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Review of Banking on Baghdad

By Shelomo Alfassa - October 13, 2004

Originally published in the Australia Jewish News

Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict
By Edwin Black 496 Pages, Hardcover ISBN 0-471-67186-X - John Wiley & Sons October 2004

From the birth of wandering nomadic Mesopotamians of time immemorial to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Edwin Black nicely documents the history of the intriguing land of Iraq. Black tells of how the land we know today as Iraq was integral to the world's three dominant religions, how it was the location of which Abraham originated from and where monotheism was promoted. Discussing a variety of themes related to the evolving history of the land, he has prepared an enormous 496 page volume documenting the variation of the Mesopotamian provinces, the intricate history of the Ottoman Empire, and how post-Ottoman Iraq has grown out of a zealous international desire for control of the multibillion-dollar petroleum resources.

The author takes us on a fascinating journey through time discussing ancient empires and peoples. He discusses how long before Arabia was Islamic, Mecca was home to Jewish tribal communities. Black details the development of Islam, speaking of its expanding progression from a primitive desert tribal religion founded by Muhammad to a global faith practiced in countries all over the world. From the ancient communities which produced Babylon (meaning gateway to God) to the various Islamic tribes and empires which at one time or another violently took possession of the land, the reader is taken on an exciting journey.
Opening with ancient history and building up to the modern era, the book builds upon the desire of several different peoples, companies and states all with a desire to compete, purchase, steal and even make war over the plentiful oil reserves in and around Baghdad. As Mr. Black writes:

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Turkish Mesopotamia and indeed the entire extended Middle East suddenly catapulted in importance-especially to England. No longer were the three provinces considered mere transit corridors and stepping-stones to India and Asia. Now Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were coveted for their legendary but unexploited oil.

Bent on being more "historically accurate than politically correct," the author both skillfully and deferentially discusses the history of the land when wars both ancient and modern, fought both on the sands of the battlefield and in the boardrooms of Europe's corporate autocrats.

Significant aspects of history come to life in the book, some of them not well known. Few recognize that the Germans had a campaign to trounce over British occupied Iraq in their goal of attaining the petroleum reserves which would have been used to fuel combat troops on the journey to Russia. Black tells how Hitler in fact fought the British, sending the Luftwaffe to bomb the British air base at Habbaniya, located midway between Fallujah and Ramadi. When it looked like Germany was about to march into Russia, "Churchill sent a foreboding cable to President Franklin Roosevelt, stating that if the Mideast fell to the Germans, victory against the Nazis would be a 'hard, long and bleak proposition'".

Moreover, as a contribution to the annals of history, Banking on Baghdad has indeed told a vital chronicle of the Arab Jews. The author enlightens the reader with a discussion of the Arab Jewish population which existed in Baghdad and environs for thousands of years, until it was destroyed by the Iraqi population in a war against its own ancient Jewish community as a spearhead of its own anti-Zionist and nationalist crusade, ending 2,600 years of Jewish existence.

Black discusses the Farhud, translated as "violent dispossession" which occurred in Iraq during 1941; the Farhud led to savage beatings and murders of Jewish families, looting and destruction of their property and ultimately the expulsion of 150,000 Jews from the country. He discusses how new evidence clarifies the symbiotic relationship between the Germans and the Arabs-and-the reason why the Arabs in Iraq targeted the Jews, even showing that Arabs and the Nazis trained together. Notionally, it could be said that the Farhud was to the Sephardi Jews in Iraq, what Kristallnacht was to the Ashkenazi Jews in Austria. Demonstrating the cognizant participation between the Islamic leadership and the Nazi party, a subject well documented, but often overlooked by historians, the author details a powerful chronicle. Like the author's last publication IBM and the Holocaust, this latest book will astound its readers with new information and again make us reexamine what we know of Hitler's scope and progression between him and his associates in their actions to destroy the Jewish people in line with The Final Solution.

The extensive use of original sources is quite impressive, it has lent to uncovering important little known facts which help tell the tale of the complex and intertwining history of Baghdad. As the author states: "Behind every footnote is a folder. Within every folder sit the documents supporting every fact." Through a series of sequential events over various epochs of history, it's explained how Iraq was molded into the boiling kettle it is today. As a result, the reader will learn how to interpret what Iraq was, where it has been, and where it may go.

Black arrives at his conclusions through an impressive amount of original research that he and an international team have amassed. In many ways, Banking on Baghdad seeks to take up where most histories either left off, or never expounded upon in the first place. Banking on Baghdad will certainly open the eyes of those who seek to learn more about a geographical area that is at the center of the world's attention because it's a fascinating and provocative book which will be spoken of for many years to come.