Thursday, August 13, 2020

Palaces, parties and racehorses: my childhood in Iraq, Pt I

Lisette Shashoua Ades and her parents were among the few thousand Jews who stayed on in  Iraq after the mass emigration of the 1950s. She escaped the country in 1970: her parents did not follow until 20 years later. In the first part of a three-part occasional series, she recalls growing up as a happy-go-lucky child in Baghdad. She now lives in Canada.

This is my story.

 My father Menashy was one of eight children born to Shaul Shashoua,  a well- to- do, self-made merchant and property owner in Iraq. Baba Shaul and Nana Farha’s children were Hanini, Meer, Jacob, Naima, Rosa, Salim, Menashy and Marcelle. In the early 1920s when the British decided to appoint a king in Iraq, they needed a palace to house King Faisal I, who was from the Hejaz.

However, since Baghdad was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, there were no grand palaces fit for a king anywhere in Baghdad. My mom told me that Gertrude Bell sailed along the river Tigris, with binoculars, to chose a suitable home for the King. She chose my grandfather Shaul’s house.


Kasser Shashoua, rented to the king for a nominal sum

Baba Shaul duly moved out with his whole family to a house in the neighbourhood. He rented his house out for a nominal sum to the king  until a suitable palace was built for the king to move into about two years later - Al-Bilat. The house got duly named Kasser Shashoua and somehow this expression seeped into Iraqi culture and folklore. For example, if it takes someone a long time to build a house, he would be told, "you are not building Kasser Shashoua after all....” I actually knew nothing about this until I heard a play, Arthahalchy, on television when I was ten,  using exactly this expression: “What do you think you are building,  Kasser Shashoua?"

I ran to my Dad to ask if we were the same Shashoua they were talking about. This is when my father told me that he and his seven siblings grew up in this palace and that his father, Baba Shaul, who was now in heaven,  had built it. My dad and his sisters Aunty Marcelle and Aunty Naima would tell us how King Faisal I would drop in on my grandfather unannounced on horseback. Baba Shaul would send his children who were playing in the garden inside the house out of respect. I was also told recently by one of my  dad s cousins that my grandfather Shaul, who had many agricultural lands in the area, got a huge Zanbeel (a big bag) of dates from his many date trees and asked Dad and his cousins to take it to the king. The three young boys strutted along with their charge, simply rang the bell of the palace,  and King Faisal opened the door himself.The cousin still wondered how simple and humble this king was.

Most of my uncles and aunts fled after the well-known Farhud. Sami Sourani, our history scholar who has first-hand information, says, that '200 dead' was only the official number that the Iraqi government admitted to. The number was much higher, especially since many of the injured taken to hospitals were also killed by the hospital staff, upon learning that the patients were Jewish!

My mother Mouzli had two brothers and three sisters: Renee, David, Violette, Bertha and Emile. My Dad’s seven siblings as well as my mother Mouzli‘s five siblings  all left Iraq in different decades; some during the forties, others the fifties and the last batch in the early sixties. They were scattered all over the world. Some went to Italy, others to India, to Iran, England, the United States to Brazil and to Canada. They did not go to Israel, yet  not one was able to sell their shares or their lands: their properties were frozen as soon as they left Iraq .They were all eventually 'de-nationalized' simply for being Jewish.

 In 1950 -1, when Iraq acquiesced to opening up emigration, more than 120,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel and were stripped of their nationality upon applying to do so. My beloved nanny Esther, whom I nicknamed Tiquo,  was amongst them. I still wish I could find her.

There were many Jewish schools, such as the Alliance Israelite Laura Kadoorie school for girls,  al- Taassisiyah,   as well as clubs belonging to Jews such as Nadi El Zawra where my father was president. All were all closed and confiscated by the government. These buildings were filled with Palestinian refugees. Rumour had it that the regime would  kick all the Jews out of their homes and replace them with the Palestinian refugees. Ironically, the situation of the Jews gradually improved in the fifties after the  shock of the mass migration, the hanging of the innocent Shaffik Ades, the imprisonment and hangings of several Jews as Zionists or communists.


Lisette playing Goldilocks at the Menahem Daniel school 

 I grew up in the 1950s as a happy-go-lucky child surrounded by my sisters Evelyn and Hilda, my parents Menashy and Mouzli and my maternal grandparents, Eliahou Meir and Sarah Khatoun. Our beloved Amma Massouda, my grandfather s sister, lived with us as well : we shared the same bedroom where I taught her some English words and she told me all kinds of folk stories before going to sleep.

 We the children used to have birthday parties, go on boat trips  (as in David Dangoor's film Remember Baghdad)  and family picnics with our parents and their friends. We belonged to the Mansour club that my father and a few other Jewish and Moslem leaders help build. At the Mansour they played tennis,  they had a great swimming pool, a dance floor and open air playground. The club was adjacent to the horse race track. My dad had Arab race horses, and was a prominent member of the races. In fact, we had a booth or  logggia next to that of the king.


 One day  I remember being with my parents and  the young King Faisal II was in his loggia near us. I remember being really excited when he waved back at me after I saluted him. One of my dad's well -known horses was called Dixie, a beautiful dark brown steed. Dixie won all the races until he tripped and broke his leg. Many of the older teenage boys at school knew about this great horse. In fact some associated my father’s name with Dixie  - even when we met in Canada twenty or thirty years later. Dixie was too precious a horse to be put down:  he healed and became a stallion on a studfarm who sired many foals. Dad called one of Dixie's offspring Coquette after me. She was a light brown mare. He would joke that he did not dare call her Lisette for fear that she might lose at the races and he would be cursed: Ana’ al Abouha la abou Abouha  ( 'Damn her and her father '), by those who would lose their bets on her.  My sisters Evelyn and Hilda and some of my male cousins, Solly and Abood Abdulezer, would sometimes accompany us to the stable where we had the horses. This was  in the Karkh neighbourhood, near the Mansour club and the racetrack.

 We were allowed to feed the horses jath ( hay), pat them on the forehead but never to ride them because they were too fast for us, although my sister Evelyn told me she did ride one of them with some help once. Dad called the horses fun names; such as Taj Iraqia meaning the Iraqi crown (the horse was white) and a fast horse; so was Iraqia Khanem, Iraqi lady. Kawlee was a black horse, His name loosely translates as a 'bum',which he was. He was quite unruly, always balking, and hardly ever won. Shuaa a el thawaheb, meaning 'golden rays' was another beauty of a horse, She was a light brown,  golden horse which shimmered in the sun, my sister Evelyn remembers!

 Ta’ an el Waleed, was named after some army hero. Then there was Bo Peep, who never won, except on the day when my Dad was too sick to attend her race. That day, Bo Peep won 370 odds on to the dinar and was awarded a trophy. The following day, my sister Evelyn remembers reading in the newspaper:“ the Shashoua horse went like an atomic bomb at the races". This added to my dad's disappointment for not being there and not being able to bet on his horse that day.

 We had Assyrian domestic help from Zakho and Alkosh where the prophets Nahum, Daniel ,and Jonah were buried. The help lived with us and they spoke Assyrian amongst themselves, (I just found out that this is a form of Aramaic). My favourites throughout the years, were Sammia and Shoushan. Sammia eventually married a man from Switzerland and Shoushan moved to Detroit in the United States . What a shame that we knew so little about our history and did not realize the richness of either our Jewish heritage nor the fact that Aramaic (the language of the Talmud and of Christ ) was being spoken in our own homes.

 Of course, this was due to the fact that in all the history books; the existence of the Jews in Mesopotamia since Babylonian times had been completely and methodically obliterated. We were only allowed to study Hebrew an hour a week just to learn to read the alphabet  - and that was only in elementary school. There was no time to learn about our rich heritage dating back to Babylon, when all the laws of Judaism were established.

 We had wonderful and devoted drivers who drove our Chevrolet cars. They were both Armenian; first, our dear Mangar. When I was nine years old, he suddenly passed away from a heart attack after taking me to school that morning. Menass, his son and his family, now live in Toronto and we are still in touch with them.

 Our driver Samuel came to us in 1957. Samuel stayed with my parents years after that day in 1970 when he took me to the Nafarat taxi station when I escaped from Iraq. He was the last person I saw before leaving. I barely said goodbye to him, because the situation was very scary! He was so devoted and loyal to us that when a family member (who suspected that I had escaped) stopped him in the street the following day to ask where I was...he lied,  saying, “I just took her to her girlfriend this morning.”

 Since my parents stayed behind until 1990, twenty years after my escape, Samuel had to retire a few years prior. My dad drove the new car now. The Chevrolet was now replaced by a Moskovitch.  (That shows you the sign of the times.) Until 1962 we used to go on holiday nearly every summer. We travelled to Paris, Nice and Geneva when I was seven. We went to Iran over several summers to stay with my aunt Renee and uncle Selim Noonoo and my uncle David and his wife Eva Meir and families. We also went to Lebanon for both the summers of 1960 and 1961. My sister Evelyn left just before the 1958 bloody revolution when our 22 year-old King Faisal II was killed along with his grandmother, his uncle Abdul Ilah the regent, his ministers, his dogs, cooks and domestic help.

 Hilda my sister, my mom, and I were in Iran staying with my Aunt Renee and family, on 14 July 1958, the day of the Iraqi revolution. My dad was supposed to follow a week later. We were awakened by my uncle Selim Noonoo who yelled from downstairs “ Mouzli, wake up,  there is a revolution in Baghdad !“  I did not know what it meant, but it sounded ominous!

 My mom was convinced that the communists were coming. She was hoping to stay in Iran and for Dad to join us there, then we would all move to Europe and never go back to Iraq. She even registered me in the American community school in Tehran which my cousins Pepina, Jack and Joyce were attending. Mom also wanted to prepare herself for the worst scenario; she and Hilda took typewriting and shorthand lessons in case we did go back, and Iraq would become a communist regime. I learnt some Persian whilst we were there. This  proved very useful when I escaped twelve years later. Dad soon sent us a letter to go back to Baghdad two months later, after the horrors had calmed down and a new phase had started:, the sadistic Mahdawy courts started sentencing all the former ministers to death. 

Many of my childhood friends and their parents started to leave Iraq for good, one by one, after the 1958 revolution. The brutality against the royal family was enough for them to cut their losses and move to safer havens such as London, Canada, Israel, the United States and even Iran where the Shah was the ruler and Tehran was the  'Paris of the Middle East'. The families we went on picnics and birthdays with all left :the Dangoors, Chitayats,  Shamashes, Sofaers, Bekhors,  Shohets, my close friends Stella , Diana, cousins Jimmy and David, and many others including many Moslem friends and some business partners of my dad. The race course was closed after the revolution in 1958. Some people convinced my Dad to send the horses to Egypt where they, supposedly would be able to continue racing. Unfortunately the horses were stolen in Egypt after Dad paid for their transportation and their care... another big let--down for him.

As for my sister Hilda, she left in 1962, just before the next bloody revolution in 1963 where the Ba'ath party arrived and life for us Jews started to deteriorate again! I, being the youngest, stayed with my parents to live  under even harder times.

 We were lucky that both our schools, Menahem Daniel and Frank Iny, were mixed, boys and girls. We all grew up together , sat through the same exams : French Certificat and Baccalaureat, the British Cambridge Certificate, O'levels and A' levels, the  American SAT's and of course the mandated Iraqi baccalaureate exams. We all became like one big family, and the bonds we built with each other became stronger and all-encompassing with time.

For Par 2 click here. For Part 3. click here.


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