Sunday, April 02, 2006

'Banking on Baghdad' and Iraqi Jews

In the Spring 2006 issue of Sameah Lyn Julius reviews Edwin Black's 'Banking on Baghdad' (now in paperback), one of the few books to focus on the commercial role and eventual demise of the Iraqi Jewish community.

"If you can’t read my entire book, don’t read it at all,” Edwin Black warns his readers. Banking on Baghdad is indeed as compulsive as a thriller, breathlessly sweeping through seven thousands years of Iraqi history.

The book begins and ends with the American invasion in 2003, but the ‘cradle of commerce and civilisation’ now known as Iraq has been the scene of Sunni-Shi’a conflict and foreign invasion through the ages.

When it comes to the 20th century, “the drums of war and the drums of oil…in Iraq all the drums played together.” Seams of the shiny black stuff, with all the international intrigue and machinations of petropolitics, run through the book as surely as they flow under Iraq’s shifting sands. After the First World War, the British threw together three Ottoman provinces to create the artificial state of Iraq, international oil corporations carved up the Middle East and the legendary magnate CS Gulbenkian (Mr Five Percent) established the Red Line Agreement monopoly.


Black’s books are famous for their meticulous detail. For Banking on Baghdad Black employed 30 researchers across numerous time zones ‘to triple-check every fact and footnote every paragraph.’ The book ‘s footnotes do indeed take up almost 100 pages.

Jewish readers will find Chapter 17 of particular interest. It chronicles the rise of antisemitism through the 1930s and 40s, the pernicious influence of Fritz Grobba, the German Charge d’Affaires in Baghdad - Grobba was an acronym for his real name, A. Borg - the influence of a group of pro-Nazi Iraqis called the Golden Square and the outbreak in 1941 of the two day- anti-Jewish pogrom known as the Farhoud, 65 years ago this year. As Black puts it,‘More than two thousand years of historic coexistence abruptly shattered like a fragile knee.’

Following the Golden Square’s failed coup, Jews returning from greeting the returning Regent at the airport were removed from their cars and brutally murdered. Homes were pillaged and women raped. Even Jewish patients being treated in city hospitals were attacked. Black puts the casualties at over 500 killed and over 1,000 wounded, but the true death toll may never be known.

The part the Jews played in Iraq is described in unprecedented detail. They were the bedrock of the economy and the country’s finances. One third of the companies in the Iraqi chamber of commerce were Jewish and Jewish firms transacted 45 percent of exports and 75 percent of imports. One quarter of Jews worked in transport, railways and ports. Black describes the gathering anti-semitic storm, the quotas on Jews in public services and the universities, and the Nazi-style pauperisation of the Jewish community, concluding with dismissals of thousands of Jewish civil servants, economic boycotts, arrests, hangings and the mass airlift of almost the entire community to Israel in 1950.

Considering the dearth of material in English on Iraqi Jews especially, Black has made a valuable contribution to the historical record – even if you don’t read the whole book.

1 comment:

Albert said...

Found an interesting article on the Iranian Jewish community today. Here it is:

http://www.jta.org/page_view_story.asp?intarticleid=16492&intcategoryid=2