The first thing to say about Violette Shamash is that she must have had a brilliant memory. In this account of the privileged and idyllic life of her youth, the detail is vivid. But, even more remarkably, there isn't a hint of bitterness in her recollections, despite the terrible events that sent her into exile. This book brings to mind the influences that turn people against one another, particularly the harm done by those who fuel division, who stir the most basic elements of jealousy and hatred. Tony Rocca (in his addition) asks a serious question about the kind of decision making that allowed the disastrous events of 1st and 2nd June, 1941 in Baghdad to go unchallenged. Whether that was caused by intransigence, apathy, ignorance or something worse, it brings to mind the more recent, shameful decisions made by people like George W. Bush and Tony Blair that have led to the current situation in the Middle East. We might ask why has democracy failed to curtail the ability of its leaders to take actions that the vast majority of its people would not agree to? Why are those who make terrible decisions, or who sit on their hands and fail to protect those they have responsibility for, seldom seen to be taken to task? These are questions for any civilised society. Maybe there will always be abuse of power, but we, the people, need to be protected from misguided and perverse minds - now more than ever. This is a lovely book, informative and well written. It should provoke a lot of thought - and it does.
It's hard to underestimate the importance of this beautifully written and enlightening book.
I was so impressed that I've since ordered three more copies, to give to family and friends.
In addition to being a pleasure to read, and an enlightening window to another world another time, 'Memories of Eden' gives a disarming human perspective to a forgotten chapter in an ongoing saga, the twists and turns of which continue to decide the fate of the world today.
As with all good books though, it just tells great stories well, which, through their good humour and humanity, challenge our preconceptions of other people and the way the world works.
According to legend, the Garden of Eden was located here, in the Land of the Two Rivers. However, at first glance there seems nothing Eden-like about the hot and dusty Baghdad portrayed in Violette Shamash's memoir.
Pieced together from 20 years' worth of letters and notes sent to Violette's daughter Mira and son-in-law Tony Rocca, Memories of Eden is a detailed record, written with a light touch and illustrated with diligently-researched, rare old photos. It gives an unusual woman's perspective of a bygone age, lived to the rhythms of the Jewish community which was so prominent in old Iraq.
The book has an Arabian Nights quality - peppered with tales from the days of the Ottomans. Violette's parents were among the first to move out of Baghdad's cramped historic Jewish quarter, building a palace or 'qasr' in Karrada, then on the outskirts of Baghdad, that King Faisal himself would covet. There, Violette played among the fruit trees. Life was pastoral and idyllic on the banks of the Tigris and the minutiae of domestic living was alleviated by a staff of servants.
In the knowledge that Judeo-Arabic will soon be a dying language, a lexicon is thoughtfully provided. Anyone who grew up hearing words like 'daghboona', (corridor), insults like 'booma' (owl) and 'wabba' (plague)and the typically Jewish expression of wonder or shock 'weh hoo weh', will finally understand what they mean and be propelled on a Proustian journey back to childhood. But even if you had not the faintest idea about Jewish life in Baghdad, you would find it an entertaining and engrossing read.
Tantalising is the description of the run-up to the 1941 Farhud pogrom which sounded the death-knell for 2,600 years of Jewish presence in Iraq. Violette, who was about to give birth to Mira, sheltered with family while Jews were increasingly the object of attack during the `black month' that the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali held power. Violette's family was among the first to see the writing on the wall, six months later moving to India, then Palestine, Cyprus and finally London. The Jews of Iraq were `scattered like feathers from a pillow' to the four corners of the globe. Today the community is virtually extinct.
Towards the end of the book there is a change of tone as Tony Rocca, a career Fleet St journalist and editor, takes up the neglected story, based on original research, of the one man who could have halted the Farhud slaughter of the Jews. Dubbed `Cornwallis of Arabia', the British ambassador Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, as tall at six- foot-four as his role in the politics of Iraq has been inexplicably underrated, dominated Iraq for 40 years. While the mob went on a two-day murder and looting rampage, Corwallis refused to order British troops, camped out on the outskirts, into Baghdad, lest the British be seen by the Arabs as an army of occupation.
This is a beautiful story, and a desperately sad one too. Violette Shamash started her life in pretty idyllic circumstances, as a member of the Jewish community in Baghdad. You'll have to forgive me here, but I thought Iraq would have been pretty much top of the list for places you wouldn't expect to find a Jewish person. Turns out, though, that between the wars Violette and her family were among 200,000 Jewish people living in Baghdad.
It was a simple but delightful time.
And, guess what? The Jewish community and their Muslim neighbours got along together just fine. Mutual respect... Violette tells charming stories of an uncomplicated life where everything was great.
Until it wasn't.
Things changed, in a horrible way. Enough to make it vital that she, her husband and their children fled: first to India, then to Palestine, and finally to London.
I defy you to read this book without being profoundly moved. Iraq is a fragile and complex place today. How desperately sad, therefore, to learn from this book of its former harmony. How come it all went so wrong?
Today you can count the number of Iraqi Jewish people on the fingers of two hands. Please read this book, whose story must be more widely known.