‘Baghdad twist’ recalls family’s hair-raising escape

Montreal filmmaker Joe Balass has an unusual Mother’s Day gift for his mom: Baghdad Twist, a bittersweet memoir of her family’s tumultuous times in Iraq. The Montreal Gazette reports that the film tells the story of the family’s hair-raising escape through the mountains of Kurdistan:

These are times Valentine Balass would sooner forget, but it does provide her son with some fascinating, if not harrowing, insights into a previously dark chapter in his family’s history.

Balass’s documentary Baghdad Twist, opening Mother’s Day at the NFB Cinema, will also be quite an eye-opener for others in the dark about life in one of the world’s most troubled regions. Using vintage Super 8 footage and faded stills from the mid-1960s, Balass has his mother, off-camera, recount a hair-raising odyssey that brought their family to Montreal from Baghdad.

Making life much more dicey for the Balass clan in Baghdad was the fact they were Jewish. She recalls that the Jewish community of Iraq had been thriving up until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. But what was once a community of 180,000 had dwindled down to 10,000 to 12,000 by the early 1950s, due in large part to a climate of accusations implying Iraq’s Jews were traitors and, as a result, fear of arrest and worse among the Jews.

By the 1960s, the Jewish population of Iraq had fallen off significantly more, yet the Balass family tried to maintain a sense of normalcy: “Because you can’t live all your life in mourning,” Valentine reasons.

That attempt at normalcy is depicted in footage from a wedding reception, where guests don their smartest duds and their bravest faces and attempt to do the dance craze sweeping the rest of the world at the time: the twist.

Not exactly giddy times, however, and they were soon to get much worse. Following the Six Day War of 1967 – pitting Israel against Syria, Jordan and Egypt – Iraq’s Jews were more targeted than ever.

There were arrests, based on trumped-up charges of spying, and there were public hangings of Jews in the streets of Baghdad. Valentine remembers that people were in a state of jubilation, singing and dancing while the executions were being carried out.

Balass’s dad was detained three times for no specific reason, but after he was let out on bail following the last arrest, Valentine was taking no chances. She took charge and made plans to bolt Baghdad quickly with her husband, three kids and other family members.

Leaving everything in their Baghdad home intact, so as not to arouse any suspicion, this group of 12 fled, at enormous risk, to the Kurdish north of Iraq. From there, they slipped into Iran, then made their way to Israel before ending up in Montreal in 1970 – with pretty much only the clothes on their backs.

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