Memories of Eden : A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad, Hardback

Memories of Eden : A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad Hardback

Edited by Tony Rocca, Mira Rocca

3.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


"Memories of Eden" evokes a bygone era - when pre-WW2 Baghdad was one-third Jewish and interfaith relations were harmonious.

When Violette was born, Mesopotamia had been Ottoman for some 600 years, until redrawn as Iraq by the British when Violette was eight years old.

This bittersweet memoir tells of a childhood spent in the city of Caliphs, Scheherazade and the land of the Garden of Eden, of traditions passed down over the generations, and captures vividly the elusive quality of a scene totally at odds with our image 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 re-lives the excitement of a vibrant society coming to terms with daily life, first under Ottoman, then British, and finally, pro-Nazi rule, which ended in disaster for the Jews of Iraq, who were brutally attacked in two days of slaughter in May 1941 while British troops stood by, under orders not to intervene.The pogrom, which sounded the death-knell for the oldest community in the Diaspora, has been sidelined in history. Now, in a final section in the memoir, the editors reveal the steps that led to the catastrophe and the British bungling that brought it about.

Like Anne Frank's diary, "Memories of Eden" tells of an easy and happy childhood, of growing maturity and sophistication, and then shrinking circumstances, victimisation and, finally, flight.




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Violette Shamash was born in the last years of the Ottoman Empire into one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, which at that time made up 40% of the population of Baghdad. The book has been complied from notes and writings that she made for her children and grandchildren, and she writes a lot about daily life during her childhood - playing games with her cousins, walking to school through the bustling souk, preparing for the High Holy Days. Their milkmaid brings a cow to the house and milks her on the doorstep; their seamstress stays in the house for a month at a time. In the 1930s, Violette is in her early 20s, and Baghdad is developing. The first department store opens - selling Bally shoes and Petit Bateau children's clothes! Even more exciting, Violette spends 1933 and 1934 in Palestine visiting her sister, enjoying sea-bathing (in Baghdad, women were only just stopping wearing the veil in public), flirting with young men, and buying her first proper bra ("a revelation - until then bras had not been made to enhance bosoms but rather to flatten them by tying them down").At the same time, however, the anti-semitic propaganda coming out of Europe is finding a ready audience in Iraq, and eventually undermines the distant, but not hostile, relationship between the communities. This leads to the <i>Farhud</i>, a terrible attack in 1941 which marked the beginning of the end for the Jewish community. Violette and her family emigrate almost immediately afterwards. Her description of spending the two days hiding out in different locations, listening to the chaos overtaking the city, is vivid and terrifying. Recommended for: a fascinating glimpse into life in Baghdad in the early years of the twentieth century.