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Gerald Jacobs: Exquisite sadness (©Quartet Books)

In this, his first novel, Gerald Jacobs takes us to the Baghdad of the early 20th century, where Jews made up a quarter of the population, and lived amicably alongside the city’s Arab population. Immediately, we are reminded of the timeless traditions and idiosyncrasies of Jewish communities. One protagonist eats non-kosher meat, then “prays for a forgiveness to the God in whose existence he did not believe”. In synagogue, people “gossiped as much as they prayed”. At a wedding ceremony, the bride circles the groom seven times.

In the Baghdad of those days, Jews and music went together in the popular consciousness. “Almost all of Iraq’s  musicians, especially the virtuous instrumentalists, were Jews and, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, radios would fall silent across the land owing to the lack of Jewish players to perform live on air.” Reading such passages makes it hard to believe that it is the same war-ravaged country that now bans travellers with an Israeli passport or an Israeli entry stamp.

Nine Love Letters is the tale of two Jewish families who are forced to leave their homes in Baghdad and Budapest to survive the Holocaust. Both families find refuge in England, where their fates collide at an unlikely moment. The book is based on true events, fictionalised with great empathy by Jacobs, who is the literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle. His previous books include a biography of Judi Dench and Sacred Games, the account of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

Jacobs vividly captures the smells and sights of Baghdad. Emre, a watermelon merchant in the market, offers free samples to customers,  who do not always end up buying  from him. “Emre would react aggressively, waving his knife in the air.” A little later, Rivke, the matriarch of the Haroun family, “had good reasons to be anxious. For, although Emre was almost certainly harmless, others did brandish knives with more deliberate menace in the Baghdad of these days.”

In 1941, the Nazi sympathiser Rashid Ali al-Gaylani seizes power. The new Iraqi government supports the Germans and vilifies the British and the Jews, culminating in the Farhud, the Arabic equivalent of a Russian pogrom. “In the space of two days, two thousand years of rich and fruitful Jewish life in Mesopotamia had come to a sudden, savage end.”

Following these horrific events and growing anti-Semitism worldwide, Rivke writes from Baghdad to her son, who has by then moved to London: “This will pass. The British are honest and strong people. They will not let Adolf Hitler win.”
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