The documentary film Forget Baghdad, made in 2002, is actually a remembrance of Baghdad. Four Iraqi Jewish writers living in Israel recount their childhood watching Egyptian and Indian cinema. They also recalled their Communist youth before they emigrated to Israel. Only one of the interviewees remained a communist after he left Iraq. Communism seemed to have been a very historically specific quest that resonated with them at the time, rather than a dogma. One interviewee recalls how he would participate in Marxist reading groups. He gave a very literal take on idealism and materialism, while the discussant leader wanted something more theoretical. Then a worker who had a nickname of “Big Thumb” provided an answer about how idealism and materialism were related in a dialectic sense. The interviewee felt disappointed in himself. I was surprised that such deep discussions took place in those times of Baghdad.
All of them recall the protests in 1946 and how many strangers in the city were in solidarity with communists. I had read about Communist movements in Iraq before but I never read first-hand accounts. The site of protest—the British embassy— was close to the red light district, and one interviewee hid with the help of the prostitutes. Another interviewee, Sami Michael, is an award-winning novelist. During the protests, he found himself under the body of his friend which was being kicked by a police. He was so mad, he attacked the police while shouting, "He is an intellectual and he is about to die!" The police would have shot him if it wasn't for a woman in an abaya who stood between them. He ran to the river and was given a boat to escape. He escaped all the way to Mashhad and was hidden in a mosque, even though under normal circumstances he would not have been allowed. I did not know about the restrictions on Jewish people entering Mashhad before watching this documentary.
All the interviewees expressed the sentiment that most of the Iraqi Jews were not Zionists and did not want to leave Iraq as late as 1950. But there were bombs (allegedly planned by Zionists) in Jewish areas that scared many of them away.
Director Samir and his cousin Jamal Al Tahir in front of the Kremlin in Moscow. Originally from Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion.
In addition to the accounts given the by the interviewees, the filmmaker Samir provides a lot of context and paints a very complex picture. He shows how there were more politically-sharp newspapers accessible in Israel compared to the situation in Iraq. Many of the interviewees contributed to newspapers and reflected on their relationship with Arabic and Hebrew. The filmmaker comments on how much of the Arab hostility towards Israel forgets that there are also Arabic-speaking people in Israel. The filmmaker also interviews the film studies scholar, Ella Shohat, who is also a Baghdadi Jew. She discussed how certain Israeli films tend to harmonize the issues of the nation by presenting Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews as culturally different but ultimately suitable for marriage and reconciliation. She is a Mizrahi Jew who felt a deep sense of alienation from Israeli society. She recalled how Iraqi Jews were forcibly sprayed with DDT when they landed in Israel. European-style bread would be subsidized by the state, while pita bread was not. Many Iraqi Jews labored on farms in order to win their position in society.
Shohat recounted her first time meeting an Iraqi Arab for the first time when she was in New York. Yet he was also foreign to the concept of Iraqi Jews and had not heard of the Farhood (pogroms). She exclaimed that people’s memories often forgets history. Now, fortunately, there is a Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum dedicated to the history of people like Shohat.
The writer Sami also admits that sometimes he feels that “In the Arab world we are Jews, in Israel we’re Arabs.” He later laughs and says he is a baklava, a mix of both cultures. He complained that Israel is an ideologist country, superficial and small. Yet he said that he became more accustomed to settling in Israel once his daughter was born: for her, Israel will be her home; and for this reason, he decided to place his roots here for good.
In terms of the language, I could understand the word “fish” when Sami reminisced about the Iraqi specialty. I also understood the words spy (jasoos) and nationalism (al-qaumiyya). Overall it was a deep and engaging documentary film that clearly required a lot of effort.