'Enthralling and moving. It is magical.' Claudia Roden
In the 1940s a third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Within a decade nearly all 150,000 had been expelled, killed or had escaped. This graphic memoir of a lost homeland is a wordless narrative by an author homesick for a home she has never visited.
Transported by the power of music to her ancestral home in the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, the author encounters its ghost-like inhabitants who are revealed as long-gone family members. As she explores the city, journeying through their memories and her imagination, she at first sees successful integration, and cultural and social cohesion. Then the mood turns darker with the fading of this ancient community’s fortunes.
This beautiful wordless narrative is illuminated by the words and portraits of her family, a brief history of Baghdadi Jews and of the making of this work. Says Isaacs: ‘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.’
Carol Isaacs will be touring The Wolf of Baghdad throughout 2019-2020 at various venues and festivals around England. For more information please check her blog.
An excerpt of the book was longlisted for the 2018 Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition.
This isn't a book that you read. It's one where you actually fall inside the story. It's wonderful.
There’s a wistful, romantically nostalgic quality to these fragments initially, simply recounting the happy stories of ordinary days and nights spent in perfect contentment in tight streets of Baghdad, living cheek by jowl with their Muslim and also Christian neighbours. Stylistically I was at times minded of comic artists Simone Lia and Marjane Satrapi. This work succeeds in being as much a celebration of what has been sadly lost as it is an important and ever-timely reminder as to how it can all too easily and rapidly happen again if we allow hate to get the better of us.
As a personal narrative it's superb, you sink into it and it enfolds you with its magical charm. I was enchanted by this book.
Eric Page, Gscene magazine
Isaacs’ visual style is muted yet incisive, her textual minimalism allowing the images to breathe and linger...The Wolf of Baghdad tells a poignant and achingly familiar story.
Anahit Behrooz, The Skinny
The illustrations are distinctly sensory. One feels, smells, hears, tastes, touches, and gasps along with Isaac on her time-bending journey. When the morning sun hits her face, it lights up a smile. One imagines the pleasure of a slight coolness before the air thickens under unkind temperatures. She follows the ghosts of the past, although they also seem to follow her in her nostalgic pursuit.
The Wolf of Baghdad is a fascinating look at the history of Jews in Baghdad...feeling akin to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis for the way it uses simple characters and a very stylised black and white palette. The styling of some elements is wonderful and the use of the ghosts as representations of memory gives the book a very ethereal quality. The Wolf of Baghdad is a completely absorbing read.
The book is punctuated by quotes from family members to emphasize the changing times. Other than these occasional comments the entire narrative is wordless, relying on Carol’s gift of visual storytelling. Despite the lack of words the emotion and tragedy are vibrantly apparent. Stories like this deserve to be told and read, connecting us all with a recent past that’s so easily overlooked and at risk of being forgotten.
Although the narrative is entirely wordless, crystal clear and powerful, Isaacs has interspersed her story with brief personal testimonies that explain certain details, give a rough chronology, and offer a poignant perspective on events. This is a clever compliment to the beautifully drawn storytelling of the visual images. This stands as testimony for the dead and the displaced, a voice that needs to be heard. Remarkably concise and moving.
Moving, powerful and beautifully drawn. The long-gone, silent ghosts in Carol Isaacs’ The Wolf of Bagdad tell their story more eloquently and vividly than if they were still alive.
30 March 2020
The Wolf Of Baghdad (£16-99, Myriad) by Carol Isaacs…
“There was a very bloody and terrible Farhud (pogrom) in Baghdad in 1941. A large number of Jews were slain, raped and mutilated.”
Before we begin, here’s the publisher to give scale and context to that statement which only serves to make it even more disturbing and explain a little further about this work.
“In the 1940’s a third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Within a decade nearly all 150,000 had been expelled, killed or had escaped. Transported by the power of music to her ancestral home in the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, the author encounters its ghost-like inhabitants who are revealed as long-gone family members.
As she explores the city, journeying through their memories and her imagination, she at first sees successful integration, and cultural and social cohesion. Then the mood turns darker with the fading of this ancient community’s fortunes. The wolf, believed by Baghdadi Jews to protect from harmful demons, sees that Jewish life in Iraq is over, and returns the author safely back to London.”
Given the current state of affairs in Iraq and the Middle East region generally it seems strange, perhaps, to consider that Baghdad was once a thriving, multicultural metropolis, including such a substantial Jewish contingent. But looking back it’s clear that events such as the ones depicted entirely wordlessly here by Carol Isaacs clearly contributed towards the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel by David Ben-Gurion on 14 May 1948, alongside of course the horrific events of the Holocaust in Europe. According to some additional information on the inside cover, there are now less than half a dozen Jews in remaining in Baghdad… You read that right, less than six. So the entire city was effectively ethnically cleansed of a third of its population.
Whilst being a little bit of a WW2 history buff myself, and being well being aware of Rashid Ali’s turn away from the former colonial power of Britain (Iraq only gaining quasi-independence from Britain in 1932 so you can perhaps understand why there was lingering resentment from certain sections of the political establishment and general public) towards Germany and Italy, I certainly didn’t know of the fervent Iraqi adaptation of the ideals of Nazism. Plus the shockingly rapid rise of antisemitism which seemingly wasn’t particularly present, or at least visible, before then so explosively resulting in Baghdad’s own version of Kristallnacht.
The second half of this work deals with the shocking fallout and consequences of those events, and they are as distressing as you would imagine. As the survivors silently walk us through their individual stories in moving vignettes of first disbelief, then survival, and finally escape, some to London where in fact this work opens. For the first half of this book is entirely different in tone, a vibrant celebration of Jewish life in a multicultural capital city. Baghdad that is, not London.
Each chapter, often merely two or three pages at a time, is prefaced by a portrait of the individual involved and a quote such as the one I chose for the opening above.
There’s a wistful, romantically nostalgic quality to these fragments initially, simply recounting the happy stories of ordinary days and nights spent in perfect contentment in tight streets of Baghdad, living cheek by jowl with their Muslim and also Christian neighbours.
The wordless aspect very much ensures we feel we are present ourselves in the background, a silent observer, watching Carol herself pass through the myriad locations observing the lives of her family who are portrayed in slightly transparent almost spectral form.
It is as you might expect, knowing what emotional brutality is to come, an extremely haunting and moving approach.
The art itself, and I certainly don’t mean this in a pejorative way, has a slight cartoonish aspect to it. In fact, given Isaacs also operates as the “well-known cartoonist published in the New Yorker, Spectator and Sunday Times” under the fabulous nom de plume of the Surreal McCoy it makes perfect sense. Stylistically I was at times minded of Simone FLUFFY / PLEASE GOD, FIND ME A HUSBAND Lia and Marjane PERSEPOLIS / CHICKEN WITH PLUMS / EMBROIDERIES Satrapi.
This work succeeds in being as much a celebration of what has been sadly lost as it is an important and ever-timely reminder as to how it can all too easily and rapidly happen again if we allow hate to get the better of us.
In the 1940s, a third of Baghdad was Jewish. Today, fewer than a dozen remain. What happened to their 2,600 years of history? In The Wolf of Baghdad, musician and accomplished cartoonist Carol Isaacs endeavors to convey homesickness for a place she has never been to. Through the lens of her family’s account, anecdotes passed across generations, this graphic memoir explores identity, nostalgia, Jewish diaspora memories, lost histories in Old Baghdad through the first half of the 20th century. This dive into a complex Middle East is all the more moving, the dark years all the weightier, for being largely wordless.
The harsh storms of the 1930 battered Baghdadi Jews as well their European co-religionists, turning daily life into a quest for existence. As early as 1932, an Arabic translation of Mein Kampf is released; Radio Berlin broadcasts in Arabic. The Iraqi government leans closer to Nazi Germany; all changes in Baghdad for Isaacs’s family. Antisemitism permeates, mixing anti-Zionist sentiments and European-crafted hate narratives. Constraints on freedom of movement, education, targeted looting and attacks culminate in a horrific pogrom in 1941 which claimed the lives of an estimated 179 Baghdadi Jews. Black pages express the family’s shock and dismay. “The Jewish population swore they would never again let this happen to their children.” Indeed, the family leaves for the United Kingdom shortly after the gruesome event, with their last kin joining by mid-1960s.
It wasn’t always so dark though. A beautiful strip depicts the author staring at the sun rising above Baghdad’s urban landscape from the height of her rooftop. The illustrations are distinctly sensory. One feels, smells, hears, tastes, touches, and gasps along with Isaac on her time-bending journey. When the morning sun hits her face, it lights up a smile. One imagines the pleasure of a slight coolness before the air thickens under unkind temperatures. She follows the ghosts of the past, although they also seem to follow her in her nostalgic pursuit.
Clothed in a traditional black cloak, she discovers the family home, the blissful summer nights spent on the rooftop; she investigates the narrow alleys of Old Baghdad, stops at the souk’s foodstalls, notices the melodies emanating from the riverside and the synagogue. We are hungry with her, we too want to jump into the Tigris River to escape the heat, and recuperate around a samak masguf (grilled fish). These are the golden days, reminiscent of a time when non-Muslims were accepted and not subject to regular persecution.
Isaacs places a wolf at a respectful distance. According to traditional beliefs, the wolf protects against evil spirits. An amulet made from wolf’s tooth, sinn el-dheeb, is customarily attached to babies’ cribs to ward off the evil eye. The wolf is a comforting presence amongst her encounter with lost homes and long gone faces.
Most Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel between 1950 and 1952, in a similar fashion as was conducted in Yemen under Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-1950. In old Sana’a too, one can see Biyoot il Yahood, Jewish houses, empty and decrepit, with a discreet star of David carved in the buildings’ facades. They are relics of a difficult past. For Isaacs, it remains a challenging present.
During a pogrom night, one of her family members remembers, “we had two Arab neighbours. They stood at each end of the street and wouldn’t let anyone come in.” While screening the graphic novel at an event, Isaacs welcomed Iraqis from all backgrounds. “We all have more in common than divides us,” she writes. As other minorities, Assyrians, Yazidis, are leaving today’s Iraq en masse to seek refuge abroad, her book calls for concord and tolerance for the ages.
Here is a little corner of history you may not know. Back in the 1940s a third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. There had been decades of peaceful coexistence with their Muslim and Christian neighbours.
That all began to change when the Iraqi government started to support the Nazi regime in Germany. Assets had to be hidden, Muslim ways of speaking were adopted. None of it stopped the intimidation and the violence. In 1941 a pogrom saw attacks on Jewish businesses and Jewish people. Within a decade most of the Jewish population had left Baghdad.
The family of musician and cartoonist Carol Isaacs (aka The Surreal McCoy) were among those who fled Baghdad. Now, in her new book, The Wolf of Baghdad, Isaacs makes an attempt at rediscovering this forgotten history. Told in mostly wordless imagery it’s a cartoonist’s recreation of a lost world. It’s a story full of ghosts and regrets.
Here, Isaacs talks of the origin of her retelling of her origin story, how music and comics complement each other and why she likes pictures without words.
What is the origin story of The Wolf of Baghdad?
Three years ago, I wrote Deep Home, a three-page comic that was published in the Strumpet Comics Anthology, a compilation of short comics by women from the USA and UK. The theme for that particular issue was Origin Stories and I wrote about growing up as the child of emigres. This was the first time I had drawn anything longer than a three-panel cartoon and I had never done anything personal before. It gave me the idea to do a longer-form story about my family, which turned into The Wolf of Baghdad. (An extended version of Deep Home appears in the afterword of book.)
The decline in number of the Jewish population in Iraq is staggeringly stark. Was this something you knew about growing up? Were the family stories ones you knew or ones you had to go looking for?
A bit of both. My parents didn’t talk much about Iraq and when they did it was only about their good memories. I gleaned the rest of the story, as children do, from what they left unsaid. It also helped that I understood Judeo-Arabic (our dialect) as both my grandmothers didn’t speak English.
When did you make the decision to do the story mostly without words and why?
It seemed the most natural way for this story. Images without text can be quite powerful, bypassing the thinking brain and having an immediate effect. The short family anecdotes act as little anchors and give some context. I drew the book with the intention of making it a motion comic (animated slideshow) as well, to be accompanied by a music soundtrack.
One of the pleasures of the book is the way you recreate a lost world. Was that very much the intention?
I hoped to create the atmosphere of the Baghdad my family were familiar with, both at home and in their wider surroundings.
How did you research the look of Baghdad in the period of the book?
Whilst keeping a blog about the making of the project (as part of the grant given to me by Arts Council England for research and development), I was contacted by a teenage Iraqi student who helpfully took some photos of the old Jewish Quarter for me.
Another Iraqi Facebook friend took pictures of Jewish houses on his visits to Baghdad. I also tracked down the last copy of an obscure book on the architecture of Baghdadi Jewish houses which were built to specific designs.
In the afterword you mention the Finnish word “kaukokaipuu” – a feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never been. Is that how you feel about Baghdad? What would you most like to visit given the chance?
Almost everything my family knew has gone now. There’s no trace left of them. Even the cemeteries have been razed over and destroyed. A handful of Jews remain (five at the last count out of a population of 150,000) and they keep a very low profile. It would be more of a symbolic visit and the start of a new dialogue. However, security remains an obstacle.
You’re a musician too. What, if anything, is the relationship between your music and comics?
The placement and shape of the panels provide a certain reading rhythm to the page. You might say the story arc is the melody and the panels are accompanying chords.
What is your history with comics and graphic novels? What did you read as a kid and what do you like now?
I used to get the Beano as a kid. I came to graphic novels late, but I am making up for lost time. Recently read The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein, Heimat by Nora Krug, Square Eyes by Mill and Jones. All so different and such an amazing variety of styles.
What would you like readers to take away from The Wolf of Baghdad?
An unknown story told. Perhaps a little bit of history.
You have an alter ego, The Surreal McCoy. When/Why/How did you come up with it?
I always say that I am an accidental cartoonist. As a musician I travel a lot and, on one particularly long bus journey, whiled away the hours by doodling. Sent in my scribbles and got them published. The pen name came out of a bad pun. (Apologies!)
Deidre Falvey, The Irish Times
30 January 2020
The Wolf of Baghdad, Carol Isaacs’ beautifully drawn exploration of her Iraqi-Jewish family’s roots and their lost homeland. In the 1940s a third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish but within a decade nearly all 150,000 had fled, been expelled or killed. Transported by the power of music to her ancestral home in Baghdad’s old Jewish quarter, Isaacs encounters the ghosts of her long-gone relatives and explores the city through their memories – initially of successful integration, and cultural and social cohesion – before the mood turns darker with the fading of this ancient community’s fortunes.
Here am I, sitting and drinking a cappuccino made by my caring and thoughtful better half while somewhere in Baghdad life is not as safe or simple. I am sad and anxious about events in Baghdad. I read a beautiful piece online today by an Iranian lady expressing her love of the people of America and Iran while criticising the leadership of both countries. I hope all the people of Iran remain safe.
The 5 books in the background are my yesterday’s half price book haul. I have been eyeing these for some time.
One of my first brilliant reads this year, #TheWolfofBaghdad by Carol Isaacs @tsm_cartoons is a brief history of Baghdadi Jews.
In the 1940s a third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Within a decade nearly all 150,000 had been expelled, killed or had escaped. This graphic memoir of a lost homeland is a wordless narrative by an author homesick for a home she has never visited.
The fantastic The Wolf of Baghdad is published by @myriad_editions editions next week.
What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
Working for @myriad_editions was one of the best things that happened to me.
Another great thing was leaving my previous job in London Mayfair. The amount of sexism and racism I witnessed still leaves me baffled.
If I had not witness it myself I would not have believed it could happen in Western Europe. In the future I will be very careful about which companies I work for. How do you fight sexism at work?
The Wolf of Baghdad is a fascinating look at the the history of Jews in Baghdad. Told in a series of wordless panels interspersed with personal reflections from former residents of Baghdad’s Jewish population, the story is told as a kind of dreamlike memory, based around Carol Isaacs imagined experience looking back at her family history and her own memories.
The memory begins with Carol looking through old family photos and this inspires an idealistic reminiscence about life in Baghdad with the fictitious Carol wearing a traditional Jewish cloak, and being transported back to a time where Jews and Muslims lived together in harmony. But as the book progresses we see the family move out of the Jewish quarter, just at the time that the Nazis begin to hold more sway in the city and as a result European anti semitism begin to take hold. The memories begin to get darker and more harrowing as the Jews’ treatment in Baghdad gets worse, culminating in the mass exile of Iraqi Jews and a series of pogroms and public trials.
Wolf of Baghdad is a completely absorbing read about a period in history which may not seem obvious for documenting. However while the events of the time may not be unique, the message that it is trying to get across is still a very important one and resonates with similar stories of the period that a European audience may be familiar with. The idea that equality and tolerance can so easily be placed by bigotry and hate is a common theme throughout history, and this story takes that persecution concept and helps give it a personal focus, and unique perspective.
Visually it is a very simple story, feeling akin to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis for the way it uses simple characters and a very stylised black and white palette. This simple imagery is intertwined with glorious images of Middle Eastern culture and the Baghdad landscape, especially the scenes in the souk early on. While the characterisation may be simple the styling of some elements is wonderful and the use of the ghosts as representations of memory gives the book a very ethereal quality as well as a detached narrative with the character of Carol serving as a powerless observer rather than an active part of the story. The fact she cannot influence the events in any way makes the plight of her family even more potent and futile which makes the events seem even worse as a result.
The lack of dialogue may feel challenging at first, it ultimately makes you study the images more than you would otherwise. The narrative is not so complex or the concepts on each page too difficult in order to process without words, and in fact the juxtaposition of the quotes help you to really take on board what the visuals are saying and you find yourself reading the book at a much slower pace than as a result. As well as revisiting later to further your understanding.
Our only negative about the book is the use of the titular wolf as a concept throughout. Early on we are introduced to the idea that the wolf is used as a folkloric symbol against demons and while the wolf theme is brought through again towards the need, it didn’t really feel like a coherent part of the story in the way we would have expected for the book’s namesake. However this was not enough to distract from the story overall.
Like other books from Myriad this is a book which you might not instantly be drawn to but which, if you give it a try is incredibly rewarding and thought provoking. It is a stark reminder that bigotry is both nothing new or a solely European problems. That with tolerance all people can live together in harmony and prosperity, and that this is not an impossible ideal that with harmony and prosperity can co-exist.
In all likelihood, you’ll have come across a few of Carol’s cartoons as The Surreal McCoy, but you may not be aware of her heritage. Carol’s family herald from Iraq which, back in the 1940s, had a population which was a third Jewish. Within just ten years almost all of the 150,000 Jewish people of Iraq had fled.
Carol has never visited her ancestral homeland. However, through the stories and photographs of her family, she is spirited away to a time when her family lived happily and comfortably in a vibrant city. As the pages turn so the mood changes, and we witness the events that altered the lives of so many people forever.
The book is punctuated by quotes from family members to emphasize the changing times. Other than these occasional comments the entire narrative is wordless, relying on Carol’s gift of visual storytelling. Despite the lack of words the emotion and tragedy are vibrantly apparent.
Stories like this deserve to be told and read, connecting us all with a recent past that’s so easily overlooked and at risk of being forgotten. The actions of one generation ripple down the years and can still be felt and we should all take the time to reflect upon them.
ESOPOTAMIA, the land “between two rivers” of the Tigris and the Euphrates which is modern-day Iraq, is the “lost homeland” of this book’s title and it’s where the entire family of its author Carol Isaacs lived, prospered and belonged.
It was there that in 597 BC Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar took 40,000 Jews into exiled captivity, a forced exodus that led many to stay on after Cyrus the Great came to power 60 years later and allowed them to return to Judea.
The ensuing history of Iraqi Jews is both glorious and immeasurably tragic particularly, as Isaacs chronicles, in the 20th century.
Choosing the life-saving emigration encouraged by Israel after WWII, their numbers were reduced from around 150,000 to a mere half a dozen today.
Known and admired for their enterprise, education, culture and as trusted neighbours, they fell victim to consecutive waves of violent and reactionary nationalism.
The anti-semitism propagated by nazi Germany incited wanton murder, looting and destruction, not unlike the 1930s Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany itself.
Racism and xenophobia grew in intensity from the 1950s onwards but many Jews fought back, often in the ranks of the Communist Party.
Isaacs, who has never visited Iraq, lives in a state of multi-location in her graphic narrative. Her daily life is in London but simultaneously she is often spiritually transported to Baghdad to wander the streets or visit old familial places of residence and “look in” on the trials and tribulations of its inhabitants.
Wearing a chador, she moves like a ghost, watched over by the wolf of the book’s title. Endowed with mythical protective powers by the locals, a wolf-tooth amulet is, by tradition, indispensable and Isaacs’s spectre wears it as brooch to fend off evil, human or otherwise.
Movingly, the intriguing graphic narrative of her wanderings is interspersed with minute, single-sentence reflections from family members and others charting their appalling demise in a society deliberately and systematically poisoned with racial enmity.
Timelines signpost the heart-breaking story but perhaps redemption is possible. Isaacs’s internet exchanges with Iraqis of good-will have increased recently and she has been invited to visit the Iraq embassy in London.
Tellingly, in a poll run last year by Al-Khuwwa al — one of the most popular Facebook pages in Iraq — about the possibility of Jews returning, 77 per cent of more than 62,000 respondents were in favour.
Time will tell.
The Wolf of Baghdad is published by Myriad Editions, £16.99.
How do you draw something you’ve never seen? How can you bring to life a world you were never part of? Those were the questions facing cartoonist Carol Isaacs as she embarked on her graphic novel, a tribute to the home her parents fled before she was born,
The Wolf of Baghdad, which follows that city’s Jews from the turn of the last century to the brutal Farhud pogrom of 1941 and their eventual departure, is a beautiful, startling piece of work, and a valuable contribution to the literature on the experiences of Jews in Arab lands.
The novel shows, for example, the Jewish family matriarch wearing the abbaya, the full body cloak worn by Iraqi women in public in the early 20th century. There are scenes from the souk and in the Jewish Quarter, of children sleeping on roofs during sultry summer nights or swimming in the Tigris, along with heartrending images portraying the terror as anti-Jewish prejudice closed in.
It’s a portrait of a disappeared world. Isaacs undertook exhaustive research to ensure her illustrated Baghdad reflected the one her family knew. She spoke to many relatives, in some cases relying on testimony recorded decades earlier, including that of her father.
“We had hardly any photographs, as you didn’t bring many out, and none showing where people lived,” she explains, “I found this wonderful book on Jewish houses in Baghdad; I tracked it down to a second-hand store in Jerusalem, to see how the houses actually looked, because they were quite specifically built to certain designs.”
Much of what she was drawing no longer exists. “The Jewish Quarter is in terrible disrepair, all the old houses are just crumbling, We have an address for my late mother’s house by the river, but it’s no longer there. There’s nothing even in terms of tombstones.”
Keeping a blog, she attracted the attention of a group of teenage Iraqi students, who took pictures to help guide her. “There were these wonderful connections of people reaching out over the internet,” she says. “It was really heartening.”
Isaacs is an accidental artist. A piano player since she was four, she has spent the bulk of her career as a musician, playing piano, keyboards and accordion alongside artists like Squeeze, Sinead O’Connor, Boy George, and American band, Indigo Girls. It was being offstage, however, that led to her secondary career.
“Travelling on long tours, I’d get bored, pick up a pen and start doodling. Things came out and people said you should send them in to newspapers.” She published her first cartoon with The Independent 20 years ago and today draws for the New Yorker and The Sunday Times under the pen name “The Surreal McCoy”. A typically witty sketch shows a dithering couple outside a building labelled “The Sceptics Society”.
A few years ago, Isaacs, who describes herself as “a wandering spirit” but still in touch with her Jewish identity, was approached to contribute an illustrated short story to a feminist anthology. “It was about origin stories and I started to wonder if I could so something a bit longer,” she explains. Out of this, came The Wolf of Baghdad, both in book form and as an animation set to traditional Arabic music.
It’s not, it transpires, the music she and her sister grew up listening to as London schoolgirls, where classical music was the order of the day. Isaacs’s parents emigrated separately; her father already ensconced in a St John’s Wood flat known as “Little Baghdad” when her mother arrived on what was meant to be a temporary stopover en route to America. Her parents were subsequently involved in establishing the Wembley Sephardi Congregation.
Growing up, she was conscious of being different to her peers. “I went to a very British school and Jews were in the minority anyway, and I was the only Mizrachi Jew. You’re not only ‘other’ but you’re ‘other’ other,” she says. She lived in two worlds; at home Arabic was spoken (her grandmothers never learned English). “It was very much an Iraqi house, the food was traditional Iraqi food, we’d have visitors from Iraq and the house would turn into Little Baghdad.”
Family members rarely spoke of their homeland. “They were a bit reticent, my parents especially,” she says. One of the few stories she was told was about Pesach; her mother, siblings and the servants sifting through grains of rice to ensure there was no chametz.
“Every now and again they’d remember things they did for certain chagim, say, little vignettes,” she says. “But nothing about the trauma of being ripped from your homeland and made refugees, of being taken out suddenly and leaving everything behind, friends, family, houses, businesses. I didn’t really hear those stories, the negative stories.”
She suggests this is common for Iraqi Jews. “I’ve heard it described as the silent exodus, people went quietly, they didn’t make a fuss. They just went where they could and started all over again.”
Isaacs just took it for granted that Jews leave places. “I knew from my Ashkenazi friends it had also happened to them.”
When she speaks about The Wolf of Baghdad or shows the animation, she finds most people know little of the Mizrachi Jewish story. “It’s not a story that’s often heard, the Jews in Arab lands.” As a result, developing the book was a fascinating voyage into her community’s past. It is peppered with the memories of members of Isaacs’s extensive family, spread across Israel, Canada, the US and Britain. “It was interesting to piece it together through all of these disparate recollections.”
She unearthed some fascinating stories, not least that of a distant relative who in the 1890s was kidnapped by Arab sheikhs, never to be heard from again. “She was either 11 or 12 and that’s all we know. She just disappeared off the face of the earth,” she says. “The family were very religious and were so traumatised they went to India, then to Burma, so we have another branch of the family there.” It’s a story for another time, one she’s hoping to follow up in the near future.
What The Wolf of Baghdad shows, above all, is that Jewish life in the Iraqi capital was rich and varied, particularly in the years before the Second World War. “Their fortunes fluctuated depending on who was ruling, but during the Ottoman period there were good times,” Isaacs explains. “The golden years were probably the beginning of the last century. My father would recall this was a good time to be Jewish — you could go out, there were lots of Jews involved in the government, they were in publishing, culture, business.”
It also brings home the trauma when the country turned against the Jews, culminating in the Farhud, two days of violence in which several hundred Jews were killed and many more injured or their businesses and homes ransacked. Isaacs uses almost no words to describe it; the images being enough.
“It’s so much quicker, your eyes take in the story so quickly,” says Isaacs. “I’m a great fan of wordless cartoons, though they are the hardest to draw. It’s almost a visceral response you get. It can be so powerful if you get it right.”
Isaacs is desperate to visit Iraq and see first-hand the streets she has drawn. A trip is in the works, under the auspices of either the British Council or the Iraqi Embassy, but security remains an obstacle. In the meantime, she is in talks with a regional publisher to see the book published in Arabic.
Isaacs is saddened her parents will not see what she has created —“it’s bittersweet” — but hopes her book will play a role in keeping the Iraqi Jewish community’s heritage alive.
“For the second generation, it’s still fresh. For anyone whose parents have come from somewhere else, that generation can remember it, they can still feel it. I would like to think that my cousins who have kids, their kids will remember a bit of this exotic heritage they have.”
She produced the book primarily because she felt the story deserved to be told more widely. “It just seemed the right time,” she says. The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, much of it from Iraqis in the diaspora. “I’ve been embraced by them. It’s been so uplifting to connect with these people, because we have so much in common, so much more than that separates us.”
‘The Wolf of Baghdad’ by Carol Isaacs is published this week. Carold Issacs will be talking about it at Jewish Book Week on March 2.
Sadly, there’s so much truth and heartache and tragedy in that simple observation. It seems to encapsulate the experience of the Jewish diaspora over the centuries. It is painfully apt for the mid-twentieth century expulsion from their homeland of the Jewish population of Baghdad. Carol Isaacs has taken a complex and dark history and pared it down, pealed back the layers of detail, to the point where the wordless narrative she has created reveals the essential emotional core of the story – the human tragedy. The Wolf of Baghdad is visually entrancing, readers are enveloped in the story of Isaacs’s ancestors. Their personal story is set against the darkening mood and tension in the city over time, finally erupting in terrible violence. From the normality of a comfortable middle-class life at the beginning of the twentieth century, where the family is an integrated part of the Jewish and the wider community, to the point where the Arab population turns on their neighbours and the government follows. Let’s face it, this farhud, pogram, is very little known in the West, it has its origins in WWII, it isn’t something that drew much attention, yet, despite that, many countries benefited from the arrival of these displaced people, not least Britain. Carol Isaacs’s family came to Britain, made a home and a successful life (a little of that is covered in the brilliantly insightful afterword), but the longing for home, the ingrained sorrow and sense of injustice is as inherited as the positive influence of culture. Although the narrative is entirely wordless, crystal clear and powerful, Isaacs has interspersed her story with brief personal testimonies that explain certain details, give a rough chronology, and offer a poignant perspective on events. This is a clever compliment to the beautifully drawn storytelling of the visual images.
The titular wolf in The Wolf of Baghdad comes from an old Jewish legend, the dheeb (wolf) is said to protect the young, ward off evil spirits and demons – dheeb hader (the wolf is present). A wolf’s tooth was placed on the cot of babies for this reason. The wolf is a kind of guide and guardian to Carol, the protagonist, as she wanders through the past.
Music, night time London. A woman sits in her flat looking at an old photograph, ancestral music is playing in the background, the photograph is of a band, seven men with traditional and modern instruments. Carol reaches for a box on a book shelf, more photographs, Baghdad is recognisable, the mix of fashions, modern western dress, traditional Ottoman wear, and travel documents. The Jews of Baghdad had been part of the city life before the pogram for more than 2,600 years, since the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. It is all swept away in twenty years, from 150,000 Jewish people in the city to a handful. Carol falls asleep on the sofa, and in her vivid dream she sees her grandmother sitting in one of her chairs sewing. She dons an abaya (apologies if I got this wrong), or traditional outfit, and is transported to the family home in Baghdad. The wolf is never far from her. In the kitchens she smells the aroma of the meal that is being prepared, the Kurdistani servants and the women taking the food into the house. Upstairs her father is reading a book in his study, wearing his yarmulke, over time overt signs of being Jewish will become dangerous in public. On summer nights the family would sleep under the stars on the roof. Then Carol ventures out into the streets, narrow streets where people mingle freely, colourful plentiful markets, old culture mingles with new. We see the life at school and the synagogue, the children swimming in the Tigris. Then WWII, and the ideas of Nazism and anti-Semitism taking hold among the Arab population. The Jewish community is humiliated, asset are frozen, at the worse violence leads to imprisonment, rape and lynchings. In 1950 the government agrees the Jewish population can leave provided they leave behind their belongings. . .
The Wolf of Baghdad is a very personal family story, heart felt, emotionally charged and compassionate but it manages to convey the terrible human cost of the pogram in general too. This is a clear sighted and pointed account of man’s inhumanity to man. This stands as testimony for the dead and the displaced, a voice that needs to be heard. Remarkably concise and moving.
Carol Isaacs is a musician and cartoonist (the Surreal McCoy). The Wolf of Baghdad has a musical soundtrack and can be seen as a ‘motion comic’ (animated slideshow).
Paul Burke 4/4
The Wolf of Baghdad: Memoir of a Lost Homeland by Carol Isaacs
Myriad Editions 9781912408559 pbk Jan 2020