“Arab,” “Jew,” and Identity in Israel – By Samuel Thrope

Samuel Thrope on Shadow in Baghdad

Shadow in Baghdad – Trailer from Zygote Films on Vimeo.

In 1946, Baghdad was a Jewish town. Jews accounted for a quarter of the city’s population — as much as New York City in its Jewish heyday —  and the members of this millennia-old community were thriving.

Many of Baghdad’s Jews enjoyed a comfortably secular and middle class life, with some even numbered among the city’s wealthy elite. Jews were active politically and culturally, and Jewish schools and communal institutions were strong. So much so that Sasson Somekh’s 2007 memoir of his Iraqi Jewish youth, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, describes the 1930s and 1940s as a golden age. Despite the trauma of the anti-Jewish riots, known as the Farhud, that swept Baghdad for two days in June of 1941, Somekh recalls languid summer days spent sunning on the Tigris river; mixed, well-to-do neighborhoods of Jews, Christians, and Muslims; and meetings with famous Arabic poets in the city’s literary cafes.

By 1951, 90 percent of Baghdad’s Jews, Somekh and his family among them, had fled. Following the United Nations’ decision to partition Palestine in 1947, and the 1948 war that secured Israel’s independence, Iraq began to restrict the rights of her Jewish citizens. The government dismissed Jews from their positions in the civil service and imposed quotas on entry to the universities. Bombings targeted synagogues, and increasing numbers were arrested, and some executed, on charges of Zionist conspiracy. Then, in 1950, the Iraqi parliament passed the Citizenship Waiver Law, which permitted Jews to emigrate on one condition: they relinquish their Iraqi citizenship, and, in an addendum passed a few months later, all their assets.

Israeli journalist Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz was born in Baghdad in 1950, just as the majority of the Jewish community — but not her family — was preparing to flee. The story of her Iraqi Jewish youth, told in director Duki Dror’s captivating and surprising new documentary film, Shadow in Baghdad, is a far cry from Somekh’s lyrical ode to paradise lost. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1972, Menuhin Abdul Aziz’s father, Yaakov Abdul Aziz, was abducted by government agents from a Baghdad street, never to be heard from again. Shadow in Baghdad follows her attempt to uncover her father’s fate. Despite their differences in tone, the two works share an unspoken question: What does it mean to be an Arab Jew in Israel today?

Ezekiel's Tomb at Kifel
Ezekiel’s Tomb at Kifel – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Shadow in Baghdad opens in a car at night, driving through Jordan towards the Israeli border. Menuhin Abdul Aziz, who publishes widely in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, had gone to Jordan to vote in, and report on, Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections, the first that were open to Iraqi citizens living abroad. However, when she presented her Israeli ID along with her Iraqi documents, she was instead detained at the polling place by Iraqi security. It was only hours later that the Jordanian police secured her release. “I went there to vote,” the film shows her, exhausted, writing on her Arabic language blog as she is driven back to her home in Jerusalem, “but also for my father, who never had a chance to vote.”

In response to this post, Menuhin Abdul Aziz was contacted by an Iraqi journalist who requested to interview her about the story of her father’s disappearance. Though she was skeptical at first — and her family even more so — this initial conversation led to others, and over the course of months of contact over the internet, the two writers developed a deep connection. One of the unexpected pleasures of Shadow in Baghdad is that Dror succeeds in capturing the intensity of this connection, despite the fact that Skype calls and Facebook chats do not naturally make for thrilling cinema.

In their conversations, the Iraqi journalist, whose face and voice are disguised in order to protect his identity, pushes Menuhin Abdul Aziz to return to memories that she had let languish. She tells him the story of the family’s house in Baghdad, her father’s law practice, and her own studies at the university. In the wake of even harsher restrictions and attacks on Jews in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and the Baath Party’s takeover a year later, the family’s home was seized, Jews’ civil rights were revoked, and universities were closed to Jewish students. In the most gruesome episode, fourteen alleged Israeli spies, nine of whom were Jews, were publicly hanged in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in 1969 before a crowd of hundreds of thousands. It was at that moment that Menuhin Abdul Aziz decided to leave Iraq. “After the horrors of Tahrir Square,” she says, “I only wanted one thing: that Baghdad will burn after we escape.”

Menuhin Abdul Aziz did escape to Israel with her brother later that same year, and her mother and sister soon followed. However, despite the danger, her father chose to remain behind; it is only due to her conversations with the Iraqi journalist that she begins to wonder why. Menuhin Abdul Aziz seeks out her father’s acquaintances now living in Israel, and rereads his old letters, full of codes designed to evade the censors. The Iraqi journalist himself becomes, over the course of the film, an active participant in this quest. At great personal risk, he places an advertisement in Iraqi newspapers asking for information about the disappearance and, in the film’s most unexpected scenes, takes a camera to the family’s old neighborhood, interviewing shopkeepers and looking for clues.

Shadow in Baghdad never definitively uncovers Jacob Abdul Aziz’s motivation for staying in Baghdad: perhaps he wanted to arrange a dowry for his daughter, perhaps to aid others in the Jewish community, or simply because he optimistically believed that Saddam’s rule would soon pass.

But this uncertainty is beside the point. The more profound story of this film is the relationship between Menuhin Abdul Aziz and her Iraqi interlocutor. Both Arab (and Arabic) writers, both Iraqis, they cling to each other as the missing piece of their own truncated identities: for one, the Jews who were an integral part of Iraqi society, and for the other, the country and culture that she has lost.

It is on this point that Shadow in Baghdad most significantly departs from Sasson Somekh’s account of his Iraqi past and Israeli present. In Baghdad, Yesterday and the companion volume, Life after Baghdad: An Arab-Jew in Israel 1950-2000, Somekh presents his Arab-Jewish identity as if there is no conflict between its two components. He can be — and depicts a society where it is possible to be — an Arab poet just as easily as a Hebrew philologist, a friend of Egyptian novelist Nagib Mahfouz and Hebrew poet Alexander Penn, a frequent traveler between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Perhaps for Somekh this is how it was, and is. But Shadow in Baghdad paints a more conflicted picture. Not only does Menuhin Abdul Aziz lay bare the contradictions in her own “handicapped identity,” but the film also sets her story against the backdrop of contemporary Israeli society, which, since the state’s founding, has increasingly turned the concepts “Arab” and “Jew” into fundamental and irreconcilable opposites.

In Israel, the particular local (e.g., Baghdadi) and national (Iraqi) identities of Arabic-speaking Jews and their descendants have been subsumed under the concept Mizrahi — the Easterner, a catch-all identity that also encompasses Jewish immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, Iran, and points further east — and are contrasted with the identity reserved for Jews of European origins, Ashkenazi. A real history of discrimination by Ashkenazim against Mizrahim lies behind the formation of these concepts. But Mizrahi identity also serves to separate Arabic-speaking Jews from Arabic-speaking Palestinians, and from their own recent histories: to rend impossible the very kind of contemporary Arab-Jewish identity that Somekh and Menuhin Abdul-Aziz represent.

More and more, these designations are becoming cultural stereotypes disconnected from ethnic origin. According to a recent anthropological study of Israeli high school students, teenagers feel free, regardless of their background, to choose to be crass Mizrahim or bookish Ashkenazim (as the stereotypes go). This is not to say that Ashkenazi and Mizrahi do not have political, economic, and especially cultural substance. They do — but disconnected from the communities in East or West where the parents and grandparents of today’s Jewish Israelis once lived.

“Everyone knows that I’m Iraqi,” Menuhin Abdul Aziz’s daughter Shir says in one of the film’s most quietly powerful scenes. But in her very next breath, Shir confesses her embarrassment at the Arabic music that would play at family parties when she was young, and at her friends’ pointed question: “What, do you have Arabs in your house?” Watching, we have to wonder, and Shadow in Baghdad certainly intends us to: What remains of Menuhin Abdul Aziz’s rooted, rich, and defiant Arab-Jewish identity for this young Israeli woman?

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