|A brief review of
Memories of Eden: A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad.
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon (theparablelife.blogspot.com).
Most of us are likely familiar with Kristallnacht, the nights of violence unleashed by the Nazi regime in 1938 against Jews in Germany and Austria. But did you know that more Jews lost their lives during the Farhud, the anti-Semitic pogrom that took place in Baghdad in June, 1941?
It was the beginning of the end of a vibrant Jewish community that had existed in what is now modern Iraq for 2,500 years, since the time of the Babylonian captivity described in the Old Testament. Within a decade of the Farhud, almost the entire Jewish community, hundreds of thousands Iraqi citizens once an integral part of the life and culture of the region, had fled the country.
Violette Shamash (1912-2006) created a first-person memoir of a Baghdad most of us can scarcely imagine. Shamash penned her stories of her upper-class Jewish childhood and young adulthood in the years prior to the Farhud. She put pen to paper over a span of about twenty years in order to ensure that these rich memories would be passed on to her children. Her daughter and son-in-law shaped her remembrances into a fascinating read about a vanished way of life.
Memories of Eden offers readers a detailed description of Shamash’s everyday existence, as well as the Jewish celebrations, meals, education, rituals and relationships in which she participated in pre-War II Baghdad. It’s difficult for most of us to imagine, but she describes a life that once was in harmony with the majority gentile populace surrounding Baghdad’s well-established Jewish community. Language and a shared regional culture once bridged the religious divide:
Sett Farah, our new form teacher, had come from Syria to teach us proper Arabic…she had a loud voice that could be heard by all the other classes when the windows were open, but no one could complain. Her bawling was particularly bad when she tried to convince us that a bezzoona (cat) was not a bezzoona at all but an itta. Well, everybody in Baghdad – Muslim, Christian and Jew – called a cat a bezzoona. We soon learned why she was upset: it turned out that bezzoona was a rude word in Syrian Arabic.
But by the close of the 1930’s, Violette’s comfortable existence was turned upside down by politics and the rising tide of anti-Semitism that swept across her beloved Baghdad. The family fled the country shortly after the Farhud.
Her memories paint a very different portrait of Baghdad than the impressions most of us receive from watching the news. It’s hard to believe Violette’s story took place just two generations ago! A lengthy section exploring the events leading up to the Farhud closes the book and frames Violette’s experiences in the larger scope of history.
Memories of Eden offers us a rare look at a life and culture that’s been lost to all of us in this ancient land.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com