"Living in a rich and relatively stable continent, we are sometimes unaware of how quickly and absolutely history can vanish elsewhere; in the words of Violette Shamash, of how a people and a way of living can be "erased like chalk from a blackboard". In her case, the people are the Iraqi Jews and the way of life that of the city of Baghdad before 1941, but it has happened in many other parts of the world. Even in Britain, in Durham, say, or Ayrshire, you can stumble across a pattern on a hillside that marks the site of an old pit village that lived and died in the 20th century leaving no monuments and only the barest of records. Witnesses are needed - preferably articulate witnesses. In Violette Shamash, old Baghdad has found one. How many people should care about that? I think anyone with half an interest in the Middle East.
'Shamash's book Memories of Eden is published later this month. She died two years ago, aged 94, and the book has been edited from her notes and diaries by her daughter and son-in-law. Perhaps no man could have written it. As Professor Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, says in his foreword, memoirs of the Jewish community in Iraq have come chiefly from men and waver between "the sentimental and embittered". Shamash has remarkably little bitterness. Even as she watches news reports of Saddam Hussein's statue tumbling down in 2003, all she will say is that she was born 25 years before him, "before the creation of Iraq, before another foreign army, British this time, marched victoriously into the city in the name of bringing democracy to the people." And yet one might think there is good deal to be bitter about.
"In 1941, Jews in Iraq numbered 300,000 out of a population of around 2 million (I think the true figure of Jews is nearer 150,000 - ed). Jews made up 40% of Baghdad's population. Their ancestors had been in Iraq since the Babylonian captivity 2,600 years before.
"Shamash, who was born in 1912, grew up in a harmonious city that at the end of the first world war had barely changed since the 17th century. As an outpost of the Ottoman empire, modernity had hardly touched it. "My earliest memories are of water and heat," she writes of a city where the summer temperatures could easily reach 122F and most goods came up the Tigris on a guffa, a kind of coracle waterproofed in bitumen. She was born into a prosperous family - her father, a trader and money-changer, built a big house across the river from where the Green Zone now lies - but the lavatory was still a repugnant slit in the ground. Simple things were unheard of; "when the first watches appeared, children would stand on the street corner, waiting to ask any prosperous-looking passer-by if he could tell them the time." Houses had thick, windowless walls to keep out the heat and cold, and also to protect them from the great Baghdad problem, thievery. Doctors were few and medicine expensive; every year small plagues of cholera and dysentery claimed a crop of victims.
"Eden? Shamash concedes it was "primitive", but then remembers the compensations: salads eaten with lemon and salt, orchards of oranges, pomegranates, peaches, almonds and walnuts, country excursions to see the shrine of Ezekiel. More important, the Jews felt themselves integrated. Her father wore a fez and a big moustache. Jewish women dressed like their Muslim counterparts in long robes, pantaloons, headscarves and veils. Their influence on the city's life was so great that Saturday rather than Friday became Baghdad's day of rest. Jews were virtually the only instrumentalists in the whole of Iraq. The Baghdad Symphony Orchestra was entirely Jewish from conductor down to kettle-drum, and when Radio Iraq got its own band going in 1936 it contained only one Muslim musician.
"But by then Iraq was changing very quickly, as a new country cobbled by the British in 1921 out of three Ottoman vilayets or provinces and rewarded with a king, Faisal, imported from Saudi Arabia. The Jews liked the British and that increased the distrust of the Muslims. Oil, the principal reason for British interest, was discovered in vast quantities near Kirkuk in 1927. Though the British mandate ran out in 1932, Britain perpetuated its political control through Faisal's playboy son, Ghazi, who inherited the throne and ruled ineffectually until his sports car met a tree in 1939.
"Westernisation had arrived and was dividing the country between modernisers and traditionalists. Shamash chronicles its impact in small, specific ways: bobbed hair on women, the first cigarettes, cinemas showing Chaplin.
"The western import with the most far-reaching effect, however, was Zionism. Iraqi Jews were anti-Zionist, perhaps out of a self-interested desire not to rock their own boat, but that didn't stop the "Save Palestine" movement spreading to Iraq and with it a rash of anti-semitic violence. Then the war broke out and, as Shamash writes, "its contagious sickness spread to Baghdad". Arab nationalism was pro-Nazi. She was married by now - an arranged marriage - and desperate to leave with her husband and child.
"A coup brought a pro-Nazi group led by a lawyer, Rashid Ali, to power in 1941 and sent the regent (the new king was only five years old) packing. The farhud, or pogrom, came soon after. In the first days of June, 1941, during the celebration of the Pentecost, at least 187 people died when mobs attacked Baghdad's Jewish homes and businesses.
"In an appendix to Shamash's book, her son-in-law, Tony Rocca, shows clearly that it should never have happened. The new Iraqi regime had crumbled and the British army was already encamped on the outskirts of Baghdad, under orders from Churchill and Lt. General Wavell to take the city. If the army had entered as they wanted to, there would have been no massacre*. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, the British ambassador, was the obstacle. He had signed a generous armistice which declared (not for the last time) that Britain's enemies were not the Iraqi people but a particular personage: Rashid Ali. To re-install the regent with the support of British troops would have rubbed Iraqi noses in their defeat, and made the truth - that Britain ran the show - too obvious.
"Shamash and her family escaped to India later that year and moved eventually, via Palestine and Cyprus, to London. Thousands followed them. Between 1951 and 1952, about 120,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq to Israel. In 2006, according to her book, about a dozen families remained in Baghdad, still with a rabbi.
"Reading Memories of Eden, a book not so much about politics and history as about vanished pleasure, it is hard to resist the thought that everything could have been different were it not for the poisoned apple of oil. Iraq had for a time at least the roots of a harmonious, multicultural state, which in the Middle East is now only to be dreamed of. In this way, Shamash's book is both a memorial and an instruction saying: "See, it is not impossible."
· Memories of Eden by Violette Shamash is published by Forum on February 21
**In my view the evidence shows that there still would have been a massacre, but the British should not have allowed it to go on for as long as it did - ed.