[Marxism] Forget Baghdad (Dir. Samir, 2002)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sun Feb 8 19:19:10 MST 2004


_Forget Baghdad_ (Dir. Samir, 2002): <http://www.forgetbaghdad.com/>.

*****   When an Arab is also a Jew
As the powerful new documentary "Forget Baghdad" makes clear, life is 
complicated for Israeli Jews haunted by their memories of a secular, 
multicultural Iraq.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Christopher Farah

Dec. 15, 2003  |  The four men speak flawless Arabic. Their 
vocabulary is extensive, their grammar precise. From their mouths 
come sounds that could only come from a native speaker -- H's that 
linger in the back of the throat, R's from somewhere underneath the 
tip of the tongue, and several letters that don't even exist in other 
languages.

No matter what they say, every word they speak shouts it over and 
over again: "I am an Arab."

Pictures from their childhoods flash across the screen, photos of 
parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Their relatives' hair 
is black and thick, their skin the color of olives, their eyes as 
brown as well-oiled wood. The men and their families would blend in 
perfectly in any marketplace in Cairo or Beirut -- or even Baghdad.

In fact, just 50 years ago, they did. Each of the men is not an Arab, 
but a Jew. Or, if you were to ask them, both Arab and Jew at the same 
time. Iraqi and Israeli, all at once. The former country is their 
homeland, the latter country their home, or the closest thing to it.

This seeming paradox of identity is exactly what drew the documentary 
filmmaker Samir to the stories of these Arab-Jewish-Iraqi-Israelis in 
his film, "Forget Baghdad," now playing at the Cinema Village in New 
York and scheduled for a January opening in Los Angeles, Chicago and 
San Francisco.

Samir, a Shiite Muslim born in Baghdad but raised a continent away in 
Switzerland, understood personally the dissonance of living with two 
conflicting cultures at once. He grew up listening to his father's 
stories about his Jewish comrades in the Iraqi Communist Party, 
comrades who had moved to Israel soon after its founding in 1948.

Samir flew to Israel in 2001 to find them. Although he couldn't 
locate any of his father's old friends, he found four other former 
Iraqi communists: Shimon Ballas, an author who now writes in Hebrew; 
Samir Naqqash, a novelist who only writes in Arabic; Moshe (or 
Moussa, in Arabic) Houri, a retired kiosk owner; and Sami Michael, a 
bestselling Hebrew author. For a younger perspective, Samir also 
spoke with renowned Israeli film scholar and cultural critic Ella 
Shohat, an Iraqi Jew born in Israel whose book "Israeli Cinema: 
East/West and the Politics of Representation" caused an uproar upon 
its publication in Israel in 1989.

"I wanted to know what it's like to change countries," Samir says at 
the beginning of his film. "To forget your cultures and your 
language, to become the enemy of your own past."

What he unearths is a haunting collection of memories and attachments 
that have not and could never be truly forgotten, that eerily 
transport us back to the past -- through a mix of black-and-white 
photographs and grainy newsreels -- even as they pull us toward the 
present and the ongoing struggle in Iraq that continues to dominate 
our national consciousness.

Of course, when Samir began production nearly three years ago, there 
was no way for him to know how topical, how present-tense, "Forget 
Baghdad" would seem upon its American release.

Even then, challenging the boundaries between East and West was an 
inherently subversive act. It hadn't been very long since the end of 
the Gulf War, and the American popular media had already made a habit 
of portraying Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, reserving the role of 
hero for blond-haired, blue-eyed Euro types. (Check out Gov. Arnold 
Schwarzenegger's "True Lies" for one of the most blatant and 
despicable examples.)

For its part, Israeli society had long consisted of a dominant Jewish 
minority -- Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe -- and a 
repressed majority of Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews who originated in the 
Middle East. Even at the start of the 21st century, mainstream 
Israeli society had only recently begun to address its endemic racism 
against Mizrahim.

But in today's post-9/11 world, with a new American war in Iraq far 
from over, and with no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian 
conflict, "Forget Baghdad" will prove even more memorable. By 
exploring the deep and lasting bonds between Iraqi Jews who are now 
Israelis and their former homeland, Samir blurs the lines between 
good guy and bad guy, "us" and "them," questioning the typically 
unquestioned nationalism that drives the worldview of George W. 
Bush's America and Ariel Sharon's Israel alike.

To listen to popular discourse on Iraq -- from Washington's official 
line to the words of our papers' most liberal columnists -- you would 
think the Iraqi people are virtual savages, a culture totally removed 
from the modern world and incapable of fathoming its sophisticated 
political structures. "We'd love to give them democracy, but how?" is 
the explicit message. Implicitly, such commentators seem to be 
arguing that Iraqis are too stupid to know what is good for them.

But Samir and the people he interviews paint a completely different 
picture of Iraq and Baghdad. Their Baghdad was the capital of Arab 
intellectualism; Houri, an educated man, fondly recalls being 
embarrassed at a small party meeting by a cobbler who was much better 
acquainted with the intricacies of Marxist theory. Their Baghdad was 
a cosmopolitan city, where Muslims, Christians and Jews studied, 
lived, and worked together; half a century ago, Baghdad's population 
was 40 percent Jewish.

When the four aging Israelis speak of Iraq, or the beautiful Tigris 
River that snakes through its capital city, the lines in their faces, 
at the corners of their eyes and mouths, crinkle in happiness, with 
joy and love.

To Samir's credit, though, he doesn't overlook the problems Jews 
experienced in Iraq: occasional discrimination, and even a series of 
Nazi-inspired pogroms that took place during World War II. Today, 
Arab propagandists who blindly attack Israel love to talk about how 
great Jews had it in the Middle East before Israel's creation, but 
typically forget to mention the drawbacks of minority life.

Despite these negatives, though, none of the film's protagonists were 
Zionists. The Zionist movement, in fact, had only a small following 
in Baghdad's Jewish community, whose roots in Iraq extended back 800 
years. Even after Israel was founded in 1948, most Iraqi Jews refused 
to leave their homes -- until a series of bombings at synagogues in 
1950 scared them away. To this day, though, as Samir points out, most 
Iraqi Jews believe the bombings to be the result of a conspiracy 
between the Iraqi and Israeli governments, both of which would profit 
by the flight of the Jewish community to its new state.

Yet for Ballas, Houri, Michael and Naqqash -- and many of their Iraqi 
compatriots -- Israel did not feel like home, and certainly not the 
refuge they were told it would be. A society founded by Europeans who 
often treated them like ignorant savages, spraying them with DDT to 
"disinfect" them upon arrival, made the transition from Iraq to 
Israel all the more difficult.

Eventually but uneasily, Ballas, Houri and Michael made Israel their 
own. They found work, married, had children and grandchildren, 
learned to speak and write fluent Hebrew. But the separation from the 
past was never final. Houri created his own version of Iraq in a 
heavily Mizrahi town in Israel. Michael continues to have nightmares 
to this day -- nightmares about lounging happily in Baghdad, until 
his Arab friends find Israeli money in his pockets. And then there's 
Naqqash, who has never stopped writing his books in Arabic and has 
never truly accepted Israel as his own nation.

This kind of narrative threatens official Israeli historiography, 
which likes to portray Israel as the monolithic savior of the Jewish 
people. Particularly at a time like now, when in the face of the 
ongoing Palestinian uprising, a strict battle cry of "Arab vs. Jew" 
has become expedient for the Israeli government and its most devoted 
supporters.

Even with all of these powerful ideas, the film is much more than a 
purely intellectual exercise. It succeeds in making strong political 
points only because it so deftly succeeds in bringing the stories of 
each character to life, making their longing for lost homes and lost 
times so tangible.

During each interview, half the frame is used for the subject while 
half is devoted at times to family photos, at times to fresh footage 
of Iraq and Israel, and at times to old newsreels showing the Iraq 
and Israel of the 1950s. (You know the kind -- half news, half P.R., 
featuring footage of happy workers digging ditches while a voice with 
an English accent says things like, "The air was full of events to 
come. And come they did!")

As the Israeli-Iraqi Jews speak in Arabic, English subtitles scroll 
across the bottom of the screen even as subheadings in English, 
Hebrew and Arabic script flash across the top. Shohat's interview 
adds another level of dissonance -- it took place in her office at 
New York University, and the view from the window reveals the ghostly 
presence of the World Trade Center towers. All this is mixed with a 
fantastic jumble of selections from pop-culture representations of 
Arabs, Israelis, Muslims, Christians, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews.

You are simultaneously inundated with Arabic, Hebrew and English, the 
past, the present and hints of the future, different places, 
different cultures and times. Trying to take it all in is a jarring 
experience, almost overwhelming -- just enough to give you the 
sensation of what it must be like to be them: to be so many things, 
Arab, Jew, Israeli, Iraqi, friend and enemy, all at the same time.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
About the writer
Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

<http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2003/12/15/forget_baghdad/print.html> 
*****

Stephen Holden, "Born in Iraq, Living in Israel, Pondering Issues of 
Identity": 
<http://movies2.nytimes.com/mem/movies/review.html?title1=Forget%20Baghdad%20(Movie)>

*****   North American bookings of Forget Baghdad will be handled by 
Wesley Hottot of AFD Theatrical. Call (206) 322-08822 x204 or email 
wesley at arabfilm.com for screeners and promotional materials, or for 
more information.

This film is available for public exhibition only. Interested 
institutional purchasers and home video customers should inquire for 
release dates in their market.

<http://www.arabfilm.com/item_print.html?itemID=265>   *****

Ella Shohat: <http://members.aol.com/ehshohat/home/>, 
<http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/mideast/people/shohat.html>, 
<http://www.nyu.edu/fas/Faculty/ShohatElla.html>.
-- 
Yoshie

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