[Marxism] Forget Baghdad (Dir. Samir, 2002)
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,
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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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About the writer
Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.
Stephen Holden, "Born in Iraq, Living in Israel, Pondering Issues of
***** 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
This film is available for public exhibition only. Interested
institutional purchasers and home video customers should inquire for
release dates in their market.
Ella Shohat: <http://members.aol.com/ehshohat/home/>,
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