In search of Jewish houses in Basra

Carol Isaacs, whose family originated in Iraq, has started an audio-visual project called the Wolf of Baghdad to record memories of Jewish life there. Here is one of the posts from her website (with thanks: Michelle):

On the Tube home the other night, after a screening of the wonderful new documentary Remember Baghdad,
I fell into conversation with one of the audience, an Iraqi (non-Jewish) lady called
Dina. We were complete strangers but found ourselves talking about the
film and its effect on us. She told me that she had lost her family home
and had been displaced as a result, but has recently returned to Basra a
few times for work.

The day after I received an email from her accompanying the photos of
old Jewish houses in Basra that she had promised to send me.

 Biyoot al Yahud (Jewish homes), now in a state of internal disrepair (Photo: Dina)

She wrote:

My first trip back to Iraq since I left in 1976 was in 2009 to Basrah, where my work took me.

I was anxious for days before, for whilst I was homesick I knew
that I longed for an Iraq and a Baghdad that are no longer there.  What
was I going to see ? How will people greet me, knowing I’ve been in
London while they’ve endured war after war ? 

I landed in Basrah and the minute I smelt the air, I know I had
come home.  I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging.  Everything, from
the pebbles to the weeds at the side of the road looked familiar and
were welcoming me back !

Work aside, I asked the driver to take me to the old parts of
Basrah. He was surprised and bemused, could not understand why I’d want
to see old buildings. He finally consented, and told me he will take me
to Biyoot il Yahood (The Jews’ Houses). He then started telling me how
his parents and grandparents told him stories of how they all lived
together in harmony, Muslims, Jews and Christians, and how they were
great friends and neighbours.

It was so sad to see the state they’re at.  I’m not sure if
they’re protected or not, but they are certainly not maintained or
refurbished. Many have squatters in them, I’m told they’ve ruined the
inside. One or two are taken over by artists and poets’ socieities who
admire and understand the value, who lobby the council often to do
something about the state of the houses (falls on deaf ears), and who
are penniless so can’t really do much about them. They hope that by
occupying them as artists they can at least prevent squatters or worse.

These photos were taken in 2011. I will go back to take more
detailed photographs, and if anyone recognises a building in particular,
I’d be very happy to go back and take more photos.

Walking by these faded crumbling edifices filled me with great
sadness. These were homes that were filled with laughter, with the
exquisite smells of cooking, with the fragrant garden plants in the
evenings. These were homes filled with hope, with families, with joyful
and sad occasions. How can they now stand so empty, so barren ? How the
wind whistles through the gaps, how the memories float through the air,
how the souls of those no longer there must roam around, wringing their
hands in despair and sadness.

But I am happy that they are there. I am happy they are referred
to as Biyoot il Yahood. I am happy that they stand, proud and resilient,
lest we forget.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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