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

Back story

Violette began writing her memoirs in the mid-1980s as a means of staying in touch with her daughter, Mira, when she and her husband left London to live in France and Italy. Over the following years these treasured stories, anecdotes and occasional short essays built up into an impressive archive as a testimony for the younger generations who had little or no clue about their family history or communal identity.

Edited by Mira and her husband, Tony, a small quantity of proof copies were printed in 2006 and in her last months Violette was able to send one to each of her immediate relatives for comment, correction and verification of facts. The finished book was published in England in 2008, followed two years later by an American version from Northwestern University Press.  Throughout, the editors regularly faced the question, 'When is it going to be published in Hebrew?' – for undoubtedly there are many for whom the story will resonate who do not speak English. Happily, a Hebrew edition has now (2014) seen the light of day thanks to the enthusiastic work of translator Moshe Shemesh (no relation) and the Israeli publishing house, Gvanim.   

 The original British version (left), published in 2008, and the US edition from Northwestern University Press

 The original British version (left), published in 2008, and the US edition from Northwestern University Press

                                                The Israeli version, published in the spring of 2014

                                                The Israeli version, published in the spring of 2014

Originally the intention was simple: the creation a family album to show Violette's grandchildren (and now great-grandchildren) the rich and vibrant heritage they could be proud of  —  with the addition of a lexicon of the Judeo-Arabic language,  spoken only by older people today and therefore in danger of extinction.  For as Violette reminds those readers unfamiliar with the story of the break-up of the oldest of all Jewish communities:  ‘Once uprooted from Baghdad, we scattered all over the world like feathers from a pillow, never to be reunited.’

Eventually, the disastrous events that have overtaken Iraq compelled the authors to listen to the advice of friends who said the work deserved a wider audience.  Tony, a former Sunday Times journalist, began researching the Farhud — and this early 20th century tale of Arabian nights with its revelations of a shameful episode in British diplomacy sprang off the page.