Films show Iraq through Iraqi eyes

There are very few Jews in Iraq today. It was a far different story 60 years ago.

After the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, more than half a million Jews emigrated from all over the world. Nearly a quarter of them came from Iraq. They didn’t go there because they agreed with Zionism but to escape the massacre and repression that was going on in Iraq.

Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection tells the stories of four such Iraqis, all one-time members of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) now living in Israel. The director of Forget Baghdad is himself the son of Iraqi parents, who ended up in Switzerland.

Another Iraqi filmmaker, Saad Salman, fled Iraq for France almost 30 years ago. When he received word that his mother was seriously ill, he decided to return to Iraq to pay her a visit in Baghdad. Baghdad On/Off is the story of that convoluted journey.

Both of these documentary films – and at least one of the directors – will be part of the Second Annual Tribeca Film Festival in New York City May 3-11 (see box). Both films give you an insight into what it is to be an Iraqi that you won’t get from watching the TV news.

In Baghdad On/Off, Salman and his guide drive around endlessly in the Kurdish, UN-protected part of Iraq, looking for a safe access to the area around Baghdad that was controlled by the Iraqi army. Meanwhile, he uses his inconspicuous digital video camera to film in different refugee camps and records the testimonies of victims of Saddam Hussein both in the camps and in several cities in the area.

Some of those interviewed are Communists (Salman doesn’t identify them on-screen but thanks the ICP, among others, in the credits). But everyone who told his story to Salman showed incredible courage in speaking out.

“It is normal to be afraid,” the guide tells Salman, “you are in Iraq.”

One man whose ears had been cut off, a “typical” punishment, is one of the lucky ones because he did not die of gangrene like so many others. Still, he can’t stand to look in the mirror and his eyesight is bad but why buy glasses when you have nothing to wrap them around?

Baghdad On/Off doesn’t just document the misery, though; it also shows music, songs, and parties – the determination and humor of people who are praying – and fighting – for a better life.

I can’t help wondering how many of the people Salman shows are still alive after the U.S. invasion. Another question also remains: now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in control of Iraq, does that mean their problems are solved? Will whomever the Bush administration sees fit to put in power really represent their interests – a Bush administration that immediately secured Iraq’s oil fields instead of their sorely needed hospitals or priceless antiquities, which rightly belong to the world at large?

The other film, Forget Baghdad, gives a glimpse of what a truly free Iraq could be. Its starting point is the ICP because the father of Samir, the director, was a communist. The four men he interviews tell of growing up in Baghdad, whose Jewish community is one of the oldest in Jewish history.

They lived in harmony with Christians and Muslims until the government was overthrown by radical ultranationalists. When the Iraqi leaders allied themselves with the Nazis, each of these men – authors Samir Michael and Samir Naqqash, Shimon Ballas, a professor, and building contractor Moshe Houri – was spurred to action.

“I grew up as a Jew and as an Iraqi surrounded by Arab culture and suddenly a foreign power from outside of Iraq forced its way into my life with the intent to eradicate me,” Michael said.

“I sought a means to fight against this Nazi-brown force that disparaged me as a Jew and wanted to exterminate me as a human. That’s how I came to be part of the communist movement ... Actually, we formed the Communist Party to reach two goals: on the one hand, to fight against Nazi Germany, and on the other, to advance the establishment of a democratic-liberal Iraq. These two goals were intertwined.”

However, when the government retaliated and began to murder communists, each of the men eventually fled to Israel, where they all joined the Israeli Communist Party.

Unfortunately, their new homeland did not exactly welcome them with open arms. One of the worst humiliations they encountered was being sprayed with insecticide upon their arrival in Israel.

In the refugee camps, there was never enough to eat so the communists organized a strike that succeeded in getting decent meals. Soon after that, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said, “We kicked out good Arabs [Palestinians] and brought in bad Jews.”

Films and newsreels depicted the new immigrants as ignorant, backward and dirty or childlike. Then-Minister of Labor and later Prime Minister Golda Meir stated that Israel’s goal was “to raise these immigrants to an appropriate level of civilization.”

Forget Baghdad, which also features commentary by Ella Shohat, an Iraqi Jew now living in New York City and author of many books and articles on the depiction of Arabs in Israeli cinema, and Baghdad On/Off provide a fascinating movie experience and a look at the real people who are suffering even more because of the devastation caused by the Bush administration’s war.



– Carolyn Rummel (crummel@pww.org)