Gerald Jacobs wrote the following article which appeared in The Metro on the 8th of May.
Since I believe it paints a true image of what Baghdad was in the first half of the 20th century, I feel strongly that the readers of my blog will be delighted to read the article in full and will no doubt appreciate the essence of his first novel Nine Love Letters which Quartet published recently to great critical acclaim.
“Although Baghdad and Budapest stand on great rivers whose histories run deeper than their waters, they are very different cities. One is a magnet for tourists, the other long unable to welcome foreign visitors.
In Budapest today, you will be encouraged to visit its imposing parliament building on the Danube and, among much else, join a tour of the Hungarian Opera House, where a soprano will sing you a familiar aria from the European repertoire.
By contrast, however much you may wish to see the biblical river Tigris or the splendid Iraqi monuments and mosques, you are unlikely to be able to visit Baghdad. And while Budapest has grand but neglected architecture scarred by graffiti, in Baghdad the damage to buildings is much more destructive.
In the first half of the 20th century, it was so different. Baghdad, at the heart of ancient Mesopotamia and a jewel of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, prospered. Its residents were active both inside – sweating and steaming at the hammam – and outside, walking and talking under palm trees or playing backgammon (tawla) at open-air tables shaded from the intense heat.
The pavements thronged with shoppers and merchants whose wares were carried in baskets balanced on their heads. Stalls sold spices, watermelon and orange-blossom water, as well as Turkish delight, halva and a wealth of other things. Barbers’ stalls offered not only haircuts and shaves but also tooth extractions, massages and boil lancings.
For those growing up in Baghdad in those days, identities were shaped by the sounds and smells of Shorjah market, the tannour bread ovens, the coffee, baklava, dates and apricots.
In 1941, the year in which my novel, Nine Love Letters, begins – first in Baghdad, then in Budapest – there remained one overriding similarity between the Iraqi and Hungarian capitals. Each had a substantial Jewish population, established over centuries, and in both cases this was about to be ruptured.
But this was not before, in April of that year, one last, grand, Jewish wedding would take place in my novel in Baghdad –between two cousins. Yusuf and Farah. It was almost certainly the last moment of traditional celebration in the city’s Jewish quarter . Hundreds came, including Arab neighbours drawn to the music and dancing and feasting from sunset to sunrise.
Within a month, the mood would change and 2,000 years of fruitful Jewish life in Mesopotamia came to a savage end. In Budapest, too, dark shadows would fall and, for characters from both places, the terrain would switch to London and a changing landscape across generations.”
If you haven’t already purchased a copy of Nine Love Letters, may I suggest you do so now and read this moving novel and tell your friends to do the same.
Believe me, it is worth a flutter!