Dismay, poetry as home of Jew who helped found modern Iraq is destroyed

The 100-year-old home of Iraq’s first finance minister, Sir Sassoon Eskell, has been bulldozed, even though it was earmarked for preservation as a historical monument. The 19th-century villa of the respected Jewish minister was destroyed so that the site could be handed over to a developer, under the authority of the Baghdad municipality. 

An official in Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities slammed the move as a “violation” of the law, and several Iraqi intellectuals decried the demolition of the historical building as indicative of corruption under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Eskell, who was born into an aristocratic Baghdadi Jewish family in 1860, was instrumental in founding the Iraqi government’s laws and financial infrastructure. 

Eskell, who died in 1932, is held by many in the country in high esteem as a patriot and an accomplished civil servant. “Seen in the context of the urban history, heritage and architecture of Baghdad, the demolition of the Sasson residence is a catastrophe,” Adel al-Ardawi, a historian specializing in Iraqi heritage, was quoted by Israel’s Maariv newspaper as saying on Thursday. 

“If the rule of law were a reality, the people responsible for changing Iraq with such actions would’ve been harshly punished.” The villa, located on a desirable riverbank street, was sold to a developer who had it torn down to make room for a high-rise apartment complex, according to Maariv. Nabil al-Rube’I, an Iraqi historian specializing in the history of Babylonian Jewry, told the newspaper that “the news of the demolition was received [in Baghdad] with great sadness,” adding: “Every Iraqi intellectual, or even just anyone interested in the country’s past, knows who Yechezkel Sassoon was.”

He sarcastically added: “I would like to thank our country, our government and its institutions for its honoring, with the demolition, of Sassoon’s great contribution as a devoted civil servant who acted in good faith and honesty with public funds.” Heritage sites of all stripes have been neglected and plundered in Iraq since the overthrow in 2003 of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who had ruled the country since 1979. 

But “this is especially true for Jewish sites,” al-Rube’I said. The demolition moved a young poet, Mohammed al-Rakabi, to write a protest poem, which was shared online. “Sassoon, your abode is in our heart. Love remains and will not die in chains. He you been born in a country that recognizes its founders, it would not have given rise to ignoramuses turned masters,” reads the poem. Iraq’s tourism ministry blamed the municipality for the demolition, which the ministry said the city approved illegally. 

Eskell, who is buried in Paris, attended the Alliance Jewish high school in Ottoman-ruled Baghdad until his father, lawyer Ezra Sasson, sent him to Istanbul to complete a law degree. He spoke Greek, German, French, Latin and English and served as an interpreter for the Baghdad district administration, landing a senior position at the water administration service before his election in 1908 to the city council as an alderman. 

Favored by the Ottoman rulers of Iraq, he served for two terms before he was appointed a special advisor to the agricultural and trade ministry and later, when he was 61, as finance minister. He died 11 years later, while still presiding as the chairman of the local parliament’s finance committee. His private library was at one point one of Iraq’s finest but it was plundered and the collection was lost after 2003. 

The Baghdad municipality, announcing the imminent demolition of his home a week ago, said in a press release that it was “not a heritage site according to the book of the heritage department.” “The home was constructed 100 years ago on Rashid Street, in central Baghdad, and is presently granted to a citizen to invest in,” the statement continued, stressing that “the investment is done in accordance with the law.” 

But Sa’id Hamza, head of the investigation department of heritage sites within the ministry, accused the municipality of “violating the law” by giving away the home for investment. “Who in Baghdad’s municipality considered the home to not be a heritage site?” he asked. Hamza added that Eskell’s home was composed of two parts: one that was meant to be handed over to the Finance Ministry, and another that was supposed to be returned to his scion Albert Sassoon Eskell. 

Eskell, who was knighted by King George V in 1923, was a key figure in the founding the Iraqi state in 1920, and served five terms as the country’s finance minister. He also served as the deputy for Baghdad in the first parliament of the Kingdom, and was reelected to all successive parliaments until his death. 

When Winston Churchill convened the Cairo conference in 1921 to discuss what would become Iraq, Jordan and Israel, Eskell was one of two Iraqis sent to determine the fate of his country and choose its king. Eskell was so well-regarded for his strict managerial ethic, with employees, officials and even King Faisal, that his last name has been transformed into a verb meaning “to be strict in holding people to account for their actions,” Assabah al-Jadeed reported. 

The famed English writer Gertrude Bell wrote admiringly of Eskell’s personality and political talents.

“The man I do love is Sasun Eff. [Eskell] and he is by far the ablest man in the Council. A little rigid, he takes the point of view of the constitutional lawyer and doesn’t make quite enough allowance for the primitive conditions of the ‘Iraq, but he is genuine and disinterested to the core. He has not only real ability but also wide experience and I feel touched and almost ashamed by the humility with which he seeks — and is guided by — my advice,” Bell wrote in 1920. 

BY JTA AND DOV LIEBER
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