SOCIAL THOUGHT AND COMMENTARY

Forget Baghdad: Roundtrip to the 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 Underground1 n his film Forget Baghdad (2003), Samir aims to compensate for the historical “abyss of abandonment” (Hess 1993:7) that looms between the Zionist official story of Israel and its Iraqi chapter through the intimate and poignant reminiscences of five individuals of Baghdadi origin.2 He does this in part by closing in on the faces of the five “actors”—Shimon Ballas, Moshe Moussa Houri, Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash and Ella Shohat –for whom the film offers permission and a vehicle to travel to their ancestral homeland and, to a certain extent, to the self. What have been, in the Israeli rhetorical climate, spurned fragments in a linear journey—a one-way-ticket to the Promised Land—is transformed into a roundtrip journey, characterized by endless loops and coils. Significantly, the film opens with a top-down view of a man’s suited legs walking through an airport; in the background is heard an announcement of the imminent departure of an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Airport sounds merge and then give way to Lebanese composer Rabih Abou-Khalil’s multicultural jazz instrumental, “Got to Go Home,” which is somewhat remi133

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niscent of the “Pink Panther” theme song. Both the music and the audible display of the film’s title and credits, by way of typewritten font, clinch the detective story-like documentary nature of Samir’s nearly two-hour film.3 This essay attempts to contribute to increasing the visibility of Baghdad as an originary site of Israeli and US Jewish minorities. In “Forget Baghdad,” the hybrid, hyphenated identity of Iraqi-Jews or Arab-Jews is presented within the context of European colonialism and modernity, and situated on the extended cultural map of the Jewish diaspora in the “East” from Baghdad to Teheran and Mumbai. I aim to expand the visual archive of ethnography and its representation beyond “writing culture” or “reading culture” to include viewing as an important aspect of the discursive practices of cultures. Ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the media representation of Iraq and Baghdad has been ideologically veneered by US foreign policy, contributing to an essentialized, Orientalist portrait of what is in reality a finely textured “culturescape.” As a visual ethnography that takes memory as its subject, “Forget Baghdad” redresses the tendency to represent Iraq and its Jewish minority culture as abstractions, as a chapter in Jewish history that lacks historical context and legitimacy. It is one thing to return to a place that is associated with violence, collective or personal, and another to return to the place that was forsaken for the hope of a better one. The viewer quickly discovers that Baghdad is a place that invokes both trauma and solace. The trauma of Baghdad inheres in the fact of its exile from Israeli memory, but, as the film underscores, it is only through memory that Baghdad can be recuperated and reclaimed as part of Israeli cultural history. Baghdad appears in the film as a place of origin, a cultural reference, and a genealogy.4 But, as I highlight in this essay, the film is not so much about Baghdad and everyday life there prior to emigration, but about the memory of the city as it is informed by the experience of being Israeli today, fifty-two years or so later. The idea of “going back,” therefore, is part of a wider discussion of discursive legitimacy and recently invented strategies to effectively participate in the public debates on ethnicities and cultures of origin.5 The key questions are what kinds of narratives are produced from this cinematic site, and what is the nature of this memory? The main issues at stake are not only the permission to go back, in conjunction with the nostalgic and sentimental value inherent in going back, but more critically, the broader matter of how the film engages its participants—and viewers—in a continual negotiation of Iraqi-Jewish and Arab-Jewish identities beyond permitted gendered, ethnic, and national discursive limits.6
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Returning to Baghdad might well be an easy act, but for the troubling nature of the departure of Jews from Baghdad, which is recounted in two conflicting scenarios. “Ezra and Nehemia” was the Bible-derived name given to the Zionist orchestrated immigration (or expulsion) of Iraqi Jews to Israel, between the summer of 1950 and 1951. The official story of this operation was about another successful Zionist mission of rescuing a Jewish community, in this case, 120,000 strong. Later in the 1960s, the muckraking journalists ventured the theory that Zionists and not Arabs/anti-Zionists were responsible for planting the bombs targeting Iraqi Jews and their religious institutions, which convinced them of the wisdom of settling in the new promised land of Israel. If one subscribes to the logic of this theory, then if not for the Farhud of 1941, the violent attack on Jews and their property of young, pro-Nazi Iraqis, Iraqi Jews could reflect on their life in the old country with much less ambivalent pleasure. Consequently, these contested scenarios have generated impressions of Baghdad as, on the one hand, a site of violence and betrayal, and a site of wistful longing, on the other. Samir does not use the film to support one or the other thesis; he, like his interlocutors, was partial to the latter theory. For the Jews who left Iraq in the fifties, Baghdad appears in the film as a resurrected place of affective attachment. Forget Baghdad itself offers to the five interlocutors an opportunity to reclaim Baghdad as an integral part of their personal and collective biography through mind-travel back to the point of departure. The film is a montage crafted in part from vignettes of the four male and one female interlocutors who neither appear together nor interact with each other. They converse exclusively with Samir or speak to the camera. The males are Iraqi-born and of the same generation as Samir’s father; the one exception is Ella Shohat, who was born in Israel and is a generation younger. Each in their own way is deeply committed to their Iraqi identity and to its expression through their personal, political, pedagogical, literary, and scholarly engagements. Prominent in their professional work and evident in the film is their struggle with the subject of representation and especially the relationship of Hebrew to their Arab-Jewish identity. As Ballas has expressed elsewhere, “Even though I am a Hebrew writer and I write in Hebrew, I am not affiliated with Hebrew literature.” His writing, as he claims, strives to approach Hebrew without mystification and “without the Judeocentrism that has characterized Hebrew literature” (Ballas in Alcalay 1996:67). The late Samir Naqqash chose to eschew Hebrew all together. The choice of interlocutors, whom I introduce briefly below, was influenced by Samir’s desire to meet his father’s old Communist-Party comrades.
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The four men were all active members in the Iraqi Community Party and were regular contributor to its press. They also participated in major demonstrations and strikes, and several sentenced to time in prison. Although avowedly not Zionists, they nevertheless opted to immigrate to Israel and continued their commitment to the Israeli Communist Party and to leftist parties in general. Shohat is present in the film as a theorist and scholar who creates links between Samir’s personal past, the Iraqi Jewish ancestry, and the ethnic politics of culture in Israel today. Shimon Ballas (1930– ), a major novelist, translator, and scholar of Arabic language and literature, is a graduate of the Alliance school in Baghdad, where he immersed himself in Arabic, French, and English literatures. Ballas was exposed to Hebrew and to normative Jewish education only after his arrival in Israel in 1951. He is currently active in the pro-Palestinian peace and civil rights movement and devotes much of his recent writing to the subject. Moshe (Moussa) Houri is an affluent building contractor who began his vocational career as a kiosk owner. He likes to think about himself as a “simple man” and a peace seeker and still votes for the Communist Party. He grew up in Bacham-bar-Ali in the Western part of Baghdad and today lives in Ramat Gan, a city east of Tel Aviv with a relatively large population of Iraqi Jews. Sami Michael (1926– ) is one of Israel’s most renowned authors and a visible public intellectual who broke with the Israeli Communist Party in the mid1950s. Michael’s political activism forced him underground and even, in 1948, to self-imposed exile to Iran. He subsequently immigrated to Israel where for a long time he “felt like an outsider” as he neither spoke Hebrew nor shared the Zionist ideology. Samir Naqqash (1938–2004) was one of the most important writers and intellectuals of his generation. Born in Baghdad, Naqqash lived in Teheran and Bombay prior to his arrival in Israel, where he spent most of life in Petach Tikva. As noted earlier, he chose to write in Arabic exclusively as an act of political resistance to the totalizing assimilation practices of the Israeli state. Naqqash inhabited the tense space, and as a Jew who wrote in Arabic felt discriminated against. Although his work is well-known in the Arab states, and doctoral theses have been written about his books in Italy, the United States, England, and Arab countries, his literary achievements remain, for the most part, ignored by the Israeli (Hebrew-speaking) readership (Naqqash in Alcalay 1996:100). Ella Habiba Shohat (1957– ) is a professor at New York University and a prolific writer, whose work on film, literature, third world feminisms, and postcolonial theory has been translated into several languages, including Arabic.
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Her first book, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (1989; Hebrew edition, 1991), to which she alludes in the film, established her as an astute analyst of ethnic identity politics in Israeli popular culture. As noted earlier, Shohat was born in Israel and, with her natal family, immigrated to New York in her early adulthood where they have lived ever since. She identifies herself as a leading Mizrahi activist, a political commitment that informs her scholarship. The five actors collectively reaffirm the historical and cultural integrity of their Iraqi ancestry and expose the unnaturalness of the exclusionary Zionist category of “Oriental Jews.” Their individual voices converge to tell the story of a community and the vanished vibrant world of Baghdadi Jews. The vivid collage of their voices contrasts starkly with the monochrome footage composited from archival photographs, historical newsreels, and Orientalist feature films produced in studios from Hollywood to Cairo to Herzelia (Israel). This technique of montage enables Samir to graphically demonstrate the disparaging ways in which Iraqi Jews were (and are) represented in Zionist intertexts. The film has a personal emotional value for me as it provides a vivid portrait of my father’s generation. I grew up in Ramat Gan, where my maternal grandfather, Gorgi Kor, like Mussa, would spend many hours sitting on one of the benches in the local park, socializing with his fellow Baghdadis. My autobiography also has some points of overlap with that of Ella Shohat. Our parents came to Israel from Baghdad in the same big wave of immigration in 1950/51. We were both born in Israel in the ma’abarah (the transit or refugee camps of the early 1950s) which represents an important moment in the history of Israel characterized by post-war austerity and newly constructed hierarchies of ethnicity, ancestry, and class. In the ironically Eurocentric7 Zionist social scheme, Iraqi Jews as a category, simply by virtue of their “Oriental” Middle Eastern ancestry, were locked into a subordinate position relative to the Ashkenazi elite. For Iraqi Jews, the ma’abarah was the place where the open sky of the Promised Land sunk to the height of the canvas walls of the winter rain-soaked tent. Samir’s self-conscious engagement with his Iraqi ancestry motivated him to produce this film. How could Samir, a Swiss national, do what so many Israelis have failed to do, namely to engage on an intimate level with Israeli ethnic identity politics?8 From an Israeli perspective the fact that Samir is an outsider—he is neither Jewish nor Israeli, nor is he embroiled in the politics of Middle Eastern culture—makes him especially well suited to undertake such a challenge. He introduces new variables to the representation of Iraqi Jews
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that hitherto were not available in the film medium.9 A comparison with Sasson Somekh’s recently published memoir, Baghdad, Yesterday (2004), is instructive in this regard. First serialized for two years in Ha’aretz, a leading daily Israeli newspaper, where it enjoyed an enthusiastic reception, the book is a rich personal testimony of Iraqi Jewish life in Baghdad prior to immigration. However, unlike the voices of Samir’s interlocutors, Somekh’s book, coming from within the culture as a legitimate stage of representation, does not have an obvious critical edge. Somekh gained admission to Israeli public discourse via his academic achievements: he is a top scholar of modern Arabic literature. Memory, he attests, is non-political; he “does not write as a sociologist, or as a historian, or as a folklorist” (2004). It was as though his memory itself wrote his narrative. Nevertheless, Baghdad emerges through his eloquent pen as a cross-cultural and multifaceted city. Samir’s own nostalgia feeds the spirit of the recuperation: his imagined community of childhood includes Jews as well as Muslim and Christian minorities. As an outsider, his very person blurs the national and religious boundaries that otherwise dominant the conflicted discourse of Zionism and Mizrahim in Israel. Moreover, the cinematic invitation that he extends to Israeli Iraqi Jews helps to create a novel cultural space in which he and the participants insist on continuing a disrupted conversation about the multicultural space of midtwentieth century Baghdad. In the multiethnic society of Israel the highly hierarchical and selective mechanism of the system of social codes determines the parameters of inclusion and exclusion, controlling who can speak and from which cultural location. Forget Baghdad explores another dimension of minority discourse by introducing a new context for framing the key questions of to whom one speaks and to whom one’s narrative is addressed. In this context, traveling through memory is a potentially radical psychological act with its own trajectory. Memory precedes both the intellect and the language: and yet, in itself, is more than an emotional attachment to places infused with nostalgia; rather, it can often constitute a political act that enables one to reposition oneself within history, in this case, Israeli cultural history. Samir traveled from Switzerland to Israel in making his film about Baghdad. Incidentally, it is only as a European passport holder that nonJewish Iraqis can even enter Israel. It was in the relaxed atmosphere of Israeli and US living rooms that he and his interlocutors could slip into the Iraqi dialect of Arabic and savor Iraqi cuisine. The body postures of Ballas and Michael are revealing; instead of their usual edginess they appear relaxed and comfortable with themselves. The conversations in Arabic are friendly and
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flow easily as the five earnestly recount their personal stories. From the privileged position of remembering, they are able to focus not only on the memory of life in Baghdad, but on the very nature of the colonizing encounter between Baghdad (Iraq) and Israel. Their candid demeanor allows them to be both more trenchantly critical when discussing ethnic and cultural politics. Samir’s quest for the missing Jewish links of his childhood maps onto a more inclusive cultural terrain that extends beyond the limited Israeli frames of references; beyond the ethnocentric localism of canonical Zionist conventions to embrace the forgotten “ethnoscape,” or landscape of ethnicity, of Baghdad. Israel, from his perspective, is but one diasporaic destination, albeit an important one, for Iraqi immigrants. New York (Shohat) and Switzerland (Samir) are two others. On the cultural map of Jewish experience, Baghdad (Iraq) has long been caricatured in opposition to Israel: it is Arab, it is the enemy, it is backward, and modern Israel is moving forward. Consequently, over the last fifty years, the discourse about Iraq and Iraqis has tended to be stereotypically reductive. The canonic Jewish narrative of Babylon of antiquity of the time of the Talmud and later of the Geonim, instead is highlighted, and contemporary ethnic differences are underplayed in favor of promoting a singular common Jewish identity. This discourse conforms to the basic premise of Zionism: What Jews around the globe share in common is much more substantial than what any one group of Jews share with their neighbors in the Diaspora. In other words, a Jew from a small Russian village and a Jew from Cairo or San’a share deeper historical roots and future aspirations than they do with Russians, Egyptians, or Yemenites. The logic of this premise is being challenged now in the wake of a massive wave of Russian immigrants of “dubious Jewishness,” and by the visible presence of foreign workers from Thailand, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Forget Baghdad redefines the relationship of Israelis to Iraq by presenting Baghdad as another home(land). Home is a contested construct; it can even be regarded as the place where one can exercise the very privilege and legitimacy to remember. If the question was once “Where is the home(land)?” it is now coupled with the additional question, “What does it mean to go home?” Is it Israel, where the Law of Return, premised on the ideal of a Jewish state for the Jewish people, automatically grants every Jew the right of citizenship upon arrival? Is it Baghdad? Which Baghdad? Babylonian Baghdad? British Baghdad? Ba’athist Baghdad? The bombed out Baghdad now occupied by the US army? Or the Baghdad wistfully remembered and imagined as an intimate city with fluid boundaries among religions, nationalities, and languages?
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The collective return of Samir and his five interlocutors exposes the Baghdadi experience not as a reified category, but as an accumulated consciousness that ruptures the dominant Israeli cultural codes of rejection, intimidation, and humiliation. From this position, the hybrid, hyphenated identity of Iraqi-Jew, or Arab-Jew, is carefully crafted by the five, adding new stories to the general Jewish archive of personal narratives, along with those contributed by Polish Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and Sephardic Jews. True, a melancholic tone is threaded throughout the film, symptomatic of mourning for the past, so strikingly highlighted by the intellectual isolation of each of the speakers and his or her sense of lost community. In the 1930s and 1940s, Communism and Zionism were the two totalizing movements in which the young, educated Jewish men of Baghdad could participate (Rajwan 1985: 233–235). In an Iraqi Jewish context, Communism was largely a radical movement of enthusiastic young intellectuals who felt that they could change their world. They read Marx in English, a colonial language under the British Mandate, and at times supported anti-Nazis and anti-Arab government positions, at other times adopted an anti-colonial stance against the British. Most important for them was the notion that to be Communist was to believe in the solidarity of Jewish and Arab intellectuals striving together for a common social cause. As Sami Michael asserts, “Communism was the main ideology of the twentieth century.” And to be an intellectual in Baghdad at that time meant to be a Communist. In many ways this political affiliation amplified Iraqiness by assuming membership in an intellectual community so desperately missing in Israel. Like Zionism, Marxism also offered a manifesto of belonging, politically and intellectually, in the face of the destabilizing processes (for Jews) of panArabism and forced immigration. Ironically, in Israel of the early 1950s, Communism, which attracted members of the newly lower-class emigrants of the ma’abarah, was invested with a new edge of resistance as the young men of Iraqi ancestry organized protest marches, demonstrating for jobs and bread. Beyond their nostalgic, sentimental value, these six individual yet generalizable narratives of return have socio-political value in generating the alternative space for new modes and subjects of communication. They provide an opportunity for the speakers and viewer alike to rethink, in different languages and contexts, the histories and realities of ethnic differences, and those posed by Baghdadis (Iraqis) in particular. In many ways the film enables its participants to come out of the ethnic closets by giving an ostensibly unfiltered personal account of their experience
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as Baghdadi or Iraqi Jews in Israel, especially in the early years of the state. Being a member in both the Communist Party and the Zionist Underground warranted a secretive life and identity that implied the existence of another kind of closet to negotiate. Their story of oppression lies in the shadow of the Shoah, or The Holocaust, the dominant public discourse of Jewish victimization. The overdetermined discursive space of Israeli wars and national defense, together with the brittle political economy of ethnic identity continuously agitated by exigencies of immigration, labor needs, and religious dogmatism, diminish, disable, and trivialize the versatility and multi-dimensionality of the story of Iraqi Jews. In this context, the inclusion of Ella Shohat in the film is crucial, and not just because she represents a largely absent female—and feminist—perspective. Her postcolonial meta-narrative of Israeli ethnicity helps to place the other personal narratives within a wider context of third world politics, racism, and female experience with its specific vocabulary and language. But Shohat’s presence in the film is not limited to her status as a scholar. Some of the most evocative passages in the film are of her girlhood memories of the internalized humiliation of ethnocentric discrimination in the immigrant enclave of Petach Tikvah. It is in this film that she narrates publicly for the first time her raw and distressing experience of racism and its impact on her life and work. I have commented at length on the virtuous and power of Forget Baghdad. In conclusion, I wish to draw attention to what I perceive as an ironic oversight. In a film that seeks to recuperate the vitality of Jewish individuals of Iraqi ancestry, it is curious that the literary and academic achievements of the five interlocutors are not fully incorporated into the cinematic montage. Especially because the integrity and dynamism of the Iraqi Jewish community is at issue in this film, the exclusion of their actual literary productions is both perplexing and a missed opportunity to further inform viewers. Nor do the five interlocutors take the opportunity to incorporate their complexly textured and nuanced work into their monologues and interviews with Samir. In this connection, the case of the late Samir Naqqash is particularly relevant. As a Jewish novelist who wrote exclusively in Arabic, and who is celebrated in the Arab literary world, his work remains relatively inaccessible to Israeli and US readers. At the times Naqqash is aknowledged as an important writer, it is often without any engagement with his body of work. In the film, it is his physical body that is present in his role as Samir’s interlocutors. I would like to conclude this review of Forget Baghdad by remembering Naqqash’s literary body. Two short paragraphs from his short story “Prophesies of a Madman in
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a Cursed City,”10 are especially evocative of the way Naqqash articulated “presence” in literature as the ultimate testimony of his credo. Many tasks await me, but my only skill is in following the command and uttering “here I am” (in Arabic, the original, ha-ana-dha, in Hebrew, its intertext, hinneini). And I have nothing in my dominion but this covert mission that fills my very being, measureless and without color, but whose weightlessness already makes it like lead. And if I dare to rebel against its voice, it will transgress and put me to death—if I do not say “Here I am.” Yet, it is my most prized possession, even though people refer to it as a mental defect and even distance themselves, and utterly convinced, call it insanity. As for me, I have my tears, my flesh, and my suffering. I quickly learned that shedding tears and expressing grief are but the other face of revolution and rebellion. They are the resistance of an important madman from whom, in every syllable of the words flowing from his mouth, can be heard that here is his sole of only possession: “Here I am.”

ENDNOTES
1 2 3

Someck 2005: 40. Samir’s earlier documentary is “Babylon 2” (1993).

Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs— the Iraqi Connection, written and directed by Samir, was released on December 5, 2003. The film was produced by Samir, Karin Koch and Gerd Haad under the auspices of Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion, Zurich. For further information about the film, see http://www.forgetbaghdad.com/.

4

The city of Baghdad was founded in AD 762 by Abu Jafar al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, on the west bank of the Tigris River. The capital was surrounded by a circular wall, and became known as the “Round City.” Since then, Baghdad has been a major heterogeneous metropolis and center of scholarship, where text in Greek, Persian, Syriac, and Hindu languages into Arabic.
5

Another orchestrated occasion for remembering Baghdad was a conference in Vienna in July 2004, titled, “Re-member Baghdad,” which aimed to “re-member history, historiography and collective memory and to rethink the contribution of such a potential community to the future of the Middle East, and especially Iraq, Israel and Palestine.”
6

The subtext of the narrative of going back to Baghdad is the more common public one of going back to Europe of The Holocaust, either as a personal journey or as a collective one in the form of organized tours to concentration camps and other key sites of European Jewish life.

7 Israel Zionism recapitulated—ironically—the very social hierarchy and discourse that was used in Europe to discriminate against Jews.

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8

The US literary scholar Ammiel Alcalay traveled to Israel to interview Mizrahi writers and translate their poetry and prose into English. The fact that some of the works in his anthology have not yet been published in Hebrew is revealing (Alcalay 1983, 1993, 1996).
9

Note, for example, how different is the 53-minute documentary, “The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak,” directed by Eli Hamo and Sami Shalom Chetrit. In the film, leading activists of the Panthers, a radical Marxist group of the 1970s, describe their experience and reflect on the political significance of the movement then and its present-day ramifications. Although the film was released at the same time as “Forget Baghdad” (2003), it is framed very differently. Whereas Samir provides a filmic context enabling extended narration, Hamo and Chetrit opt for conveying a political edge, through an almost rushed urgency of delivery.
10

Translated from Arabic by Ammiel Alcalay, Joseph Halibi and Ali Jimale Ahmed (Alcalay 1996).

REFERENCES
Alcalay, Ammiel. 1993. After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. __________, ed. 1996. Keys to the Garden: Israeli Writers in the Middle East. San Francisco: City Lights Books. Ballas, Shimon. 1996. “At Home in Exile: An Interview with Shimon Ballas.” In A. Alcalay Keys to the Garden: Israeli Writers in the Middle East, pp.62-69. San Francisco: City Lights Books. __________. 2003. “The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak.” Eli Hamo & Sami Shalom Chetrit, Israel. Hess, Amira. 1993. “Hirhurim be-‘Ikvot Mot Vivi’ (Reflections following Vivi’s Death).” haMe’asef, p. 7. Naqqash, Samir. 1993. “Signs in the Great Disorder: An Interview with Samir Naqqash by Ammiel Alcalay.” In A. Alcalay Keys to the Garden: Israeli Writers in the Middle East, pp. 101-110. San Francisco: City Lights Books. __________. 1993. “Prophesies of a Madman in a Cursed City.” Ammiel Alcalay, Joseph Halibi and Ali Jimale Ahmed. trans. In A. Alcalay, Keys to the Garden: Israeli Writers in the Middle East, pp. 111-132. San Francisco: City Lights Books. Rajwan, Nissim. 1985. The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and Culture. Boulder, CO.: Westview Press. Samir. 2003. “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs—The Iraqi Connection.” A film by Samir. Germany/ Switzerland. Shohat. Ella Habiba. 1989. Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation. Austin: University of Texas Press. Someck, Ronny. 2005. The Milk Underground. Or-Yehuda: Kineret, Zmora-Bittan, Dvir. Somekh, Sasson. 2003. Bagdad ‘Etmol (Baghdad, Yesterday). Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibbutz HaMe’uchad.

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