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Memories of EDEN A JOURNEY THROUGH JEWISH BAGHDAD
By Violette Shamash
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Mira and Tony Rocca
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Palace
THE LAST CENTURY was not even in its teens when I arrived in this fascinating world one winter's night in the centre of Baghdad. It was Hanukka, but there was no cause for celebration in our house in that warren of narrow alleyways that was the old Jewish quarter. Quite the opposite: my delivery was an unmitigated disaster for my dear parents, bless their souls. I, their fifth child, was their fourth daughter, as much a calamity as the recent news of the sinking of the Titanic.
In our community, the birth of a daughter was perceived as a blemish and a burden. It mattered little how pretty or how healthy the newborn was; the fact was that a daughter was a liability. A girl cost about as much as a boy to bring up, educate, and feed, and at the end of it, not only did she leave home to enter another family but a costly dowry had to go with her, depending on her father's means. There was no way out: like income tax, it was a total loss. In Jewish families, the birth of a daughter caused depression and sadness instead of joy. The greeting "mazal tov" would always be accompanied by a consolation: "Thank God for the healthof the mother!" or "May she be followed by sons!" On the other hand, had I been a son, the greeting would have been "May he be a sign for seven [sons]!" or "May this be an augury!" As a son, I could grow up to help my father in his business and perhaps marry a wealthy girl with a considerable dowry and bring her home to help look after my parents.
Anyway, the loss of the Titanic had really shocked Baba, my father, who had been following all the stories about the ship. He was still talking about it as I grew up, living in the home he had built that same year-1912-on the site of a large date-palm orchard to the south of the city. Oh, what a long time ago it all was! Looking at a map of Baghdad today, I see that the Karrada district, which then was nothing but countryside, is now right at the centre of things: what greater accolade could the old place have but that Saddam Hussein chose to build his bunker and command headquarters directly across the Tigris from where we once lived? It is called the Green Zone now.
Our qasr-any large, solidly built house overlooking the river was a "palace" in a city of homes built of clay and mud-was practically ready to move into when my mother, Nana, was in the final stages of pregnancy, but it was considered to be so far out of town and isolated that they decided not to rush things. She had been told to expect a boy (hence the big letdown) and superstitiously believed it would help matters if the birth could take place at their old house, where my brother, Salman, had been born four years earlier. My parents made the best possible preparations for my arrival, sending word to family and friends that there would be a baby-boy party: the brit mila (circumcision) held a week after the birth. They had to change that hurriedly to a lailt el-settee, the baby-girl naming party held five days after the birth.
No expense was spared for the party, as Baba's business was prospering and everyone was in a good mood. As the guests arrived, a deqqaaqa (lady musician) sang "mazal tov" and a traditional pottery water jug (tengaayee) was smashed for good luck. Shashsha, the time-honoured mixture of small sweets, nuts, and popcorn, was scattered for the children to collect excitedly as they sang: "Shashsha beit Abu Violette tabkhou m-hasha"-just a silly rhyme. A modern name-Violette-was chosen for me and added to the biblical name, Simha (happiness), which also happened to be the name of my maternal grandmother. There was saffron rice and chicken grilled on charcoal to eat, then more lavish food, laughter, and jokes-and then one young lady laughed so much she tripped and rolled down the stairs. Amazingly, she was not in the least bit hurt, so this caused renewed merriment. I heard all about it countless times as I grew up, for none of the guests present that night would ever miss an opportunity to retell the story to me.
Coincidentally, in the same month and year that I was born, daughters were also born to two of my uncles: Uncle Joe, who had already moved to London, and Uncle Moshi, who lived near us in the old Jewish quarter of Hennouni. Three disasters on my mother's side. But how could my dear parents guess that there was worse to follow? There were to be two more calamities: my sisters Daisy and, the youngest of us all, Marcelle. And no more sons. But by then my parents were resigned to their fate. Despite their early disappointments at the moments of birth, both Baba and Nana loved each and every one of us seven children and always did their best for us.
Unusually, the marriage between Baba and Nana, who were second cousins, had been a love match, although it had been arranged, as they all were then. But it had also, in a way, been a marriage of convenience, for Nana had come with a substantial dowry. At the time, Baba had been an imposing young twenty-year-old, six feet tall but, with his upright posture, appearing even taller. He was handsome, with unusual grey piercing eyes, and like most men of the time, he sported a heavy moustache à la turque and also wore a Turkish fez.
Nana was one or two years his senior and came from a rich and respected family. Being petite, she had been nicknamed Nounou, which means "small" and "dainty" in Arabic. But Baba soon coined his own name for her-Khatoon, which came from the Turkish word for "lady"-which he was to call her until the end of their lives. She was pretty, with long, light-brown hair that she kept in tresses, and she, too, had grey eyes-a family trait.
Baba had followed in the footsteps of his father, Heskel, and was starting a business career as a successful merchant and private banker, or saghaaf. It was a path that his mother, Ghalla (Yemma-"Granny"-to us), had planned for him, despite the fact that he had wanted to become a muallem (teacher) like his grandfather Hayim, a religious man who taught in the synagogue Beit Zilkha, a rabbinical college founded as long ago as 1839. Like all his colleagues, at least twice a week Hayim would receive from the community a huge platter of cooked rice and four loaves of bread for himself and his family. As a boy, Baba had joined his grandfather at the synagogue, which was for advanced religious learning, and by the time he was twelve, his education had been "completed"-that is, he had learned everything his religious tutor could teach him and he now possessed the same qualifications. He had even transcribed, in his own handwriting with quill and ink, the whole of the Hagada-shel-Pessah, the prayer book that is read at Passover. He would wake up at daybreak every morning and join in the reading, discussions, and teaching. It was just the start of an amazing educational journey that was to open a world to him that few of his generation could have aspired to, and which would bring him respect as a savant and philosopher. At home, through the years, we felt so good that Baba knew everything that we were learning at school; as we grew up, he would often quiz us at dinner and he liked to be quizzed in return.
Many of my early lessons were about the land I was growing up in, Mesopotamia-from the Greek for "between the rivers"-so called because it was squeezed in between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates that carried melted snow from the mountains of Turkey to the warm seas of the Persian Gulf. Baba explained that we were Mesopotamians, living in the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and had been governed by the Turks for almost four centuries. Our Jewish forefathers had arrived some 2,600 years earlier to begin a long and proud history that had witnessed what he called the flowering of mankind here, in Babylon, our ancestral home.
So Nana was over twenty when she married Baba, which would seem normal today. Just one generation earlier, however, she would have been considered surprisingly mature for a bride. For much of the nineteenth century, daughters were married off when they were extraordinarily young-especially in the case of less-well-to-do families worried about the financial expenses ahead. The typical age for a girl to marry was eight to ten; for a boy, eighteen to twenty. A girl was considered an old maid by fifteen, with no hope of marriage. For instance, Yemma had found herself married off at the tender age of nine to a mature man, a widower twice over who had two sons. She was still playing with dolls at the time of her wedding-and they had to wait until she reached puberty before consummating the marriage. She was only fifteen when she gave birth to Baba and was still in her twenties when he achieved his scholarship, by which time she had had three more sons and two daughters.
To be or have a child bride was then considered normal. The newlyweds usually lived in the home of the groom's parents, where his mother ruled the roost. The bride's life in her mother-in-law's home was not easy and could give rise to family crises (they could be "like a tiger and goat living together," as the saying went). The husband controlled his wife, who also had to obey and honour her mother-in-law and accept her training in domestic duties from the start.
Although she was never literate, Yemma grew up with just such discipline to be a wise and capable lady, managing what, by today's standards, must have been a huge household. Can you imagine? Her youngest daughter was born in the same year as my eldest sister, Regina, so aunt and niece were the same age. My grandmother was a nice-looking, hazel-eyed woman, petite and tidy, firm but kind. She loved Baba dearly-he was the firstborn of altogether eight children. She also loved her two stepchildren. She and my grandfather Heskel (whom we called Seeda, "Grandpa") used to care for me whenever I visited them as a child. He began teaching me to read almost before I could talk and later, when he thought I would be able to understand them, told me stories about the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, all of which were part of our fabulous heritage. And we were living right there.
* * *
During my childhood, our way of life hardly differed from that of our ancestors. Even our customs and expectations were the same. The whole family, even Baba's grandfather and grandmother, lived in the same house in Hennouni, which had ten bedrooms. And that's where we were living when I was born.
All the houses in the neighbourhood were designed to cope with the climate and provide facilities for extended family life. They were built in on themselves for security and protection, away from prying eyes. The idea was that, if you had no windows on the outside, you would not have any break-ins, so from the streets, which were just wide enough for a cart to pass, all you could see were brick walls. Far from being attractive, these lanes were squalid, infested with rats, cockroaches, and food for stray cats, so Nana was obsessed with cleanliness inside our home.
Like everyone else's front door, ours could only be opened with a massive key almost sixteen inches long, which required two hands to turn it. The door opened onto a daghboona (corridor) that led to a central courtyard, open to the skies, where palm trees and flowers grew. A typical house would have several levels above and below ground, and it was often connected-by paths called maslak on both the ground floor and the first floor-to adjacent houses, where other members of the family lived. So the houses were all a bit like a honeycomb.
The semi-basements, or niim-ventilated by means of a wide duct (b'khaaree) running up to the roof to trap the wind-provided cool spaces to keep food fresh. It was here that the family also took refuge on hot summer days for their siesta. There was another level below that called the sirdaab, cool and dark, where cheese, jams, vinegar, pickles-our wonderful torshi-and the like would be stored in big glazed clay jars. And below the sirdaab could be an immersion pool or well called the biirgh tebiila (or mikve in Hebrew), where all married women had to bathe to purify themselves after their time of the month: down a few steps and then dip three times in the freezing water. In winter, they would take a jug of hot water to rinse with and warm up after the dip.
Above ground were the living and reception rooms. One, the shanaashiil, projected over the street on one side like a loge or veranda. Through its mashrabiyah, a trellis-style lattice window, we could look out and see passersby without being seen ourselves. (On the Tigris, houses that overlooked the banks of the river were also hidden behind balconies like these.)
For our water, we had the river, just as in biblical times. Every day, men called saqqas used to haul up water in goatskins and fill our hubb, a massive earthenware container. Due to Baghdad's dry climate, water evaporated through its pores, cooled, and then dripped gently into a clay receptacle to be filtered through muslin into pitchers and used for drinking and cooking. Another container held water that was to be used for washing. It was quite a business, with each household appointing its own trusted saqqa to keep the supply coming. There was no water closet-what a concept! Our toilet was a slit in the ground about a metre deep and a metre long, connected to the septic pit below. The stench hit you the moment you opened the door.
As you can see, life in what passed as the "city" of Baghdad was still quite primitive. Take lighting a fire. Matches were unheard of; people still used a wax-coated cord with a compound on one end that was ignited by friction. (When matchboxes eventually arrived, they were an amazing novelty but relatively expensive.) To fuel their fires, everybody had what they called a fuel room, but it wasn't coal or logs that were kept there. It was full of sacks of different kinds of combustible material, some to give a quick fire and some to burn slowly for use in the oven when baking. Dried sheep dung, bought by the sackload, was popular because it was smokeless. Khash khash, the red, inedible fruit of the hawthorn, was the most sought after because it gave off a nice scent.
I have seen a map of the city in the seventeenth century and now realise that, in the second decade of the twentieth century, it had hardly changed in size or, I suppose, in character. In the old quarters, there were no street names: you simply referred to a street by the name of the richest family living there-for example, Kutchet Beit Baher, where all the Bahers lived. The alleyways were always filthy, as street cleaners were unheard of, and they formed a labyrinth in which it was easy to get lost. They were lined with sellers, not all of them nice. A barber would squeeze himself into a corner: he might have no shop, but this did not stop him from offering a range of interesting services besides shaves and haircuts-pulling teeth, for example, and lancing boils in full public view. Further down the lane could be a knife sharpener, then you might come across peddlers selling such delicacies as taaza ya fi jil, fresh radishes with long leaves, or khastawee ya nabeg, lotus berries (hackberries) as sweet as dates, weighing them using old-fashioned iron scales, with their produce on one side and rocks, instead of lead weights, on the other. They were always cheating and bargaining.
Excerpted from Memories of EDEN by Violette Shamash Copyright © 2010 by Mira and Tony Rocca. Excerpted by permission.
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