationalists and Communists rallied people behind a conception of national identity far more inclusive than the Golden Square’s Pan-Arabism, allowing Jews to join ranks with other Iraqis – even in opposition to the British and Nuri al-Said, who did not take their ingratitude lightly.
Somekh grew up in a mixed neighbourhood of Baghdad known as the Lettuce Beds. He studied Arabic under a Shia cleric from the al-Sadr dynasty and began writing Arabic poetry in his teens; his literary mentors, to whom he pays tribute, were also Arabs. His subtitle is ‘The Making of an Arab Jew’, and though he doesn’t shy away from the strains of Arab-Jewish relations in Iraq, his wry, wistful memoir is an elegy for an experiment in coexistence, rather than a Zionist parable about its impossibility.
Baghdad, Yesterday evokes a world in which Arab and Jewish writers met in cafés on al-Rashid Street, browsed in the same bookshops and dreamed of an independent, secular, modern state; a world in which it would be possible for a young man like Somekh to consider himself both a Jew and an Arab. He has written a gentle book about one of the least gentle of historical relationships.
Many of the writers Somekh knew in Iraq were in the orbit of the Communist Party, which became the most powerful opposition force in the 1940s, leading protests against the British and strikes in the oil industry, and developing an Iraqi civic identity that transcended sect. Until 1948, according to Somekh, the Communists succeeded in ‘channelling popular anger against “imperialism” and “Zionism” rather than specifically towards the Jews’. In 1946, a group of Jewish Communists formed the League for Fighting Zionism, which braved threats from the Zionist underground and would later, absurdly, be accused of being a Zionist front itself by Nuri al-Said, who felt betrayed by Jewish involvement in the Communist opposition.
The league published a newspaper that had a readership of six thousand, larger than the entire Zionist movement in Iraq. And Jews marched in the demonstrations of February 1948 known as the Wathba, or ‘leap forward’, in which Iraqis of all sects protested against the Portsmouth Treaty, which ensured Britain’s dominance over Iraq’s economy and foreign policy for the next 25 years.
Jewish integration was doomed by the war in Palestine. On 15 May 1948, three months after the Wathba, the state of Israel was proclaimed, the Arab armies invaded, and al-Said imposed martial law. A week later, newspapers in Iraq were calling for a boycott of Jewish shops, to ‘liberate’ Iraqis from the ‘economic slavery and domination imposed by the Jewish minority’. This suspicion of Jews was encouraged by a weak and reviled government for whom Arab nationalism was a crude but effective weapon, distracting attention from its colonial docility, and from its poor military performance in Palestine.
The freezing of Palestinian assets by the Israeli government and the arrival in Iraq of eight thousand Palestinian refugees in the summer of 1948 did nothing to calm things. Responding to a wave of popular anger, the Iraqi government declared Zionism a capital offence, fired Jews in government positions and, invoking Stalin’s support of partition, found another pretext to round up Communists of all sects. Among the Jewish victims of anti-Communist repression was the brother of one of Somekh’s friends, who was hanged in Baghdad’s main square. Somekh remembers his terror when, after answering an exam question about Iraq’s recent history with a Marxist analysis of the country’s subordination to British interests, he found ‘three official-looking men’ waiting for him outside the classroom. They praised his essay, but the next day the principal warned him to ‘avoid such opinionated displays because they put both you and the school at risk’.
The event that shook Iraq’s Jews most profoundly was the show trial and execution in 1948 of a businessman with strong connections to the monarchy, on charges of supplying British army scrap to Israel. Shafiq Adas, who was hanged outside his Basra mansion before cheering crowds, was by all accounts an apolitical man: if he wasn’t safe, no one was. The Jewish population grew more receptive to the overtures of Mossad, which had become increasingly active in Iraq since the Golden Square took power, some agents entering the country as volunteers with the British army during the 1941 invasion.
Mossad’s objective was not to improve the position of the Jews in Iraq, but to hasten their departure. Pamphlets appeared discouraging Jews from mixing with Arabs, and arguing that any attempt to do so ‘leads to butchery’. The Israeli government circulated stories about Iraqi ‘pogroms’ and ‘concentration camps’ and denounced the hanging of seven Jews charged with Zionist activism in March 1949 – executions that Mossad’s own agents in Baghdad insisted had never occurred. Unless Iraqi Jews were allowed to emigrate, Israel warned, it would back armed resistance to al-Said’s government, or find itself unable to prevent Iraqi Jews already in Israel from killing Palestinians in revenge.
The Israelis also began to promote the idea of a ‘sorting out’ of populations, involving a swap of Iraqi Jews for an equal number of Palestinian refugees, an idea quietly encouraged by the Foreign Office: ‘National exuberance is a phenomenon which is going to last a long time in the Middle East. On the whole, elimination of awkward minorities is likely to cool rather than fan the flames.’ If Israel was a sanctuary for Iraq’s Jews, it was also among the reasons they were in such desperate need of one.
By 1950, thousands of Jews had fled; many crossed into Iran on horseback with the help of Arab and Kurdish smugglers. Embarrassed by this ‘wildcat immigration’, the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies decided to take matters into its own hands with the Denaturalisation Law of 4 March 1950. The US Embassy in Baghdad agreed with Tawfiq al-Suwaida that mass emigration was unlikely, so long as Israel ‘pursues a policy of moderation and agrees to a peace settlement considered not too unreasonable by the Arabs’. But the ‘ingathering of the exiles’, not a peace settlement, was Israel’s goal, for strategic as much as sentimental reasons. Israel had conquered 20 per cent more territory than it had been allotted under the partition agreement, and it needed more Jews to settle the land, particularly along the border. As Kedourie bitterly remarked, Israel ‘set out to help the Iraqi government to achieve its national unity; it was one of these tacit, monstrous complicities not entirely unknown to history.’
The Foreign Office learned of the agreement between al-Suwaida and ‘Richard Armstrong’ of Near East Air Transport through its channels in Tel Aviv, not Baghdad. ‘Why didn’t someone come to see us instead of negotiating with Israel to take in Iraqi Jews?’ the chief rabbi of Baghdad, Sasson Khedourie, wondered. ‘Why didn’t someone point out that the solid, responsible leadership of Iraqi Jews believed this to be their country – in good times and bad – and we were convinced the trouble would pass?’ Iraq’s Jews, who had tended to wait for trouble to pass, had to be pushed into leaving.
And pushed they were, in a series of attacks which began with the Abu Nawas bombing in April 1950 and resumed in 1951, as the deadline to register to leave Iraq approached. It’s long been rumoured – and many Iraqi Jews fiercely believe it – that Israeli agents orchestrated these bombings in order to drive the Jews to emigrate, though there is no proof of Mossad’s responsibility, or of anyone else’s. By 8 March, when the deadline was due to expire, more than one hundred thousand Jews had registered. The next day the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies froze Jewish assets, fearing that neither the economy nor the state itself could survive the transfer of capital to a country that had expelled most of its Arab population. Jews would be allowed to leave with only 50 dinars.
The British and the Americans weren’t pleased about this decision, but saw no way of protesting the Jews’ expropriation when Israel had refused to compensate Palestinian refugees. About six thousand Jews chose to remain in Iraq. Their lot improved fleetingly in the late 1950s under the revolutionary government of General Abdel Karim Qassem, who abolished the monarchy and espoused a cosmopolitan vision of Iraqi identity. But soon after the Baath Party seized power in 1963, in a CIA-backed coup, Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards. The Arab defeat in 1967 led to an ‘anti- Zionist’ campaign that culminated in the 1969 hanging of eight Jewish ‘spies’ in Liberation Square. Saddam Hussein urged listeners to Baghdad Radio to ‘come and enjoy the feast’, and hundreds of thousands duly turned out.
About a dozen Jews remain in Iraq today. Somekh flew to Israel on 21 March 1951 with two hundred other Jews. Their ‘exile’ had ended, but he ‘saw no one kneeling down to kiss the sacred ground’. Before they could leave the plane, passengers were told to remain seated while a man sprayed them with DDT – a greeting none of them forgot. They landed in Lydda, where, on 13 July 1948, Israeli forces led by Yitzhak Rabin had driven more than thirty thousand Palestinians from their homes in one of the largest, most brutal expulsions of the war. Scores of refugees from Lydda and the neighbouring town of Ramleh died of hunger and thirst on the forced march eastwards to Ramallah. The towns were looted afterwards, their homes occupied: scenes with which the Jews who remembered the farhud were all too familiar.
Somekh was temporarily held at an absorption camp on the coast near Haifa, while immigration officials decided which transit camp he would be sent to – a process known as siddur. He hated the word, since it ‘sounded very much like the Arabic tasdir, which means “the exporting of goods”. We angrily protested the fact that overnight we had been transformed from people into goods, imported and exported by Yiddish-speaking clerks.’
The transit camps were open-air holding centres with tents made of corrugated tin: ‘We lived in palaces and they put us in tents,’ the novelist Samir Nakkash recalls in Forget Baghdad, an arresting documentary about Iraqi-Jewish writers in Israel. But it wasn’t the conditions that caused the Iraqi Jews to despair so much as the denigration of their culture in Ashkenazi-dominated Israel. That Abraham and Jonah had lived in Mesopotamia was irrelevant to Ben-Gurion: ‘we don’t want Israelis to become Arabs,’ he said with his usual bluntness, and the Iraqi Jews were dangerously close to being Arabs in Israel. An elite in their own country, they were now cast as a ‘primitive’, inferior people, requiring tutelage from Ashkenazi Jews, descendants of the despised Ostjuden, who were now determined to erase any trace of the East.
And though many Iraqi Jews, bitter at their treatment at the hands of Arabs, became supporters of the political right in Israel, the racism they encountered made it impossible for them to identify fully with the movement that brought them ‘home’. In the early 1990s, Somekh tried to establish a solidarity association with the Iraqi people with the aim of documenting ‘the co-operation and good neighbourliness between the Jews and other Iraqis, so that the coming generations would know about this wonderful connection that had characterised Jewish life in the Arab world for 1500 years.’ His application was rejected by the Registrar of Non-Profit Associations in Jerusalem, which thought it unwise to revive such memories, a potential ‘source of Saddamist subversion’.
Babylon’s Golden Age
A vivid memoir of Jewish life in Baghdad recreates departed glories in loving detail
Memories of Eden: A Journey through Jewish Baghdad, By Violette Shamash Forum Books 326 pages; 14.99 pounds sterling Ralph Amelan
THE downward spiral of the Iraqi Jewish community, which numbered over 130,000 a mere seventy years ago, doesn’t have much further to go. The New York Times reported in June that not enough Jewish men remain in Baghdad to make up a minyan. Yet another of the wealthy and influential Sephardic Diasporas that were once common throughout the Arab world has been driven to the verge of extinction.
Most of their members were able to escape to other countries, mainly Israel, and thrive there. Some kind of communal continuity was thus assured. But the lot of the exile is a shared memory of loss of home, status and identity. The vastly greater devastation that overtook the Jews of Europe has overshadowed the largely forced flight from the lands of Islam. Nonetheless, the sense of a vanished world of tolerance, culture, and respect still haunts the descendants of these communities.
“Memories of Eden” joins a number of recent works that successfully attempt to recover in literature something of this world, most notably Lucette Lagnado’s “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” about her family’s move from Cairo to New York. Violette Shamash fled Iraq in 1941 with her husband and two small children after a murderous pogrom (known as the farhud) took the lives of around 150 Jews (the precise figure is disputed), and originally intended her recollections of the Baghdad, she had called home for nearly 30 years, for her family alone.
She died two years ago, aged 93. But her memoir, edited by her daughter Mira and journalist son-in-law Tony Rocca, and interspersed with contemporary photographs,recreates the world in which Violette lived with unusual vividness. The sheer breadth of her recall and her eye for the smallest detail is astounding. She moves seamlessly from describing the architectural features of a Baghdad mansion that enabled its inhabitants to keep foodstuffs cool in the summer heat (a ventilation shaft funneled breezes from the roof down to specially constructed semi-basements), via expeditions in the open-air markets, to traditional home-made meat and vegetable dishes, flavored with vinegar, fruit juices and concentrates.
Even such basic ingredients as bread, butter, date syrup and rosewater were prepared at home. Almost every item she encounters is set in the context of her life story and given the word she called it by (one of the minor benefits of the book is the opportunity to pick up a smattering of Mesopotamian Arabic, with some Arabic-influenced Hebrew and French thrown in). Of course, her nostalgia for a world and way of life now gone is almost tangible. Her father, referred to throughout the book simply as Baba (her mother is likewise called Nana), was a wealthy merchant and banker, and her life was very comfortable.
But underlying this richly textured and colorful account, written in simple yet lively language, are two motifs, which both darken and deepen the picture. “In our community, the birth of a daughter was perceived as a blemish and a burden.” This sentence on the very first page of “Memories of Eden” is preceded by the matter-of-fact statement that as the fourth daughter of five children, her birth was an “unmitigated disaster” for her parents. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the serpent in her personal Eden was the status of her sex. Even her success at school was greeted with parental disapproval: it was thought that too much learning too soon would “clog up her brains.”
Needless to add her marriage (a happy one, it should be noted, to David Shamash, a charming, musically gifted man) was arranged for her by her father. At least he rejected a grossly unsuitable proposal made by an elderly judge. But the author had the unnerving experience of being ushered into a crowded room to meet her fiancé for the first time without having a clue who he was or what he looked like. Contrast this with a description of the two years the family spent in Mandatory Palestine in the early 1930s. “I could not believe the freedom of it,” she writes. For her, “swimming in the sea in full public view” was a liberating experience.
But we are told nothing more. Her time there, in contrast to her life in Baghdad, is almost a blank home, however confining it may have been, at least gave her certainty. The second theme that clouds the author’s world is the uneasy coexistence of the Jews and the majority Muslim community. Shamash emphasizes the warm relations that individual Jews and Muslims enjoyed. At odds with this idyll, though, are unmistakable signs of tension and hostility that surfaced well before the farhud. Some Jewish draftees into the Turkish Ottoman army were shot dead by their own officers rather than be released at the close of World War I. During the war, prominent community leaders (including Baba) were briefly deported to Mosul by the Turks on suspicion of collaborating with the army. Even after they were allowed back to Baghdad, Baba judged it prudent to travel with a few friends across the border to Persia to wait there until hostilities ceased. His young family stayed behind.
Iraqi Jews unsuccessfully petitioned the post-war British occupation administration to be granted British citizenship. “The thought of any transfer of power to the Arabs filled us with apprehension,” she writes, revealingly, though their request was also motivated by pro-British feelings as well as commercial considerations: business relations between the British and the Baghdad community had long been good.
Throughout the interwar period, internal tensions exacerbated by the collapse of Ottoman rule and the weakness of the British-backed Hashemite monarchy increased. Anti-Jewish propaganda, fanned by the Germans, increased. After the outbreak of war in 1939, Muslim mobs began roaming the streets calling for a German victory. The farhud, perpetrated against the Baghdad Jewish community by the defeated Iraqi Muslim soldiers who had backed an illstarred pro-Nazi uprising against King Faisal, ought not to have come as a surprise. But it ought to have been prevented.
The hastily assembled, under-strength but victorious British troops who had quelled the uprising were left fretting outside Baghdad as looting and mayhem erupted in the city. Tony Rocca throws new light on this incident in an extended coda to these memoirs that takes up almost a quarter of the book. Drawing on Foreign Office documents and the memoirs of leading British political and military players in Iraq, he puts the blame on the British ambassador at the time, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis.
Apparently Cornwallis, an Arabist with lengthy experience in Iraq, was worried about having Hashemite rule restored too obviously by British arms. He therefore used his authority to keep British troops out of the city, thus making Faisal’s return to Baghdad appear to be the result of popular support. This charade fooled nobody. All he did was create a power vacuum, which a vengeful and greedy mob exploited to the hilt. The author had to shelter in her father’s home with her young children. Luckily she was not harmed: a Muslim servant dispersed rioters trying to break in by yelling at them that only Muslims lived there.
Nothing like it had happened to the Jews of Iraq for centuries, and the shock destabilized the community. A future of gradual social liberalization, modernity and prosperity, which seemed possible to Shamash and her circle until the late 1930s, was replaced by the realization that their Arab neighbors had turned covetous and hostile, and that the Iraqi authorities were too weak to perpetually hold them at bay. The young couple, shaken by their ordeal, left Iraq for good a few months later.
They ultimately settled in London in 1964 after spells in India, Palestine (the country’s descent into war in 1948 unnerved them and persuaded them to leave) and Cyprus. “The sight of all that gold colour glinting in the sunshine as they turned the pans by hand was so pretty,” marveled Shamash at the sight of copper pans being relined in the souk. “When they hung them up, it was like Aladdin’s Cave.” Not a bad metaphor for the rest of this wonderfully engaging book, especially when you remember that even caves full of treasure contain darkness as well as light.
‘As a contemporary comment on how quickly circumstances in a community can change and deteriorate, this is a very interesting source. To me it is also a stark reminder, with a haunting contemporary resonance, of what happens when politicians from far away artificially create a state for reasons of international balance rather than because of the needs of the people who lived there.’ — Trevor James (Editor)
‘An Arab of the Jewish faith’
Violette Shamash recalls the heaven that once was Baghdad
Montreal. Published: Saturday, September 20, 2008 VICTOR DABBY
It’s a depressing scenario: A minority thrives for centuries, only to watch helplessly as violent forces rise up to obliterate it, sweeping it into the dustbin of history. The survivors’ only hope is to tell the story of their lost world – and pray someone, somewhere, pays attention.
Such is the case in Memories of Eden: A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad by Violette Shamash. At first glance, a title comparing Baghdad to the Garden of Eden seems far-fetched. Are we really talking about the same city, served up daily in the news, a place closer to hell than paradise? Well, this is now and that was then.
Shamash’s Baghdad has a magical past. This is the storied City of Caliphs, home of Scheherazade and her tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba, a centre of science and learning in medieval times, the cradle of civilization, where it all began – the first chapter of the Old Testament. It was also home to the world’s oldest Jewish community. Shamash’s ancestors came to Babylon 2,600 years ago, brought as slaves by the emperor Nebuchadnezzar after his conquest of Jerusalem.
The Jews stayed on and flourished, right up to the 20th century, which proved to be the best – and the worst – of times. By the 1920s, Jews made up one-third of Baghdad’s population. This is the Eden remembered by Shamash, a city of tolerance where ethnic minorities lived side by side. Here, Jews thrived, building businesses, hospitals, schools and synagogues. They were active as musicians in the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra, also as politicians, academics, doctors, lawyers, even Communist Party members.
Above all, they were Arabs – in language, appearance and cuisine (kitchree, a dish of lentils, tomatoes and rice, was the “mess of porridge” that Esau found so tasty that he sold his birthright to his younger brother Jacob for it). But when the storm came, nothing would save them.From 300,000 in the 1940s, Baghdad’s Jewish population had plummeted to a frightened handful by the time the Americans invaded in 2003.
Shamash’s own life mirrors the rise and fall. Born in Baghdad in 1912, she ended her days in exile in London, where she died in 2006. Her story is told by her son-in-law, Fleet Street journalist Tony Rocca, based on her letters and photos to her daughter, Mira. What emerges is not so much a treatise on politics, but a textured view of life in a Jewish community that predated Islam by 1,000 years.
As a young woman, Shamash felt secure as “an Arab of the Jewish faith,” someone to whom the outside world seemed distant, and Baghdad “so wonderful.” Shamash grew up in a qasr (palatial home) built by her businessman father on the east bank of the Tigris River (across from today’s fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. army is headquartered). Back then, children went to school, wives stayed at home to cook and men worked the souq (market). The day’s end would find them at the Qahwat Moshi coffeehouse for games of tawli (backgammon) and gossip. “All earth-shattering news, as well as trivia, jokes and information were exchanged at Qahwat Moshi.”
While sipping aromatic Turkish coffee, some would “puff away at the hubble-bubble pipes, smoking tobacco and sometimes opium.” Here, they married off their children through a dellal, a go-between. “Match-making was conducted no differently from any other business deal.” The first night of a wedding was called lailt el-dakhla (the night of entry), when a couple would go into a bedroom, only to emerge “when a stained sheet appeared as proof of the man’s virility and the woman’s virginity.” Through centuries-old rituals, “we felt ourselves secure and integrated, rooted in a country as we had been in biblical times,” writes Shamash.
That certainty was soon shattered by the discovery of oil in 1927 and the departure of the British in 1932. With oil, came electricity, plumbing, cars and telephones, but also extreme Arab nationalism, tinged with the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. It culminated with the infamous Farhud in 1941, a pogrom that killed hundreds and forced Iraqi Jews to look to the emerging Zionist movement in Palestine for salvation. “The great majority of Iraqi Jews regarded Zionism as a threat to their harmonious existence as Arabs of the Jewish faith, but after June 2 (1941), everything changed … more than two millennia of historic coexistence abruptly shattered like a fragile knee.”
Shamash’s family fled Baghdad, “and so we started rolling like a rolling stone, wandering like the proverbial wandering Jews.” Now, only the faded memories remain.
For more information: The book has an extensive website at http://www.memoriesofeden.com. Victor Dabby’s parents are Iraqi Jews who fled Baghdad in the late 1940s. He was born in Tehran, and immigrated to Canada with his family just before his 17th birthday to avoid military service in the shah’s army. He has lived in Montreal ever since. MEMORIES OF EDEN: A JOURNEY THROUGH JEWISH BAGHDAD By Violette Shamash Forum Books, 320 pages, $29
Memories of Eden is a vibrant and colourful tale of Jewish life in Baghdad from just after the turn of the 20th Century until the terrifying days of the Farhud in 1941, which prompted Violette and her husband to leave Iraq. It is a fantastic read, full of humour and spell-binding story-telling, and tinged with the poignancy of the loss of a homeland, a community and an entire way of life.
Violette was born in 1912 into a wealthy Jewish family, and a Baghdad that was worlds apart from the violent and crumbling city we are presented with in newspapers and on television today. Soon after her birth, and after four centuries of Ottoman rule, the British took control of what became modern Iraq. The move was welcomed by the Jewish community who at that time made up 40% of the population in Baghdad. As Violette describes, ‘so important were our menfolk that when they shut their shops, banks and businesses for the Shebbath, commercial activity in the main street ceased…In this predominantly Muslim land, Saturday, not Friday, was in effect the Holy Day’.
In an intimate and familiar voice Violette describes frankly and vividly her feelings and memories of this lost world. To her young eyes it truly did feel like Eden. She talks of the stories her grandfather Heskel used to tell her ‘about the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, all of which were part of our fabulous heritage. And we were living right there.’ and her sense of pride and love for her birthplace is immensely powerful.
She brings alive the ‘primitive’ Baghdad of her early youth, with the ‘saqquas’, watersellers, hauling water in goatskins from the Tigris to supply each house. A time when a street’s name was simply the name of the richest family who lived there, and the narrow alleyways were filled with pedlars and barbers who as well as shaves an haircuts would offer less pleasant services such as ‘pulling teeth and lancing boils in full public view!’
As Violette grows, so too Baghdad flourishes and modernises. She describes a beautiful and civilised place where Jews, Muslims and Christians live in harmony. In each chapter she paints a picture of some of the most important elements of Baghdadi Jewish life in rich and tantalising detail – home life in the qasr (large house) built by her father and the glorious summer nights spent sleeping on the roof, the Sabbath and other Haggim filled with sumptuous foods and much entertaining, getting up to mischief at the Laura Khedouri School for Girls and the traditions surrounding marriage – Violette herself married David Shamash in 1937, an arranged match as was custom amongst the community at that time.
But this fondly recalled life was soon to be ripped apart by events taking place on a larger scale. In 1939 the world was at war, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who had been orchestrating a campaign of terrorist attacks on Jewish and British targets in Palestine, fled to Baghdad and began inciting hatred against the Jews there. The political climate was changing and local sympathies were swinging ever further towards the Germans.
Events were to reach a head when in 1941 a military coup led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani a ‘rabidly pro-Nazi lawyer’ seized control of Iraq. Over the following months things became rapidly worse for Jewish community culminating in two days of violence and murder – the Farhud – just as the British were about to regain control of the country.
Violette’s recollection of the Farhud is both gripping and tragic and by the end of those two days over 900 homes had been attacked, almost 600 Jewish shops had been looted and 187 people had lost their lives. Even more painful is the knowledge that British forces had been stationed just outside Baghdad during the chaos, but orders prevented them from entering and restoring peace to the city.
After the nightmare of the Farhud, Violette and her husband decided Iraq no longer held any future for their family, and Violette movingly describes her flight out of Baghdad towards the uncertainty of a new life.
The rest of the family was eventually to follow, as in fact did all of this vibrant and ancient community now scattered across the world. In Violette’s own words, ‘Goodbye Baghdad. Farewell Babylon. Adieu Eden.’
February 14, 2008
It may seem light years from today’s reality, but once Baghdad was a city where the diverse communities lived together in peace, and religious differences were respected. Among them was one group that could truly claim to be indigenous, as their ancestors had been brought into exile there a thousand years before Muslims arrived with the Arabic-Islamic conquest. The Jews.
When Violette Shamash was born in 1912, the Jews’ long and proud history meant that they were treated as equals, enjoying a way of life that hardly differed from ancient times. Water and heat dominated their lives; cows were milked on their doorstep; and in the land where, 5,000 years earlier, the Sumerians invented the idea of a clock with its 60 minutes and 12 hours, watches were still unheard of. Mesopotamia had been under Ottoman Turkish rule for almost 400 years, and Baghdad was one-third Jewish.
Violette’s generation saw the city emerge from an almost Biblical past and advance into modernity – thanks largely to the discovery of oil, but also to leading members of the Jewish community who were prominent in trade, commerce, finance and government. One such figure was her father, Menashe Ishayek, a merchant and banker who had an enlightened view of education: that it should be available to girls, equally, as to boys. Thus Violette and her (eventually five) sisters received the same attention as their brother, Salman. And it was in her formative years at the Alliance Française that she developed her love of writing.
Violette passed away two years ago in London. But later this month, on 21 February, her daughter, Mira, and the journalist Tony Rocca (Mira’s husband) are publishing her memoirs, having edited the notes, tapes and little essays she sent them over a period of more than 20 years.
Memories of Eden: A Journey through Jewish Baghdad is a poignant evocation of a period when the city was a honeycomb of mud-brick homes and echoes of the days of the caliphs rebounded through its stinking alleyways and spice-filled souqs. She tells at first hand of traditions passed down over the generations, and captures vividly the elusive quality of a scene that is totally at odds with the alien image we have of today’s Iraq.
As a privileged young woman growing up with her extended family in the city of The Thousand and One Nights, Violette brings alive the excitement of a vibrant society coming to terms with daily life, first under Ottoman, then British, and finally, despotic pro-Nazi rule. A lifestyle that has completely vanished and a community that has been, in her words, ‘scattered like feathers from a pillow, never to be reunited.’ Yet her book is not a polemic, more ‘à la recherche du temps perdu’ of vanished pleasures. In this it differs from previous Iraqi-Jewish memoirs, which have been chiefly by men and concern the fate of the community after World War Two.
It was the 1930s that changed everything. Following independence, Iraq slipped into the hands of Nazi sympathisers and in 1941 more than 180 Jews were killed in a pogrom echoing Kristallnacht – shockingly, while British troops stood by. History has all but forgotten the Farhud, though it sounded the death-knell for the oldest community in the Diaspora. But those who survived would never forget, especially Violette who had given birth to Mira only 17 days earlier.
History does record that Churchill ordered ‘regime change’ in Baghdad after the Nazi tyrant Rashid Ali seized power, threatening Britain’s vital oil interests. The Household Cavalry spearheaded an invasion force that marched to the gates of the city – and stopped. Yet for exactly two thirds of a century the mystery of why they rested in camp while the bloodletting continued – over two days – has perplexed the Iraqi Jewish community. The shameful British stance has never been exposed or investigated – until now.
Most people know the story of the Holocaust, but few know that a purge of Jews took place in Iraq at the same time, known as the Farhud. Iraq’s 2,000-year-old Jewish population was forced to shelter – terrified – in basements and blacked-out houses, hiding from gangs of angry Iraqi Muslims.
“It is an astonishing story”, said Tony Rocca, who has co-authored a book, Memories of Eden, with his Iraq-born wife, Mira. The book is a journey through Jewish Baghdad, taken from the stories of Violette Shamash, her mother, who was forced to leave Iraq after the Farhud.
France-based Tony, a former journalist with The Sunday Times and Daily Mail, said:
“When Mira and I left England in the 1980s to go and live in Italy, Violette was rather upset. In those days there was not as much communication as there is today with email and the internet.
“Mira told her to write down all the memories she had of Iraq for the sake of the family. She was reluctant to do so, but we told her not to worry about the actual composition, just to write it down and send it to us in the post – which she did for 20 years.”
When Violette was born in1912, Mesopotamia (Iraq’s former name) had been under the rule of the Ottoman Turks for 400 years and Baghdad was, amazingly, one-third Jewish. Today, there are an estimated six to eight Jews left in the whole of Iraq.
Mira, 67, said: “My family and I are extremely proud of our Iraqi Jewish heritage.
But I do have mixed feelings. I would love to go back to Iraq, but I know Jews who have been back have been disappointed – not a lot of what they remember is still standing.”
Independence for Iraq in 1932 changed everything. The country slipped into the hands of Nazi sympathisers and during the Farhud more than 180 Jews were killed. Mira added: “The Muslim religious leader whipped up feelings of anti-Semitism in Iraq for the young people. The older people there were not anti-semitic or even anti-Zionist and we and lots of our Muslim neighbours sheltered the Jews.”
In the book, Violette describes the Jewish community of Baghdad as being “beautiful, civilised and full of cherished memories”. Mira – who has a brother, Simon, and sister, Lena -added: “My mother and father (David) longed to go back to Iraq. When they left, any chance they could they listened to the Arabic radio stations, trying to hear news about Iraq.”
Non-Jewish Tony, who grew up in Gatley, south Manchester, said he was astonished to first learn of the Jews of Iraq. He recalled: “I did not realize just how big the community in Iraq was. One of my favourite stories is that when Baghdad’s chamber of commerce used to close on a Shabbat, because most of its members were Jewish, many shops came to a standstill. The Muslim city of Baghdad closed down for the day because of the Jews.”
Mira said she approved of the American and UK invasion of Iraq five years ago, but claimed that the Allied powers were not fully prepared. She explained: “At the time I thought it was a good idea, because the Iraqi people were suffering under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime.
“America and Britain did not prepare themselves for the aftermath – what is happening there now, with the Iraqis killing each other, is terrible.”
Mira, who left Iraq with her parents when she was six months old, said she would liketo return to visit one day. She added: “What a lot of people do not realise is thathere are many Jewish shrines in Iraq and members of the Jewish community used to visit regularly. Luckily, the shrines were venerated by the Muslims too, so they were not damaged.”
The day in 1912 when Violette Shamash came into the world was not the happiest for her Iraqi-Jewish family. Girls were considered something of a disaster and a burden. As one of six girls and only one boy, Violette’s parents had more than their fair share of burdens. Girls had only one destiny in life – to be married off with a dowry.
One generation earlier, and Violette would not even have gone to school. Not only did she learn to read and write, but she did so in French and English, as well as Arabic, at the Alliance Israelite school in Baghdad. What would her parents, who were still old-fashioned enough to have arranged her marriage (Violette was introduced to her husband on the day she got engaged to him) have thought if they knew that one day their daughter’s memoirs would one day be published – albeit posthumously?
Pieced together from 20 years’ worth of letters and notes by Violette’s daughter Mira and son-in-law Tony Rocca, Memories of Eden is a detailed record, written with a light touch and illustrated with diligently-researched rare old photos. It gives an unusual woman’s perspective of a bygone age, lived to the rhythms of Shabbat and the Jewish festivals. Violette’s parents were among the first to move out of Baghdad’s cramped historic Jewish quarter, building a palace or qasr in Kerrada, then on the outskirts of Baghdad, that King Feisal himself would covet.
According to legend, the Garden of Eden was located here, in the Land of the Two Rivers. At first glance there seems nothing Eden-like about a hot and dusty existence amid blocks of ice and septic tanks and horse-drawn carriages. Yet Violette played amongst the fruit trees. Life was pastoral and idyllic on the banks of the Tigris and the minutiae of domestic living was alleviated by a staff of servants.
The book has an Arabian Nights quality – peppered with tales from ‘al ayyam al- osmali , the days of the Ottomans. In the knowledge that Judeo-Arabic will soon be a dying language, a lexicon at the back compiled with the help of the Hebrew University’s Shmuel Moreh is thoughtfully provided. Anyone who grew up hearing words like daghboona, (corridor), insults like booma (owl) and wabba (plague) and the typically Jewish expression of wonder or shock weh hoo weh, will finally understand what they mean and be propelled on a Proustian journey back to childhood. But even if you had not the faintest idea about Jewish life in Baghdad, you would find it an entertaining and engrossing read.
Tantalising is the description of the run-up to the 1941 Farhud pogrom which sounded the death-knell for 2,600 years of Jewish presence in Iraq. Violette, who was about to give birth to Mira, sheltered with friends while Jews were increasingly the object of attack during the ‘Black month’ that the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali held power. Violette’s family was among the first to see the writing of the wall, six months later, moving to India, then Palestine, Cyprus and finally London. The Jews of Iraq were ‘scattered like feathers from a pillowcase’ to the four corners of the globe. Today the community is virtually extinct.
Towards the end of the book there is a change of tone as Violette’s son-in-law Tony Rocca, a career Fleet St journalist and editor, takes up the neglected story, based on original research, of the one man who could have halted the Farhud slaughter of the Jews. Dubbed ‘Cornwallis of Arabia’, the British ambassador Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, as tall at six- foot-four as his role in the politics of Iraq has been inexplicably underrated, dominated Iraq for 40 years. While the mob went on a two-day murder and looting rampage, Cornwallis refused to order British troops, camped out on the outskirts, into Baghdad, lest the British be seen by the Arabs as an army of occupation. And so the lives of up to 600 Jews were callously sacrificed to realpolitik.
Edinburgh Review Issue # 127, October, 2009
Memories of Eden.: A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad Violette Shamash. Eds. M. and T. Rocca. Forum Books. isbn 9780955709500. £14.99 Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew Sasson Somekh. Ibis Editions. isbn 9659012586. $16.95
Sixty years ago, more than a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish,with a history of over 2,000 years in Mesopotamia. When Violette Shamash (her married name) begins her story, in the early years of the last century, the Jewish community was at the heart of Baghdad’s business and cultural life. Jews spoke the same language as their Muslim and Christian neighbours, and although religious observances differed, they broadly shared their way of life.
Half a century on, almost nothing remained of that vibrant and integrated culture. Violette’s family – her parents and six siblings with their spouses and children – were dispersed in three continents. Memories of Eden (the Garden of Eden may have been located in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys) is a beautifully executed and richly textured account of a family and a community. The Ishayek family were well-to-do merchants with a fine house on the banks of the Tigris. Violette’s finely observed documentation of life in Baghdad between the world wars is compelling, domestic in focus but embracing a much wider context, and reflecting, directly and indirectly, world events and the manipulations of European powers.
Sasson Somekh was 17 when he left Baghdad in 1951, ten years after Violette, her husband David and two infant daughters had hurriedly departed for India. He was alone – his family remained in Baghdad – and as a nonobservant Middle Eastern Jew he knew no Hebrew and no Yiddish, a double disadvantage. Like Violette, he spoke Arabic, and also English (his father worked in a British-owned bank) and French (he went to a French school). He wrote poetry in Arabic, and hung out with Arab poets and intellectuals who encouraged him. He hints at the difficulties of adapting to life in Israel, alien territory, but his book is about Baghdad and his love of Arabic culture – he would become a founder of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Tel Aviv University.
The accounts of Violette and Sasson (the same name as Sassoon; the British Sassoons were related to Violette’s family) inevitably intersect. The Tigris plays a leading role in both, the same places appear, the same names, the same ambience of Baghdad sights and sounds and smells, the same warmresponse to environment and people. And the same events changed their lives for ever and destroyed the community that produced them. Although during World War I, Jews were suspected by the Turks of collaborating with the British, by the time Iraq was created in 1921 the Jewish community felt, as Sasson writes, ‘secure and integrated, rooted in the country’. The British mandate, with a sympathetic King Faisal on the throne, seemed to bring security. In the 1930s that began to dissipate, and after independence and Faisal’s death came, in Violette’s words, ‘the first breeze of anti-Semitic propaganda’ blowing in from Nazi Germany. With the arrival in Iraq of the virulently anti-Jewish Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the late 1930s and the seizure of power by Rashid Ali in 1941, life for Baghdad’s Jews became increasingly difficult.
As the British struggled to maintain a hold on the Middle East, attacks on the Jewish community intensified, but when British troops advanced on Baghdad and camped on the opposite bank of the Tigris the tension began to ease. Baghdad surrendered, and an armistice was negotiated, though theBritish were ordered not to enter the city and Iraqi troops were not disarmed. It was the time of the Jewish festival of Shavuot or ’Iid el-Ziyaaghah, and Jewish families felt relaxed enough to carry on their celebrations as normal. But on 2 June 1941 there erupted two days of rioting, looting and murder,while the British were ordered not to intervene. The seven-year-old Sasson watched from a window as looters bore off their trophies from Jewish homes and businesses. Violette, married by this time and imminently expecting her second child, hid with her family in their darkened and barricaded house. Both families survived, thanks, in the Ishayeks’ case, to the Muslim cook convincing the rioters that theirs was a Muslim household. There were many instances of Muslims risking their own safety to protect Jewish friends and neighbours.
It has been calculated that at least 130 Jews were killed during the Farhud, roughly translated as ‘violent dispossession’ or pogrom. The loss of life was greater than in Germany’s Kristallnacht in November 1938. Yet, according to Sasson, after the war the Jewish community rallied. His teenage years were spent in ‘a Baghdad bursting with activity’ where the Jewish community ‘had regained its full creative drive’. But anti-Semitism surfaced again with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the wave of resentment against the British who were regarded as complicit in the dispossession of Palestinians. The trickle of departure that followed the Farhud became a mass exodus in 1950 and ’51.
These books not only chronicle the life of a community, they portray a city that had a profound personal and cultural impact on both authors. Sasson Somekh’s gentle, reflective reminiscences are full of insight born of deep appreciation of the cultural richness that drove his aspirations as a poet writing within an Arabic tradition. Woven through his account is a fascination with language echoed in Violette’s writing: Jewish Arabic spoken at home, Muslim Arabic on the street; French and English; biblical and modern Hebrew. Violette’s inclusion of a Judaeo–Arabic lexicon is itself afascinating testament to integration. Language plays its part in her vividly recreated tapestry of family life and religious observance. Both writers illuminate the historical and political context, augmented in Violette’s case by the very clear explication of the ‘inside story’ of the Farhud, provided by her son-in-law Tony Rocca. And, for those who want to know more, I can also recommend Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon, which recounts her family’s departure from Baghdad and her own risky visit there in 2004 to track down the remaining fragments of Jewish life.
Sasson dreams of returning to stroll along the banks of the Tigris, the river that has never ceased to run through his dreams. But these books are about loss, not just the demise of a once thriving community but of the ancient city and culture that nurtured it. They are also about the impact of power struggles originating in other continents and their continuing terrible legacy of greed and contempt for peoples and their past. The undercurrent of these stories is the destruction of human life and of the cultural and social rhythms that sustain it. The latest chapter in Iraq’s story perpetuates the loss and the tragedy.
– Jenni Calder