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The articles in this issue have been divided upinto the following categories







By The Rivers of Babylon
The story of the Jews in Iraq

Jewish Museum, Camden Town
as seen by Matthew J Reisz

Iraqi Jews now form a recognised community, or sub-community, in London; there are even those who have never set foot in Iraq who identify themselves as "Iraqi Jewish". The first photograph in By the Rivers of Babylon depicts a grand wedding in 1990 (shown here) attended by virtually the whole London contingent, as well as guests from seventeen other countries. Most look like prosperous successful professionals, yet they are also, we soon begin to realise, the scattered remnants of a community which dates from the days of Nebuchadnezzar, formed the centre of the Jewish world for a millennium and still numbered 300,000 in 1940. Today, about forty Jews remain in Iraq.

This exhibition tells their story through photographs, artefacts and artworks accompanied by twenty-two panels of text, which too often adopt a tone of grandiose simplicity. "The exile of the Jews of Babylon lasted for two millennia and its end was marked by terror and grief as it had begun", we read early on. "But in those 2,000 years there had been glorious times." "Wherever in Asia the Baghdadi entrepreneurs set up their mills, prosperity followed." "The hallmark of the Iraqi community today remains much what it was in Baghdad a century ago: responsibility for one another and the pursuit of excellence for all." None of this counts as serious historical analysis (and I know several women from Iraqi Jewish backgrounds who maintain that patriarchal double standards seriously impeded their own "pursuit of excellence"). Yet after the early sections on the first thousand years of Babylonian Exile - and a panel which sweeps straight through the period from the rise of Islam in the seventh century to the days of the sadistic local governor Daoud Pasha (1817-31) - the objects and images become increasingly compelling.

It was in response to the Pasha's persecutions that David Sassoon fled to Bombay and expanded his textile business there. His son Albert (or Abdulla) built the Sassoon Docks, the first wharf on the West Coast of India, established himself in London and was caricatured in Vanity Fair as "the Indian Rothschild".

Albert's son Edward, married Alïne de Rothschild and their son Philip became a Conservative minister. Another relative, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), was raised as an Anglican, converted to Catholicism and adopted the ultra-English personae of "infantry officer" and "fox hunting man" when he came to write his celebrated memoirs.

The story of the Sassoon dynasty graphically illustrates a more general process of Westernisation as the brocades, beaded fezzes, gold embroidery and jewels made of gall nuts and glass amulets slowly disappear. By the 1930's, the men gathered in the club garden to listen to an English military band are dressed for the most part in jackets and ties. Women wore wraps of gold and silver thread especially to cover up the Western clothes underneath. As in much of the Levant, a key modernising influence was the network of schools established by the French Alliance Israélite Universalle. A series of photographs from the Laura Kadourie School for Girls in Baghdad - where "many of the teachers were trained either in Paris, London, Jerusalem or Beirut" - shows pupils gathered round the piano to honour the founder, holding up samples of embroidery in the courtyard or dressed up with tambourines as local wedding singers.

World War in Europe and clashes between Arabs and Jews over Palestine had a disastrous impact on the Jews of Iraq. Pro-Nazi elements rebelled against British influence and riots led to a horrific pogrom in 1941. Once Israel was born in 1948, Zionism became a capital offence and a prominent businessman called Shafiq Adas was hanged on a trumped-up charge of arms dealing. This led to a mass exodus and, despite a brief reversal of policy in the late 1950's, the effective end to Jewish life in Iraq. The exhibition includes some harrowing eyewitness testimonies, a picture of the mass grave containing victims of the 1941 pogrom and paintings of blasted landscapes by Irene Scheinmann, a family friend of Shafiq Adas.

All this is vivid and moving. What is less clear is how we are to view the earlier "golden age" of Iraqi Jewry. There has been much debate about how far Jews were ever truly tolerated in Arab lands; how far co-existence was always conditional. By the Rivers of Babylon includes recipes and some captivating photographs of old Baghdad, and the accompanying text occasionally strikes an almost pastoral note: "On Sabbaths and festivals they [Iraqi Jews] went to the orchards outside the city with food, arak and musical instruments. They would eat, drink and sing, sometimes in the company of Muslim friends ". When Iraq Radio started broadcasting in 1936, the in-house musicians (except the percussionist) were all Jewish, so no live music was broadcast on the High Holydays. The only "Miss Baghdad", crowned Queen of Baghdad in 1947 was Renée Dangoor - a Jewish girl.

Christian and Muslim mourners joined the procession to the cemetery of Iraq's last community head. Fascinating facts - but it is a pity that the exhibition does not attempt more in the way of a systematic assessment of the opportunities and obstacles which confronted Iraqi Jews up until the 1940's.

The final item on display is the most recent issue of The Scribe, published and edited by Naim Dangoor, the London-based "journal of Babylonian Jewry", which congratulates the Queen on her Golden Jubilee and then suggests that "others" should retire gracefully at a reasonable age and give the younger generation a chance. Inward-looking, much pre-occupied with the past yet fully engaged with British life and the current crisis in Israel, The Scribe magazine holds up a perfect final mirror to the community celebrated in this exhibition.


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