Babylon's Golden Age (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A vivid memoir of Jewish life in Baghdad recreates departed glories in loving detail 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. Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.