The Jews of Iraq, Paris in the 19th century, Photographs of Siberia (Three Exhibits You Should See) (26 cents)

1.  The Jews of Iraq.  There is a special exhibit at the National Archives in Washington titled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving the Iraqi Jewish Heritage”.  It runs through January 5, 2014.

From the time of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, Jews have lived in the area now known as the Republic of Iraq.  For almost 2000 years, the Jews thrived in Babylon and surrounds.  A large Jewish population was maintained, the important Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita (you may know it Fallujah) stood at the center of the Jewish world, the Babylonian Talmud was written.

The Jews lived through various regimes, but were dispersed or murdered, along with other groups, in the 14th century CE, as the Muslim Mongol leadership became more and more parochial.  But, after a while, Jewish immigration to this region re-started, and when the Ottoman Turks took over the area, the position of the Jews improved.

Through the end of the 1920s, Iraqi Jews (eventually numbering almost 200,000, including over 100,000 in Baghdad) prospered as a community, feeling themselves fully Iraqi.  With the advent of Zionist pressure for Jewish immigration to Palestine, and strident Nazi propaganda, the position of the Jews deteriorated rapidly and drastically.  There were major anti-Jewish riots in 1941, and the situation grew worse after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the majority of Jews left the country in 1950 and 1951, mainly going to Israel.  Only 15,000 Jews remained, and virtually all of these left Iraq by the early 1970s.  Virtually no Jews live in Iraq today.

(There have been many books written on the Jews of 20th century Iraq.  Two that I recommend – with similar names – are “Farewell, Babylon”, an autobiographical novel by Naim Kattan, published in 1976, and “Last Days in Babylon”, a family memoir by Marina Benjamin, published in 2007.)

Which brings us to the current exhibit. Ia quote from the brochure accompanying the exhibit:  “[In 2003]  U.S. Army team charged with searching for military intelligence entered the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service, discovering over 2700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents, dating from the mid-16th century to the 1970s. In the hot and humid Baghdad climate, the wet materials quickly became moldy despite efforts to dry them.  The Coalition Provisional Authority requested the assistance of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC and the materials were soon shipped to the United States for preservation and exhibition. The remarkable survival of this written record of Iraqi Jewish life provides an unexpected opportunity to better understand this community.”  Exactly why these material were collected by the Mukhabarat, and how they were to be employed, is still not clear.

One of the impressive things about this exhibit is how attractively it is set up, and how well the signage explains what you are looking at.  The exhibit begins with a display of tens of the metal tins in which the material was stored in Baghdad, followed by one open tin in which the material has been left unrestored, to give you an idea as to what the conservators had to deal with.  This is followed by a short, but fascinating video, outlining the conservation process, undertaken in Texas.  Drying, cleaning, binding, identifying and so forth.  The effort which has been put into this work is immense.

I can’t outline everything on exhibit, of course, and it is only a small sliver of what was found (sort of reminds you of the Cairo Gnizeh, no?).  But a few examples:  A Hebrew bible dating from the year 1568; a 1902 Iraqi haggadah; a page of a Torah scroll; a Hebrew school study book; a copy of an 1815 Zohar; commercial correspondence; a copy of a law from 1951 which forbade exiting Jews to take any of their assets with them.

If you can get to the Archives to see this exhibit do so.  (And there are several noontime programs relating to the exhibit which you may want to attend.  See for details of Archives programs.  I attended the first program last week – two brief films, the first focused on an interview with an Baghdadi Jew now living in Montreal, with interesting family and community footage, the second basically showing how to make baklava; both films were interesting, but neither will win any awards.)

2.  Paris in the 19th century.  The current photography exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris” is another exhibit worth a special trip.  It also closes on January 5, after which it will move to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Marville (real name: Charles-Francois Bossu) (1813-1879) was one of the first professional photographers in Paris.  In 1862, he became the official photographer of the city; this was at the time that Emperor Napolean III and Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann were engaged in their massive program creating the Paris we know today by creating a network of broad streets and avenues, demolishing several older and, largely, poor neighborhoods the process. As official photographer, one of Marville’s jobs was to document the “before” and the “after” of the Haussmann urban renewal project.  Through his work, we have beautiful pictures of the old Parisian neighborhoods that no longer exist, and that have not existed since the middle of the 19th century.

The signage describes each shot in detail and context, and also discusses the method used by Marville for the particular print.  This discussion was beyond me technically, but gave me an appreciation of how quickly photography was changing in the 19th century and the effects of some of these changes.

One more factoid.  Apparently the techniques required that shutters be open from 3 to 17 seconds for each of these shots.  You will see that, for the most part, the streets look empty.  But this does not mean that they were empty at the time Marville took the pictures.  It is simply that a moving individual did not stay in place long enough to register on the negative (presumably, when someone was there long enough to create a blur, this photograph was discarded – or at least it was not in this fairly extensive exhibit).

There was quite a bit of photography in France at this time.  Think Louis Daguerre, who lived a little earlier, and Eugene Atget, a who lived a generation later.  And add Marville to your list of impressive early French photographers.

3.  Siberia.  There is a fascinating exhibit of photography on display now at American University’s Katzen Art Center named “Siberia in the Eyes of Russian Photographers”.  The exhibit includes numerous photographs from 19th century Siberia, some of the earliest photographic images from this cold and remote region, along with a large number of contemporary pictures.  Included is a series of Siberian photos which are matched with photos of the American west – OK, that’s a gimmick, but an interesting one.  It won’t make you want to move there, but the exhibit will humanize the place a bit.  Well worth watching.


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