The Finns have a word – kaukokaipuu – which means a feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never been to. I’ve been living in two places all my life; the England I was born in, and the lost world of my Iraqi-Jewish family’s roots.
I am telling their story in a graphic memoir called The Wolf Of Baghdad. Based on my family’s recollections of their life in Baghdad, the memoir is also performed as a motion comic (slideshow) accompanied by a live band (including me) playing music of Iraqi and Judeo-Arabic origin.
I am a musician but also an accidental cartoonist and illustrator. My cartoons are published in the New Yorker, Spectator, Sunday Times amongst many other places. My work has also been featured in Myriad Editions’ The Inking Woman, 250 years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain.
As a musician I have worked in the pop and world music fields, touring and recording with artists such as Indigo Girls, Sinead O’Connor. Ironically my only experience of Jewish music until recently was klezmer (I am a founder member of the London Klezmer Quartet.) My parents never played Arabic music at home, it was a strictly classical household. Maybe it reminded them of what they had left behind and besides, they were determined to be British, resolutely looking forward.
For this project I have started learning Maqam, the Arabic modes and scales, and the songs so beloved by the Arab world that happened to be written by an Iraqi-Jewish composer Saleh al-Kuwaiti. During the 1930s and 1940s Iraqi Jews composed and recorded much of the music that is still popular today. But under Saddam Hussein’s rule their names were erased from the history books and their music was attributed as ‘folk’. Only now in Iraq is there beginning to be a groundswell of interest in their legacy, and that of Iraqi Jews in general.
The graphic memoir is based on interviews I conducted with family members. Both my parents and their families fled Iraq, the last of them leaving in the 1960s. Previously life had been good. The early part of the 20th century was thought to be a golden age for the Jews of Iraq. Most considered themselves Iraqi first and Jewish second and by the 1940s Jews accounted for a third of the population of Baghdad and were well-integrated. However the rise of Hitler and Arab nationalism led to growing anti-Jewish feeling. And after the shock of the Farhud (Arabic for pogrom) in Baghdad in 1941 and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, many Iraqi Jews felt there was no future for them in a country they had lived in continuously for over 2,600 years.
I found a wolf’s tooth amulet among my late mother’s belongings that used to be pinned to babies’ cribs to keep away the evil eye. A hundred years ago the Baghdadi Jews believed that keeping a wolf would keep away demons. In the graphic memoir I travel back to the Baghdad along with the mythical wolf to witness the Baghdad they once knew and loved, and its eventual destruction.
The next performance of The Wolf of Baghdad is at Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Russell Square Campus, London WC1H 0XG on Monday 18 February 2019, 6.30pm – 9pm. Followed by a panel discussion from leading academic experts on the subjects of Iraq, its music and its Jewish community’s legacy.