Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"There was a very bloody and terrible Farhud (pogrom) in Baghdad in 1941. A large number of Jews were slain, raped and mutilated."
Before we begin, here's the publisher to give scale and context to that statement which only serves to make it even more disturbing and explain a little further about this work.
"In the 1940's a third of Baghdad's population was Jewish. Within a decade nearly all 150,000 had been expelled, killed or had escaped. Transported by the power of music to her ancestral home in the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, the author encounters its ghost-like inhabitants who are revealed as long-gone family members.
As she explores the city, journeying through their memories and her imagination, she at first sees successful integration, and cultural and social cohesion. Then the mood turns darker with the fading of this ancient community's fortunes. The wolf, believed by Baghdadi Jews to protect from harmful demons, sees that Jewish life in Iraq is over, and returns the author safely back to London."
Given the current state of affairs in Iraq and the Middle East region generally it seems strange, perhaps, to consider that Baghdad was once a thriving, multicultural metropolis, including such a substantial Jewish contingent. But looking back it's clear that events such as the ones depicted entirely wordlessly here by Carol Isaacs clearly contributed towards the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel by David Ben-Gurion on 14 May 1948, alongside of course the horrific events of the Holocaust in Europe. According to some additional information on the inside cover, there are now less than half a dozen Jews in remaining in Baghdad
You read that right, less than six. So the entire city was effectively ethnically cleansed of a third of its population.
Whilst being a little bit of a WW2 history buff myself, and being well being aware of Rashid Ali's turn away from the former colonial power of Britain (Iraq only gaining quasi-independence from Britain in 1932 so you can perhaps understand why there was lingering resentment from certain sections of the political establishment and general public) towards Germany and Italy, I certainly didn't know of the fervent Iraqi adaptation of the ideals of Nazism. Plus the shockingly rapid rise of antisemitism which seemingly wasn't particularly present, or at least visible, before then so explosively resulting in Baghdad's own version of Kristallnacht.
The second half of this work deals with the shocking fallout and consequences of those events, and they are as distressing as you would imagine. As the survivors silently walk us through their individual stories in moving vignettes of first disbelief, then survival, and finally escape, some to London where in fact this work opens. For the first half of this book is entirely different in tone, a vibrant celebration of Jewish life in a multicultural capital city. Baghdad that is, not London.
Each chapter, often merely two or three pages at a time, is prefaced by a portrait of the individual involved and a quote such as the one I chose for the opening above. There's a wistful, romantically nostalgic quality to these fragments initially, simply recounting the happy stories of ordinary days and nights spent in perfect contentment in tight streets of Baghdad, living cheek by jowl with their Muslim and also Christian neighbours.
The wordless aspect very much ensures we feel we are present ourselves in the background, a silent observer, watching Carol herself pass through the myriad locations observing the lives of her family who are portrayed in slightly transparent almost spectral form. It is as you might expect, knowing what emotional brutality is to come, an extremely haunting and moving approach.
The art itself, and I certainly don't mean this in a pejorative way, has a slight cartoonish aspect to it. In fact, given Isaacs also operates as the "well-known cartoonist published in the New Yorker, Spectator and Sunday Times" under the fabulous nom de plume of the Surreal McCoy it makes perfect sense. Stylistically I was at times minded of Simone FLUFFY / PLEASE GOD, FIND ME A HUSBAND Lia and Marjane PERSEPOLIS / CHICKEN WITH PLUMS / EMBROIDERIES Satrapi. This work succeeds in being as much a celebration of what has been sadly lost as it is an important and ever-timely reminder as to how it can all too easily and rapidly happen again if we allow hate to get the better of us.