Memories of Eden

A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad

I was born in a land of myths and wonders, as told in A Thousand and One Arabian Nights – home to the Tower of Babel, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Garden of Eden. When Mesopotamia became Iraq I saw my country emerge from a primitive past into what promised to be a brilliant future. My birthplace, Baghdad, was beautiful, civilised, and full of cherished memories. Now it has been replaced altogether, erased like chalk on a blackboard, and a new story is being written. I feel as if I am telling you a dream and it will be very hard for you to join the pieces together.

VIOLETTE SHAMASH

1912-2006

                              

                              

Origins

When Violette was born, Mesopotamia had been part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years.  The Jewish community  formed as much as 40% of the population of Baghdad, with ancestry dating back some 2,600 years to the time of Babylon.  Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peaceably together in this old Eden.  

Five years after her birth, in 1917, the British defeated the Turks in World War One and entered Baghdad to begin a benign colonisation under a League of Nations mandate that was to last until 1932.

However, in 1941, disaster struck.  A  brutal massacre took place over two days of rioting and sounded the death-knell for the oldest community in the Diaspora.

This Eden

What was it like in Violette's early days?

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Eden?  It's hard to imagine a world with no running water or electricity, scorching heat and the constant fear of cholera.  A warren of alleys no wider than a cart, where cows are being milked on doorsteps, street barbers are giving shaves, pulling teeth and lancing boils. Barefoot water-sellers are bent double under their heavy goatskins, and every drop of water has to be hauled up from the River Tigris.

Old Baghdad in 1912.  To us it sounds like hell. Yet Violette, born into an affluent family, adored its positive side: sleeping under the stars, hearing the call of the nightingale, smelling scents of gardenias and spices, riding to school on donkey-back. For her it was a kind of Eden.