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Forget Baghdad: Roundtrip to the Promised Land

Forget Baghdad: Roundtrip to the Promised Land

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Published by razan
A movie review: Forget Baghdad.
A movie review: Forget Baghdad.

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Published by: razan on Apr 06, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Forget Baghdad: Roundtrip tothe Promised Land
Ruth Tsoffar
University of Michigan
Memory is an empty plate, scarred by scratches from the knife on its skin. —Ronny Someck, “Baghdad,” in
The Milk Underground 
nhis film
Forget Baghdad 
(2003), Samir aims to compensate for the histor-ical “abyss ofabandonment” (Hess 1993:7) thatlooms between the Zionistofficial storyofIsrael and its Iraqi chapter through the intimate and poignantreminiscences offive individuals ofBaghdadi origin.
He does this in part byclosing in on the faces ofthe five “actors”—Shimon Ballas, Moshe MoussaHouri, Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash and Ella Shohat–for whom the filmoffers permission and a vehicle to travel to their ancestral homeland and, toacertain extent, to the self. What have been, in the Israeli rhetorical climate,spurned fragments in a linear journey—a one-way-ticket to the PromisedLand—is transformed into a roundtrip journey,characterized by endlessloops and coils. Significantly, the film opens with a top-down view ofa man’ssuited legs walking through an airport; in the background is heard anannouncement ofthe imminent departure ofan El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Airportsounds merge and then give way to Lebanese composer Rabih Abou-Khalil’smulticultural jazz instrumental, “Got to Go Home,” which is somewhat remi-
Forget Baghdad: Roundtrip to the Promised Land
niscent ofthe “Pink Panther” theme song. Both the music and the audible dis-play ofthe film’s title and credits, by way oftypewritten font, clinch the detec-tive story-like documentary nature ofSamir’s nearly two-hour film.
This essay attempts to contribute to increasing the visibility ofBaghdad asan originary site ofIsraeli and US Jewish minorities. In “Forget Baghdad,” thehybrid, hyphenated identity ofIraqi-Jews or Arab-Jews is presented within thecontext ofEuropean colonialism and modernity, and situated on the extendedcultural map ofthe Jewish diaspora in the “East” from Baghdad to Teheran andMumbai. I aim to expand the visual archive ofethnography and its represen-tation beyond “writing culture” or “reading culture” to include viewing as animportant aspect ofthe discursive practices ofcultures. Ever since SaddamHussein’s invasion ofKuwait on August 2, 1990, the media representation ofIraq and Baghdad has been ideologically veneered by US foreign policy, con-tributing to an essentialized, Orientalist portrait ofwhat is in reality a finelytextured “culturescape.” As a visual ethnography that takes memory as its sub- ject, “Forget Baghdad” redresses the tendency to represent Iraq and its Jewishminority cultureas abstractions, as a chapter in Jewish history that lacks his-torical context and legitimacy.It is one thing to return to a place that is associated with violence, collec-tive or personal, and another to return to the place that was forsaken for thehope ofa better one. The viewer quickly discovers that Baghdad is a place thatinvokes both trauma and solace. The trauma ofBaghdad inheres in the factofits exile from Israeli memory, but, as the film underscores, it is only throughmemory that Baghdad can be recuperated and reclaimed as part ofIsraeli cul-tural history.Baghdad appearsin the film as a place oforigin, a cultural ref-erence,and a genealogy.
But, as I highlight in this essay,the film is not somuch about Baghdad and everyday life there prior to emigration, but aboutthe memoryofthe city as it is informed by the experience ofbeing Israelitoday,fifty-two yearsor so later.The idea of“going back,” therefore, is part ofawider discussion ofdiscursive legitimacy and recently invented strategies toeffectively participate in the public debates on ethnicities and cultures ofori-gin.
The key questions are what kinds ofnarratives are produced from thiscinematic site,and whatis the natureofthis memory? The main issues atstake are not only the permission to go back, in conjunction with the nostal-gic and sentimental value inherent in going back, but more critically, thebroader matter ofhow the film engages its participants—and viewers—in acontinual negotiation ofIraqi-Jewish and Arab-Jewish identities beyond per-mitted gendered, ethnic, and national discursive limits.
Returning to Baghdad might well be an easy act, but for the troubling natureofthe departure ofJews from Baghdad, which is recounted in two conflictingscenarios. “Ezra and Nehemia” was the Bible-derived name given to the Zionistorchestrated immigration (or expulsion) ofIraqi Jews to Israel, between thesummer of1950 and 1951. The official story ofthis operation was about anoth-er successful Zionist mission ofrescuing a Jewish community, in this case,120,000 strong. Later in the 1960s, the muckraking journalists ventured the the-ory that Zionists and not Arabs/anti-Zionists were responsible for planting thebombs targeting Iraqi Jews and their religious institutions, which convincedthem ofthe wisdom ofsettling in the new promised land ofIsrael. Ifone sub-scribes to the logic ofthis theory, then ifnot for the Farhud of1941, the violentattack on Jews and their property ofyoung, pro-Nazi Iraqis, Iraqi Jews couldreflect on their life in the old country with much less ambivalent pleasure.Consequently, these contested scenarios have generated impressions ofBaghdad as, on the one hand, a site ofviolence and betrayal, and a site ofwist-ful longing, on the other. Samir does not use the film to support one or theother thesis; he,likehis interlocutors, was partial to the latter theory. For the Jews who left Iraq in the fifties, Baghdad appears in the film as a resurrectedplace ofaffective attachment.
Forget Baghdad 
itselfoffers to the five interlocu-tors an opportunity to reclaim Baghdad as an integral part oftheir personal andcollective biography through mind-travel back to the point ofdeparture.The film is a montage crafted in part from vignettes ofthe four male andone female interlocutors who neither appear together nor interact with eachother. They converse exclusively with Samir or speak to the camera. The malesareIraqi-born and ofthe same generation as Samir’sfather; the one excep-tion is Ella Shohat, who was born in Israel and is a generation younger. Eachin their own way is deeply committed to their Iraqi identity and to its expres-sion through their personal, political, pedagogical, literary,and scholarlyengagements. Prominent in their professional workand evident in the film istheir struggle with the subject ofrepresentation and especially the relation-ship ofHebrew to their Arab-Jewish identity. As Ballas has expressed else-where, “Even though I am a Hebrew writer and I write in Hebrew, I am notaffiliated with Hebrewliterature.” His writing, as he claims, strives toapproach Hebrew without mystification and “without the Judeocentrism thathas characterized Hebrew literature” (Ballas in Alcalay 1996:67). The lateSamir Naqqash chose to eschewHebrew all together.The choice ofinterlocutors, whom I introduce briefly below, was influ-enced by Samir’s desire to meet his father’s old Communist-Party comrades.

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