A highly evocative documentary, although muted: that’s Emile Cohen’s verdict on Shadow in Baghdad, Duki Dror’s acclaimed documentary film. Read his review in The Arab Review.
The film is a documentary of the story of Linda Menuhin who
fled the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein in Dec 1970 when she was 20 years
old to go to Israel awaiting the rest of the family to follow, which they did
some 5 months later except for her father Yacoob Abdul Aziz, a well-respected
lawyer who stayed awaiting the right moment.
In 1969 the Ba’ath party
staged a mass execution of nine Jews and displayed their bodies in the main square
amongst cheering fans. They were scapegoats to make up for the loss of the 1967
war and the writing was on the wall for the Jews of Iraq.
In 1970 and
1971 many Jews fled through Kurdistan in small groups
arriving to Iran
passing over precipitous mountains and dangerous terrain to avoid border police
patrols. It was indeed a risky adventure requiring a lot of courage for, if
caught, they would be subjected to the horrors and torture as Saddam’s
prisoners but such was the level of despair that some 2300 out of 3000 people
took that route.
In September 1972 Yacoob Abdul Aziz was abducted by the
Intelligence bureau of Saddam Hussein and disappeared without trace to Saddam’s
Bastille, called Qasr Al Nihaya (Palace of the End) and nothing was heard of him
since; presumed dead. This is not an unusual story in Saddam’s Iraq,
for many Iraqis had been taken by the secret police and killed without the body
ever found. It is not an unusual Jewish story either as they had received more
than their fair share of sufferings, oppression and persecution. At the same time her father was abducted so were 22
other Jews. So what prompts
her to make a film 40 years after the event? What is there to search for
when there are no documents, no grave, no body of her father, just a shadow in Baghdad?
The journey starts when she was contacted on Skype by a
young Iraqi journalist who read her story about her father’s abduction in her
blog and her unsuccessful attempt to vote in the 2010 Iraqi elections in Jordan.
He was touched and wanted to write a column about her father and offered to do
all the search and probing necessary to trace her father’s abduction and fate.
She was naturally distrustful and he explained to her that his grandmother told
him about the Jews who once lived in Iraq
and how friendly the relationship used to be. It was evident that with all the
racial and sectarian turmoil in Iraq
this was a risky undertaking for him. Similarly Linda had a lot of poignant
memories that were buried and she was apprehensive of reviving them all.
Our young man starts investigating, visiting their family
home and coffee bars, contacting people in the business to shed some light into
the disappearance. The film follows him in Iraq.
In the meantime, Linda reflects on her past and her Arab culture like many of
the Arab Jews. Reminiscing, she says that Baghdad was her home, Tigris
was her river, Arabic was her language, how she liked Arabic poetry and how
beautiful life was before everything turned round with the 1967 war and the
advent of the Ba’ath party. She left Iraq
but Iraq never
She discusses all this with her family and they start evoking
memories about her father but that brought up some revelations to the family
like her request for a dowry from her father as she was getting married. Her
sister was stunned and she gently rebuked her. She looked up the letters from
her father, which were full of clues and codes, and started analysing their
meanings. She tells how she came to Israel
and studied journalism in order to join the Israeli broadcasting as a news
reader or a commentator but her Mizrahi accent was a handicap and the Iraqi
sound was unacceptable in the Ashkenazi milieu and she joined the Arabic
section of an Israeli TV channel. She is now a well-known PR and media
Her journey takes her to London
where she probed more about her father, his work, his history and his abduction
from members of the Jewish community who existed in Iraq
at the time. Her father took it upon himself to defend or to arrange the
defence of the Jews who were arrested. Invariably these arrests were
random and not based on any sound allegations; a function of all fascist
regimes. To undertake such tasks were brave and courageous and he arranged
through one way or another, to secure the release of a number of Jews caught by
the border patrols and that may have been the reason for his abduction, but
this is speculation. His fate is finally revealed as having been taken to Qasr
Al Nihaya killed by the secret police and unceremoniously dumped in a grave
The story, for anyone who lived through the Jewish Iraqi
experience, is one of many. There were 52 such stories of abduction and
hundreds of stories of the people who decided to leave their home and all their
possessions to escape to save their lives or gain freedom. It is a story of
courage and despair. The film portrays sincerity, honesty, frankness and
truthfulness. It is a thoroughly commendable effort for a documentary and
though very touching and highly evocative, for me, it was a muted drama without
inspiration. The young Iraqi journalist found nothing to reveal
about the abduction and the final solution of Yacoob Abdul Aziz except its
inevitability. It was interesting that having lived through a vacuum of
memories for 40 years Linda felt her roots once again. Having resigned
to the destiny of her father, she turned her attention to the fate of the young
Iraqi journalist fondly concerned about the risk he had taken for a Jew.
It became noticeable that the rapport between the two crossed the borders
between Arabs and Jews.
Duki Dror appears to be an accomplished director and a
prolific documentary maker who seems good producing evocative films. He
directed many successful films amongst which was Café Noah which was about Arab
Jewish musicians in Israel
and won acclaim. Shadow in Baghdad
is not a film about nostalgia but an intelligent documentary of a journey into
the past honestly portrayed by Duki Dror. It documents a page in blood and
tears of the history of Iraqi Jews who had lived there for 2,600 years and now in
more. The film was well received in New York,
Montreal, and London.
No doubt it will collect its fair share of awards.