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Vibrant reminder of Iraq's rich history

by Daniel Crewe

The title of "Miss Baghdad" may seem improbable today, but in 1947 the competition not only existed but was won by a Jewish girl, Renée Dangoor. The photograph of Miss Baghdad, wrapped in a sash marked in Arabic, is one of the most striking images in an exhibition that opened in February at the Jewish Museum in London. Using material from Baghdadi Jews who now live in London, By the Rivers of Babylon describes the glory years and final dark days of the oldest of the Diaspora communities.

Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia, had taken Jerusalem in 597BC and forced Jews to live in Babylon in captivity. This was recalled in Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion." The exhibition is a timely reminder of Iraq's rich history. "A lot of the Jewish institutions we take for granted today come from the circumstances that Jews found themselves in when they were exiled," says Jennifer Marin, the curator of the exhibition.

It was the Jews in Iraq, for example, who established Torah academies, so that over 300 years the compilation of Jewish law and practice, the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli), was written. They also established the first synagogues, after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Babylonia became the centre of the Jewish world, and though Jews fled to Syria and Kurdistan after the Mongol invasion of 1258, the religion was revived in Iraq in the 19th century and many Jews became prominent figures.

The exhibition is set out in three parts. The first, which includes the reconstruction of a house, looks at social life in Iraq, taking in music, food and even the "henna" parties at which the dye would be applied to a bride's fingers.

Most striking, though, is the fine clothing that is on display. Photographs demonstrate the transition to Western attire in the 1930s and 1940s, and there are fine examples of gold thread embroidery.

The second section consists of panels focusing on 2,000 years of glorious times. "You can see what a rich and important culture it was," says Marin. "It was side by side with the Muslim culture and no one saw any conflict."

The third section, which includes the dark etchings of the Baghdadi-born artist Irene Scheinmarm (née Reuben Karady), looks at the community's tragic decline, and at this point the coloured panels become black and white. But the testimonies of those who have talked about life in Iraq recall that even during the pogroms of 1941, Jews were helped by their Muslim neighbours.

It was after these riots that thousands of Jews left the country, and between 1948 and 1951 more than 120,000 Iraqis settled in Israel. There are dramatic images of the Operation Ezra and Nehemiah airlift and of crowds registering for emigration-outside the Battaween Synagogue, which was described by a Times reporter last month as having "padlocked steel gates plastered with Saddam Hussein posters".

Several departing Jews formed a close-knit community in London, where names such as Saatchi and Kedourie became well known. In 1940 the Jews of Iraq numbered more than 300,000 but by 1952 only 6,000 remained . Now there are fewer than 40, and only two of those know Hebrew.

Many people headed not west from Iraq but east. The philanthropist David Sassoon (1792-1864), whose family was a pillar of the Baghdad community, was the first Jew 'to move from the city to Bombay, starting a business there in the 1830s. His family included Rachel Sassoon Beer (who simultaneously edited the Sunday Times and The Observer), and Siegfried Sassoon.

Playing in the background at the exhibition is music in the Iraqi Jewish tradition by the mixed-faith nine-piece band, Rivers of Babylon, led by the ethnomusicologist Dr Sara Manasseh, David Sassoon's great-great-great granddaughter.

Dr Manasseh will next month talk on the music of the Baghdadi Jews as part of the museum's programme of events and, in March, Rivers of Babylon will give a concert as part of the Jewish Arts Festival. The concert is sponsored by Naim Dangoor and the Exilarch's Foundation, the publisher of The Scribe, the journal of Babylonian Jewry. Dangoor, who lent many items to the exhibition, is the grandson of one of Iraq's leading Chief Rabbis, Hakham Ezra Dangoor (1848-1930) - and the husband of Miss Baghdad.

The exhibition continues until April 6 at The Jewish Museum, Albert Street, London NWI. Telephone: 020 7294 1997.


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