“We are a suitcase people.” [Anon]
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