Memories of Eden -- Book launch
Date: Saturday 1 March 2008, 8.00pm for 8.15pm
Venue: The Spiro Ark, 25-26 Enford Street, W1H 1DW
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 I (Mira's husband) are publishing her memoirs, having edited the notes, tapes and little essays she sent us 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.
As a former Sunday Times Insight journalist I had to find out more. My discoveries are in an appendix where I reveal the man responsible, whose name has rested forever in obscurity.
I hope you will join Mira and I at the book launch we are holding at Spiro Ark on Saturday, 1 March. 8pm for 8.15. Tickets £8. More on our website: www.memoriesofeden.com