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.