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.