Remember Baghdad

I haven’t been to the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford for years, not since it was called the Penultimate Picture Palace. Its re-naming conjures up a shuffling line of picture palaces, like heirs to the throne, which all shimmy up a place in the queue when one ahead of them closes. I wonder if there’s now a cinema somewhere in Bridport, or Thurso or Dunstable which has been promoted from Antepenultimate to Penultimate Picture Palace? Anyway, what I obstinately remember as the PPP is still enchanting after more than four decades.

Last night it was showing a film called Remember Baghdad. I went with a friend who was born in Baghdad a couple of years after I was born in London, and who left Iraq precipitately in 1974. He, like the Baghdad which the film eloquently remembers, is Jewish, and many of those who appeared in it were his classmates, acquaintances or family friends. The film is a threnody for a lost city, and a lost slice of quintessential Iraqi culture – Jewish Baghdad. It is structured around a series of often moving interviews with men and women who were young when the long, drawn-out crisis of Iraqi Jewry struck over the years 1948-74. One man, Edwin Shuker, provides a narrative spine with his decision to revisit modern Baghdad and to buy a house in Arbil, to re-establish a broken connection between Iraq and its Jews. The camera follows him through Baghdad streets to find his childhood home, battered and chained up, the garden now a corrugated iron warehouse, and the synagogue where his family prayed. “We are part and parcel of Iraq,” he says, “and I will not let go.”

Most of the Jewish families in the film are wealthy industrialists and merchants, race-goers, card-players and party-givers. The Iraq of Faisal I was “a paradise, created by the British,” a moment of opportunity for the enterprising capitalist, however small, who spoke English and had initiative. Not only were religious differences largely pushed into the background – “Iraqis first, Jews, Muslims and Christians second” as the king put it –  but minorities, untainted by Arab nationalism, were given unprecedented confidence and opportunity by the colonial regime. As in so many countries, this had long-term implications, with Jews in particular, well-educated and multi-lingual, seen as benefitting unduly from British favouritism. Life was good, as the film stresses repeatedly, for the Jewish haute bourgeoisie, and even as the skies darkened, they were reluctant to leave. “We were like a gambler on a roll,” says one, “not wanting to leave while the going was good,” and staying too long. Under Abdel-Karim Qasim (1958-63) there was another Indian Summer of joi de vivre and prosperity, “the best five years of our lives,” though beneath the surface there were rumbling threats and the frightful personal violence of the Revolution was a bad augury.  All this seems bizarrely nonsensical to relate, as though Iraq’s Jews, who had been there a thousand years when Baghdad saw its first Muslim, were on suffrance. Bizarre and nonsensical, but true.

The foundation of the state of Israel began the process of undermining Jewish life in Baghdad. Avi Shlaim, born in Baghdad in 1945, talking with Eugene Rogan after the film, was unequivocal: Iraqi Jews were not for the most part Zionists – “Zionism was an Ashkenazi thing. It had nothing to do with us” – and felt, as they were, Iraqi: Arab Jews. But events in Palestine primed and ignited the motor of malice. Anti-semitism came to Iraq between the wars, borne by Germans like Ambassador Fritz Grobba, who translated Mein Kampf into Arabic, and by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. Iraqi nationalism acquired a poisonous anti-Jewish, as well as an anti-British, character. It found its first dreadful expression in the Farhud of 1941 when British troops, having seen off the pro-Axis Golden Square rebels under Rashid Ali al-Gailani, camped, sitting on their hands for two days on the edge of Baghdad, while the city’s Jews were attacked and many killed, by vengeful fellow-Iraqis.

But still most Jews stayed, though they were free to leave. In fact, as Shlaim told the audience, their obstinate failure to leave caused deep frustration in Israel where Ben Gurion was in desperate search of a population. By 1951 only about 6,000 had left of the 150,000 or so Jews in Iraq. Then, suddenly, the log-jam was broken by a series of bombs in synagogues and Jewish department stores, designed to terrify Baghdad’s Jews, as they did. Shlaim, the historian who has investigated these cataclysmic bombings, has found the Mossad files on Iraq in 1950-51 still sealed, long after their normal declassification date, and he is quite clear: “I know the answer. The Mossad was responsible for all five bombs.” And he went on: “Israel was responsible for terminating a Jewish community that had lived happily in Iraq for two and a half millennia.” Suddenly, driven by a new fear, terrorised Iraqi Jews began to emigrate across an ‘air bridge’ that flew 120,000 of them to Israel, leaving fewer than 10,000 in Baghdad. Baghdadi Jews were hanged for the bombings (“The Jews were framed”). In Israel the ‘Arab Jews’ became second-class citizens, looked down on for their Arabic language and culture, often miserably parked in tents, political cannon-fodder.

The next big dip came with the 1967 Six Day War, and the Ba’thist coup of the following year. Suddenly, Jews were spies, and “our language was the language of the enemy.” Telephones were removed arbitrarily from their houses, they were denied passports and they began to be reticent about their identity; though the film is emphatic about the loyalty of individual Muslim friends and neighbours and the many acts of bravery. Saddam Hussein, Vice-President, celebrated the 1968 Revolution with show trials and hangings of 14 ‘spies,’ 9 of them Jews, in Tahrir Square – scenes of appalling barbarity, enacted before festive crowds of half a million people.

There followed the most difficult period of all for Baghdad’s remaining Jews, living normally enough, but under threat, and gradually slipping away in secret, without notice even to the closest friends. One interviewee explained that half a torn dinar note would be left behind, and the other half sent back to reassure friends and family discreetly that the emigrés had arrived safely at their destination. They left clandestinely, on horseback or Landrover across the border with Iran, Turkey or Syria, a torn dinar in their pockets and their homes left clean and untouched, testimony that they were going to return from their fictitious holidays in Kurdistan. Numbers dwindled. In 1974 passports suddenly became available again to Jews, and the last exodus took place. My friend was sent out of the country alone, and over a short period many more left. By the mid-seventies there were very, very few Jews left in Baghdad; and by the time I lived there in the late 1980s, there were perhaps fewer than a dozen. They included my friend’s parents, who were in Baghdad when I lived there in 1988-90, but it was not safe for them to be visited by a foreigner, and I never met them.

This is not just a terrible story, but a surreal story too. There is a shot in the film of a plaque set in the street wall of a nondescript commercial building recording it as having belonged to Cohen Brothers (as it were – I forget the actual name), a reminder that much of the built environment, as well as the city’s history, is thickly Jewish, still faintly but substantially visible if one knows to look, like the Penultimate Picture Palace. My mind went back to China Miéville’s novel, The City and the City (the fine book, not the recent unhappy BBC adaptation), with its two cities co-existing in the same physical space but learning to ignore, to “un-see”, each other so that each can continue a more or less serene existence of its own, untroubled by the existence of its doppelganger. Jewish Baghdad is “unseen,” though it intrudes from time to time. Houses still stand, however decrepit – Ahmed Saadawi refers to “the Jewish house” as a character in his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, though its owners have long gone and its Jewishness is just a habit of speech – “it had probably been built by Iraqi Jews, since it was in the style they favoured: an inner courtyard surrounded by several rooms on two floors …”. What a film like Remember Baghdad, and a grand gesture like Shuker’s, achieve is to reclaim visibility, to begin to re-apply a layer of consciousness to a city that most Iraqis today have only known without its Jews.

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, I toured by motorbike in the Nile delta for a week or two with a friend who was also, as it happened, Jewish. His London family were very worried about the risks of his visiting an Arab country, but he came, if a little nervously. On our first night out of Cairo we stopped in a small town and found a hotel. We checked in, and he wrote his name, as I had taught him, in Arabic script. The hotel clerk looked at it, quizzically. “Ah,” he said, “Cohen! That’s a good Egyptian name we haven’t seen round here for a few years.” We must hope that what Edwin Shuker is doing is to remind Iraq, however tentatively, that there are good Iraqi names missing from the roll. There is, after all, as Shuker put it, “always a distant bell ringing in the back of our heads, reminding us where we come from.”


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