My mother recalls stories of her youth in Baghdad
by Helen Bekhor


When we were children in India, we used to say "Mummy, tell us stories about when you were young in Baghdad", and she used to tell us, many stories, she had a fantastic memory. Only last year, 1987, she would ask "Did I tell you the story about the fire?" and we would reply, "Tell us again." And she would tell us again how grand-father's house burned down when they were holidaying in tents in the country.

 Sad to say, even that memory that was so vivid to her only a year earlier, is now just part of a vague blur. Occasionally a name comes to her mind. "What is Pauline?", "what is Louise?", even "what is Grace?" and "what is Sassoon?" If pressed about the last two, she does remember, but with pain. I feel it is time to write down what I remember, before I, too, forget.

Mum was so proud of the fact that she was the daughter of Shoua Bekhor. "Everybody in Baghdad knew him" she would say. That was confirmed many years later when Grace, in New York, would be introduced to some member of the Baghdadian community there. Grace told me that when she introduced herself as a grand-daughter of Shoua Bekhor, she would immediately have acknowledgment and recognition. Mum would tell us how she was the youngest of five daughters. Her older sisters, Habiba, Irene, Rachel and Louise, were all beautiful, they all had gone to school and they had all married well. "But I only went to school for 2 months". "Why was that?" we would ask. "Because my mother kept me at home to be the house-keeper." Mum looked after the kitchen, she told the servants what to cook, she saw to it that the servants were fed. Even the two months that she was at school was at the insistence of one of Mum's brothers-in- law, "Naima must have an education", he had said. But it was very brief. Grandma Missouda said she could not manage without her daughter Naima at home!

One day Louise fell ill. It was small-pox. Louise was put in an upstairs bedroom, and Naima was put in the same room to help look after her. Except for the servants, everybody else moved out of the house, while the house was in quarantine. Needless to say, Naima caught the disease, but she did not get the typical scarring, and although her cheek was scarred, it was from the "ikht" or "Baghdad mark".

 Now let me relate the story of the fire. I think it was her sister Irene who was engaged to be married. Irene's trousseau was ready and the house was freshly painted in readiness for the wedding. But it was summer, and very hot, and the time when everyone used to go to the country to holiday in tents, which was also the custom of Shoua Bekhor's family. In the middle of the night, they heard someone calling out "Where is the tent of Shoua Bekhor?" A servant had come from Baghdad having ridden out on a donkey as fast as he could. "Shoua Bekhor, your house has burnt down, is it covered by insurance?" It seems that it was covered, but I'm not sure whether that was thanks to Shoua or his father Aboudi. It seems that one believed in insurance and the other did not. So the one that believed in it had paid the premium without the knowledge of the other!

The worst part of the tragedy to Mum was "All the beautiful hand-embroidered dresses of my sister's trousseau were burnt". "So what did she do?" I asked. "My mother ordered new dresses for her from the Atelier and they were all made in time".

 Mum and Dad were married in Baghdad on August 24th 1924. Some years ago I asked Mum, "Didn't you keep anything from your trousseau, for instance the special embroidered cloaks, which they called "isagh"? She replied that when she was getting ready to go to Bombay, soon after the wedding, her new sisters-in-law said "You won't use those things in Bombay, give them to us", and they took them from her. Mum and Dad left for Bombay about a month after their wedding.

I do remember a silver lace dress of the flapper era. I thought it was so beautiful, I can see it in my memory even now. I asked whether that had been part of Mum's trousseau, but it had not. Soon after they reached Bombay, Dad sent money to Mum's sister Habiba in Paris to buy some dresses there for my mother. The silver dress was one of those but before Aunt Habiba could buy any more dresses, their father, Grandfather Shoua, died, and Mum asked Habiba not to buy any more clothes because it was a period of mourning, so the balance of the money was returned to Bombay.

Mum and Dad's marriage was an "arranged" marriage, as was the custom in those days. Mum told me how once the matchmaker brought someone to see her, but she was not happy about the match, and was glad when nothing eventuated from the meeting, as she had heard gossip that he had been rejected by some other young woman because he did not know how to say "Cheers" when he had a drink! Whether Mum's parents were aware that their daughter did not want the match and that is why nothing came of it, I do not know.

Dad told us that he went to Baghdad in 1924 to get married. So his sisters, on his behalf, approached a matchmaker who submitted the names of some of the young women who were available, and one of them was Mum. When Dad was told that a daughter of Shoua Bekhor was one of the women, he wanted to see her, so Dad and his sisters went to Mum's father's house to inspect the goods! Dad and Mum both liked what they saw and a marriage was arranged. Dad and Mum had a good and happy life together, and I believe that Mum's marriage turned out better than the marriages of all her sisters, who had, as they called it in those days, "married well".

Now it is 1992, Mum passed away two years ago, and all we have left is a memory of some of her stories.

Helen Bekhor
Melbourne, Australia