THE DIASPORA FILM FESTIVAL: Forget Baghdad


Sorry, could only find the German trailer for now!

As a rule, the treatment of Jews during World War Two is informed by references to the Holocaust in Europe. But there is a lesser known narrative that is tangled up in the net cast by Hitler and his xenophobia that stretches beyond Europe, further east, to the capital of Iraq.

The history of the Jews in Iraq goes back more than 2000 years. In Baghdad, just prior to WW 2, there were neighbourhoods where Iraqi Arab’s – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – lived together in mixed communities. The men featured in Forget Baghdad all recall this time and describe their beloved city.

In 1941, with support from Nazi Germany, the Farhud pogrom occurred and the situation for Iraqi Jews began to unravel.

The Jews of Iraq began to be forced into a corner. In March of 1951 Israel executed an airlift, called Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. By 1951 over 120,000 Jews left Iraq for Israel leaving behind only 16,000.  This new life, when placed against the memories of the world the Iraqis left was impoverished and destitute. Their Arab culture – the religious and folk music, food, dance, and language – was in exotic contrast to the culture of the predominantly European Ashkenazi Jews. The Iraqi, or Mizrahi, Jews after suffering forced displacement witnessed their Arab culture fading away with their memories of their homeland. They were expected to forget Iraq, forget Baghdad.

With this project, director Samir, began an ambitious undertaking to unearth the culture and memories of the Jews who came to a new land yet felt longing for the land they lost.

Samir focuses on 4 men with a common background. Each was involved in the Communist Party back in Iraq along with the director’s father, who was born a Muslim Iraqi and became involved in politics as a young man. The director has his own Diaspora story as his father, due to his involvement in the Communist Party, had to leave Iraq. The family sought refuge in Switzerland the home of Samir’s Swiss mother.

This documentary was a feat and full of layers, not just in the overlapping narratives of each of the men interviewed but visually as well.  The nostalgic presence of family photographs, the cuts of Egyptian and Israel movies spliced in, along with current footage of each man recalling the past makes for a frenetic collage when juxtaposed with English subtitles over top Hebrew and Arabic text from news clippings. It is beautiful to take in but it makes one want to slow it down so as not to miss a single visual clue.

Also in the documentary is Dr. Ella Shohat, Professor of Cultural Studies at New York University. Dr. Shohat is an expert on Israeli Cinema and is also an Mizrahi Jew. Her mother and father came during the migration from Iraq to Israel in the fifties. In the documentary, Dr. Shohat recalls this feeling of shame regarding her Iraqi background and the confusion surrounding being not only Jewish but Arab.

The screening was followed with a talk given by Dr. Shohat. She is fascinating to listen to and an important voice in the complex and multilayered discourse on the Middle East.

Holocaust Museum, Israel. Photograph by Scott P. Smith.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Israel. Photograph by Scott P. Smith

Roof of a shrine near the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Photograph by Scott P. Smith

Photographs top to bottom by Scott P. Smith.

Top: Holocaust Museum, Israel
Middle: Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Israel.
Bottom: Roof of a shrine near the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem