Our Winter 2021 series on a diverse literary Iraq continues with an essay by Ali Shakir about the journey to translating Violette Shamash’s memoir, Memories of Eden, into Arabic:
By Ali Shakir
Each time I watch or listen to immigrants and refugees describing their arrival in their hosting environments as a happy ending, I can’t help feeling a little suspicious. I understand they want to express their gratitude. And there is definitely a sense of euphoria, and of “making it” at the beginning. But based on my first-hand experience, turning the page on one’s past is not even an option. There’s never an ending.
A silver lining to the dilemma, though, is that the journey often pushes us to attend to our long-silenced questions. Shortly after reaching New Zealand’s impossibly distant shores in 2008, I felt an overwhelming urge to understand what had happened in Iraq, and the Middle East at large. I needed to read books written from different perspectives about our history and politics. New Zealand allowed me to do just that.
I still remember my excitement when I realized I could finally read any book I wanted: old and new, in any language, and from any part of the world. No banned authors, no torn-out pages or lines and images thickly obscured by a censor’s permanent black marker, all of which had tried—often uselessly—to curb my insatiable hunger for books while growing up in Ba’ath-ruled Baghdad.
I immediately indulged in the all-you-can-read buffet, and was particularly interested in books that explored the Middle East’s many cultures and faiths. I was also curious to learn more about the plight of the Iraqi Jews, who’d made up nearly a quarter of Baghdad’s population in the early 20th century and were considered the oldest Jewish diaspora community in the world. In 2006, only a dozen was left, all of whom feared for their lives and aspired to migrate.
Having familiarized myself with the topic; shortly after sending my third book to press in 2018, I decided my next project was going to be an Arabic translation of one of those documents. Violette Shamash’s memoir Memories of Eden, however, was not my first choice. I wasn’t looking for a script on traditional recipes or the evolution of clothing styles in Iraq after the end of World War I. I wasn’t willing either, to recount the jokes of coffee-shop patrons, housewives’ gossip, and the pranks young schoolgirls had pulled on their teachers. I was searching for a shocking testimony of a survivor; a manuscript that encapsulated the pressure endured by the Jewish community before and after their nearly-forced departure from the land where they’d lived for millennia, a story about the agony of separation and fleeing ethnic cleansing.
That was the plan, but Violette’s intimate recollections of the banalities of her early life were almost impossible to resist. No sooner had I started reading the first chapters/letters than I was taken by her charming Mesopotamian storytelling. My defenses crumbled, and despite an old pledge never to cry over Iraq, when I finished translating her emotional farewell to Baghdad, tears were rolling down my face.
True to the memoir’s subtitle, A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad, she took me on a guided tour that delved into different stations. She welcomed me into her family house and its vast garden overlooking the Tigris, where we indulged in the scents of blooming gardenias, jasmine, carnations and jouri roses wafting through the air, with mouthwatering aromas of freshly baked bread. We ate fruit that she snatched from the trees before heading to the Jewish quarter and its famed Hennouni market, where the family used to live before her father’s decision to build a qasr (villa) on the capital’s then-outskirts.
Violette made me follow her through serpentine alleys to the Alliance School, where we heard young girls mischievously whispering and giggling in their classrooms, and their teachers reprimanding them. And when the night fell, we took our seats around a band of Jewish musicians and singers to listen to their enchanting, if a little lamenting maqam tunes.
Her generation had seen Baghdad undergo a reshuffle of colonial powers—from the Ottoman Empire to the British, and its people start to enjoy the amenities of contemporary Western life, such as paved roads, electricity, telephone service, drinking-water supplies and sewerage, as well as cars and public transport, cinemas and radio service. And the fancy novelties of social clubs and department stores.
What struck me while scrutinizing those details—and would motivate me further to proceed with my project—was that a lot of what Violette had mentioned in her letters was no longer there. Names of once-famous singers, markets and neighborhoods, foods and proverbs; they had all disappeared from our collective memory, and the references made to them in her book may well be their last.
Halfway through the process, it dawned on me I’d taken a ridiculously long detour to a nearby destination. Despite the fact we never met in person, and an almost 60-year age gap; a bond of wonderful rapport grew up between Violette and me. She’d become a family member; a grandmother who had an almost inexhaustible reservoir of fascinating tales. Only the stories she narrated about our homeland were in English, and it was my duty now to retell them in Arabic. I had to retrieve her Baghdadi voice without making her sound too local, given that several of the book’s anecdotes are as relevant today as ever. They eerily echo the ordeals of millions of contemporary Iraqi and Arab refugees and immigrants, including me.
The Jewish community’s serenity in modernized Baghdad was short-lived, sadly. They quickly became scapegoats for all the injustices caused by British colonialism, and were increasingly targeted by members of the rising Arabist and Islamist movements over the large-scale immigration of European Jews to Palestine. The tensions came to an appalling peak in what is known as the Farhud of 1941—a two-day pogrom against Baghdad Jewry inspired by the Nazis.
“When we got to the Farhud, Violette wrote to me that she could not go on. It was too painful and she wanted to skip it,” Mira, Violette’s daughter said in an email. She and journalist husband Tony Rocca are the memoir’s editors. It took some convincing before Violette finally agreed to disclose the details of what happened during those 48 hours. Soon after, the family packed their bags and left Iraq. None of them has returned since.
Now that my translation is released, I must admit my work on it has been quite therapeutic. I have gone through some rough times in the past three years—including the latest episode of Covid-19—but then I’d read a letter on how Violette had continued to enjoy music, food and jokes until the very end, and my despair became irrelevant. She had every reason to hate and seek revenge, but chose to let go and never give up on hope.
I hope her story will similarly influence other Iraqis and Arabs struggling with difficult situations, inside and outside their countries of origin. My Jewish grandmother, I’m certain, wouldn’t have wanted a better outcome.
رسائل فيوليت: جولة في حياة يهود بغداد (Letters by Violette: A Journey Through the Life of Baghdad Jewry) was recently published in Beirut by ASP INC. The introduction to the Arabic edition explains the change in title.
Ali Shakir is an Iraqi-born, New Zealand-based architect and author. His articles, essays and reviews—in Arabic and English—appeared in many newspapers and literary journals in the Arab world, the UK, the United States and New Zealand. He is a member of the New Zealand Society of Authors, former blogger for The Guardian Weekly, Huffington Post (in Arabic) and a regular contributor to Arcade (Stanford University) and Raseef22.