‘Remember Baghdad’ released in London

The film Remember Baghdad telling the story of the Jews of Iraq through eight different testimonies has just been released. It will have two London screenings on 3 December and 6 December. Lyn Julius wrote this review (also referring to another documentary, Letters from Baghdad) in Jewish Renaissance (April 2017).

On New Year’s Eve 1946, a young Jewish couple
were among the guests at a Benefit Ball in the Iraqi Flying Club.  A beauty pageant was taking place: the King of
Iraq approached the 21-year old Renée Dangoor, and invited her to take part. 

Renée won the contest. Her hand-coloured
image of radiant beauty, complete with victory sash, is presently being
referenced by 2,700 Arabic websites on Google.

Who would have believed, in the bomb-ravaged,  sectarian Iraq of today,  that a Jewess
could have been crowned Miss Baghdad 1947? “Who is even going to
believe,” says Edwin Shuker in the new documentary Remember Baghdad,” that there were Jews in Iraq?” 

Edwin Shuker is one of the main characters in
the film. The opening sequence shows him leaving his home in north London to
catch a flight to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, in a bid to
show that Jews still have a stake in Iraq. Later, we see Edwin in a Baghdadi
taxi excitedly giving directions to his driver to find the Shuker family house.
They had abandoned it in haste 46 years earlier.

In a region where the jihadists of Islamic
State are just kilometres away,  to return
to Iraq is a brave, if foolhardy, thing for a Jew to do. Of 140,000 Jews in
1948, only five Jews remain in Iraq in an atmosphere of rampant antisemitism.
This community goes back to Babylonian times when captives from Judea were
taken as slaves to the land of the two rivers and remained there for 2,600 years.
The Babylonian Jews had a seminal impact on Judaism as we know it. Yet  in 2017, the community is to all intents and
purposes extinct, its members driven into exile. 

started out as a film commissioned by Renée Dangoor’s son David about
a group of Iraqi Jews who have been meeting weekly in London over three decades
to play volleyball together. Director Fiona Murphy has taken the story to a new
level, combining raw material of home movies, family photos and first-person
testimonies with rare archive footage – to build a cinematic record of a lost

What motivated Fiona, of mixed Jewish-Irish parentage,
to make this film?

” The lives of my parents’ families closed down as the
British Empire shattered: my father’s community was thrown out of Ireland and
my mother’s fled Jamaica. I grew up in London, conscious that people suffer for
the crimes of generations long gone.

“So when I was between films and was offered a job
cataloguing an extraordinary archive of early home movies belonging to an
Iraqi-Jewish family I responded vividly to the news that the Jews of Iraq did
well under the British, and paid for it. The end of the British Empire was not
the only strand that bound their stories together with mine. My mother’s family
was ethnically Jewish. And while that was where the historical similarities
ended, the smiling faces in the archive and the stark fact that only five Jews
remain in Iraq today, awakened my own sense of loss.

“At first I just wanted to convey the pain of losing
your home. It seemed important, now, right now, to push back at the narrowness
of our news, dominated by discussion of economic migrants, desperate refugees
and the difficulties of integrating immigrants. The older stories were laments
about the pain of exile: “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary”, and “By the
rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept”. I wanted to show that that
migrants travel with heavy hearts, give them a voice, and bring back the world
that was lost. I knew this must be my next film.”

Fiona Murphy’s film is being released exactly
100 years after the British invaded what was once Mesopotamia, throwing three
Ottoman provinces together  to form
modern Iraq. One of the country’s chief architects was the British intelligence
officer Gertrude Bell, also the subject of a documentary being released this
year : Letters from Baghdad.

Often described as a female Lawrence of
Arabia, Bell was a woman in a man’s world. She was the moving force behind the
crowning of Emir Faisal as king of Iraq and saw the able, multilingual,
educated, and increasingly westernised, Jews as the lynchpin of the brave new
Iraq she wanted to create.

Remember Baghdad’ trailer

“I’m now going to cultivate the Jew
community – there are 80, 000 in Baghdad out of a population of 200, 000- and
find out more about them,,” Gertrude Bell wrote to her parents in 1917.” So
far, I’ve only met the bigwigs, such as the Chief Rabbi. There’s no doubt they
will be a great power here some day. ” 

Jews did indeed become the backbone of the
British mandate of Iraq, dominating finance and trade and administering the
railways and communications. But Gertrude Bell was sidelined, and is thought in
frustration to have ended her own life aged only 52. The golden age of the Jews
of Iraq ended with the death of King Faisal and the creeping Nazification of
the 1930s, culminating in the traumatic pogrom known as the pro-Nazi Farhud (Arabic for forced dispossession)  in 1941.

Baghdad “interviews the broadcaster
Salim Fattal, the writer Eli Amir,  and
other survivors of the two-day rampage of June 1941 which followed the
overthrow of the pro-British government 
in Iraq – an orgy of killing, rape and looting. After Iraq introduced a
state of emergency in 1948, punishing its Jews for the establishment of Israel,
it was primarily fear of another Farhud
that spurred 120,000 Jews to leave Iraq for Israel when they had the chance in
1950 – 51. The price they paid was to be stripped of their citizens’ rights and
dispossessed of their property.

Although Iraq remained an implacable enemy of
Israel, life for the 6,000 remaining Jews continued as one long round of
parties and picnics by the river Tigris. The brutal slaughter of the king and
his ministers in 1958, their bodies dragged through the streets of Baghdad,
came as a shock, but still the Jews did not leave. When they wanted to, in the
1960s, it was too late. By the time the Six-Day war broke out, Jews were
effectively hostages of the Ba’ath regime.

The film relates
the vengeful terror experienced by the remaining Jews, who witnessed the public
hangings of nine of their co-religionists in January 1969 on trumped-up spying charges.
Danny Dallal’s uncle was executed six months later. Scores of Jews disappeared.
Danny and Edwin were among the 2,000 desperate Jews smuggled out of Iraq into
Iran by Kurds in the early 1970s. They left everything behind.

The film closes with Edwin Shuker signing the
contract for the home he has just purchased on a windswept and arid development
in Kurdistan. Will he ever live in it? It’s clearly a symbolic act – perhaps
the first step on the ladder  to buying a
property in Baghdad –  in order to show
the unbreakable bond between Jews and their 2,600 years in the land. You can
take the Jew out of Iraq, but you can’t take Iraq out of the Jew. 

” Iraq is in our bones”, says David

But  is it? 

Many Iraqi Jews still suffer nightmares at
the thought of what they went through. 
The memory of Iraq recedes year by year. Their children and
grandchildren, now citizens of Israel and the West, barely understand Arabic: only
the food links them with the past. They have moved on.

time for nostalgia may be over. Perhaps
Remember Baghdad
should have a question mark after it?

Other reviews:

The Guardian

 The Jewish Chronicle

 Times of Israel

The UPcoming

Little White Lies

Film Reviews

Jewish News 

Melanie Phillips

 Conversation between Noorah al-Gailani and Edwin Shuker on  the Radio Scotland Cathy MacDonald show (1:25 mins in):  Noora remembers that Jewish women would be permitted to climb the minaret of the mosque where her Sufi ancestor, Sheikh al-Gailani is buried on the site of a Jewish saint of antiquity. At the top, they would pray for the saint to fulfil their wishes.

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