Jewish nostalgia for Baghdad

A new film tells the volatile story of Iraq's Jews.

Baghdad in the 1950s (photo credit: COURTESY ‘REMEMBER BAGHDAD’)
Baghdad in the 1950s
WHY ON earth would anyone, let alone a Jew, want to return to war-mangled Iraq, let alone buy a house there? The Jerusalem Report put this question to Edwin Shuker, who did precisely this.
Shuker, one of the stars of the recently released film, “Remember Baghdad,” is aware that he is on a mission to make the world aware of not only his own history, but also that of the Jews of Iraq. “The Jews of Iraq had been around for 2,600 years – that is something to celebrate,” he says.
“In 2003, I gave a talk in London about the Jews of Baghdad and Iraq. At the end of the talk, a journalist came up to me and said that he did not know that there had been Jews in Iraq. That sentence changed my life! I thought to myself that if we wipe out the physical landmarks of the community, it will be far more difficult to trace the community’s history. In my own lifetime, I saw the glory of Baghdad, so I’m not prepared to write off my history. Even if it means buying a home to gain credibility to tell my story.”
With fellow ex-Baghdad Jew, David Dangoor, who commissioned the documentary film, Shuker was interviewed by the BBC four times after the film was shown in London.
“They asked me the same question: ‘Why choose a house in Iraq?’” He answered the question with another question: “If I didn’t buy a house in Iraq, would you have interviewed me?” DANGOOR, A retired businessman whose main activity these days is philanthropy, also kept an archive of hundreds of photographs of his family under the varying regimes that ruled in Iraq. These became the basis of the story that the film tells.
“Remember Baghdad” portrays the volatile history of modern Iraq as the backdrop to the life of the Jewish population, specifically that of Baghdad. The biggest concentration of Jews in Iraq was in Baghdad. At its peak, at the turn of the 20th century, the Jews constituted 40 percent of the population of the city. However, Jews were also to be found in every corner of Iraq; in Kurdistan, from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north. Altogether, they numbered some 140,000. There were many synagogues and Jewish streets. The Jews were a genuine, indigenous part of the population.
“They were there 1,200 years before the Arabs even thought of coming there,” says Shuker.
Early on, the film shows the Jews mingling with the upper echelons of Iraqi society. In one scene, the Jews have been invited to a New Year’s Eve party in 1947, in which Dangoor’s mother is chosen as Miss Baghdad. A sash is bestowed on her by no less than the crown prince.
Yet even in those early days, dangers lurked for the Jews. In 1917, the British colonized Iraq and appointed a king (from Saudi Arabia). The British Mandate officially ended in 1932, but they kept their interests there (i.e., oil).
In 1939, the Nazis became more influential, spelling danger for the Jewish community.
The Iraqi-born Israeli writer, Eli Amir, witnessed a Muslim riot in the Jewish Quarter in which 180 Jews were murdered and nearly 2,000 injured. The British reasserted themselves and, in 1941, the Dangoors bought the house previously owned by the Nazi collaborator, Amir Hussein, who had fled to Berlin. The rich class stayed but, as Dangoor observes, “Wishful thinking blurs the truth.”
The less well-off plotted their escape to Palestine in secret. Ben-Gurion was very interested in bringing 100,000 of them to Palestine. “Don’t argue, just bring them,” he said.
After the establishment of Israel in 1948, things became decidedly worse for Iraqi Jews as government-sponsored persecutions began, but the Jews were allowed to leave. In 1951, 120,000 of them were flown to Israel, albeit sans their money and properties, which had been confiscated.
Their reception in “The Promised Land,” however, was less than welcoming, recalls Amir. “They considered us Arab Jews. Most were penniless and they assumed that we were without culture.”
Yet despite the persecutions, there were those who stayed, including the Dangoors and the family of David Shamash, whose father became a member of parliament (though, as he says, it was a one-party government).
These well-off Jews mixed well with the rich and flourished economically.
IN 1956, Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, generating a feeling of Arab pride and nationalism across the region. Two years later, Abdul Kassem, a communist, declared Iraq a republic and took over in a bloody coup. King Faisal and his family were gunned down, and the prime minister’s body was dragged through the streets of the capital and his mutilated body hung in public. At that point, the Dangoors decided that enough was enough and the following year escaped, first to Lebanon and then to England.
Another revolution in 1963 saw Kassem removed by the Ba’ath Party (with the help of the CIA). Yet there were still 2,000 Jews in Baghdad. It was only when the Six Day War erupted that everything changed for the worse. Looking for a scapegoat for the spectacular Arab defeat in the war, the Jews of Iraq were marked as a fifth column. Although many Muslims did help the Jews, the writing was on the wall. In 1969, the Ba’athists, led by Saddam Hussein, held a festival in response to the ’67 war. By now, many Jews had “disappeared” or been accused of spying. The public hanging of Jews was an excuse for celebration. The pressure on the Jews was intense and they realized that their choices were limited to escape or death.
Shuker and his family escaped in 1971, first to the friendly part of Iraq in Kurdistan, and then to Europe. Members of Dangoor’s family left in 1974, though they, too, lost their property and their nationality.
With the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, the situation changed again. Though the Jews were no longer there, old prejudices were slow to disappear. Today, for example, some 2,500 websites show Iraq emerging from its troubled recent history.
As Dangoor notes, his mother’s photograph winning the Miss Baghdad award is prominently displayed on a large number of these websites, expressing the Iraqi nostalgia for a time when Iraq was a cosmopolitan center for all creeds.
But, as Amir says, “Of course, I have a longing for Baghdad, but it’s not a place to go to.” Dangoor’s aunt expresses a similar longing but finds, “It is better to remember Baghdad as it was.”
Shuker remembers the first 16 years of his life with great fondness. But he also remembers the increase in restrictions as the changing regimes became more anti-Jewish and more anti-Zionist. At one point, he recalls they made Jews carry yellow identity cards.
“From 1963 to 1971, we were hostages,” he says. “Unless you knew someone, you could not leave the country, while those who stayed could not work. Toward the ’67 war, life really became hell. Every single day was worse than the day before.
The threat of public hangings, which began in 1969, was with us every day. We had to wait to the end of the day to be sure that our father hadn’t been arrested. We were in prison. They even took away our telephones as a means of communicating with each other.”
Hahkham Ezra Dangoor with his family in Baghdad in 1910 (credit: Courtest "Remember Baghdad")Hahkham Ezra Dangoor with his family in Baghdad in 1910 (credit: Courtest "Remember Baghdad")
But not all is doom and gloom. Both Shuker and Dangoor note a major change in the Arab world.
“The mindset of the Arab street has changed dramatically in the past few years,” says Shuker. “This is happening all over – in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The man in the street thinks, ‘In the ’40s and ’50s, we were the pride of the world. Cairo, Beirut, etc. were the centers of entertainment, of business, etc. What happened to change this and how can we reverse this trend? We have to ask for forgiveness and ask the Jews back. Perhaps God is taking revenge on us for our mistreatment of Jews.’ “This is a genuine movement. It’s spreading through the social media and therefore out of the control of the governments. Israel could exploit it if it wanted!” Shuker found further proof of this shift in the response to his film. “When we showed it in London, the Iraqi Embassy sent three representatives to see it. That would not have happened three or four years ago.
Moreover, I was invited to the ambassador’s house for a private party!”
DANGOOR ATTRIBUTES the Jewish nostalgia for Iraq to its strong sense of community.
“In England, I went to Carmel College. When I went back to visit, the school was still there, the buildings were the same, but it was not the same place. Why I say that is because in Iraq we had a very strong community – that’s the reason for the longing. This is what the Iraqis miss – not Iraq so much as the strong community, of gathering together,” he explains.
“Every festival had its own customs that bound us to each other. Even though they might have lost their strong belief, they kept the solidarity. We were tied to each other by marriage and because we had large families there was a large network of connections.
Baghdad Jews married inside the community.
If you married outside the city, it was considered as if you’d married out! When I see my friends in England I notice that we measure our friendship in years. But in Iraq you measured it in generations,” he says.
“I funded the film,” continues Dangoor.
“Our family has this Jewish idea of keeping a record of its history. My father had a magazine for Iraqi Jews that went around the world for 35 years. It was their main link to their community.
“I commissioned an earlier film about our volleyball players. I played for 20 years and thought it appropriate to tell the story of the players – each of them from Baghdad. So, when I read an article by [filmmaker] Fiona Murphy, I contacted her and showed her my archives of hundreds of photographs and she said, ‘The volleyball game is a good start,’ and so she made a film of the volleyball players of Baghdad. People who saw it said they wanted to hear and see more. Fiona, too, felt that there was something much bigger in the story of the Baghdad Jews, so she went to Baghdad to see for herself.”
Dangoor also thinks there is a renewed interest in this subject. “A couple of weeks ago, we showed the film at the British Academy in London – definitely not a Jewish audience. Iraqi Muslims and British people attended. The deputy ambassador of Iraq spoke and said that this is a time when extremism in Iraq is diminishing and a time for the Jews to re-engage with their old community; that it is time for Jews to return and visit their old places.
“THE IRAQIS are trying to restore their Jewish heritage and they asked us what they can do to help. I told them that they could help restore the Jewish archives and documents that were flooded during the bombing, and return them to the Jewish community.
There are also holy sites, for example, the tombs of Ezra the Scribe, Ezekiel the Prophet, Jonah and Joshua the High Priest.
These are venerated both by the Jews and the Muslims, but all the signs that they are Jewish have been removed. These could easily be restored and their Jewish character emphasized. And, finally, they could liberate some of the Jewish assets that were seized illegally during the years of oppression,” he says.
It is not only the Jews who are nostalgic.
According to Dangoor, many of the educated Iraqis loved the multi-cultured ambience of old-time Baghdad. “The music, by the way, was all Jewish,” he says. “The musicians stayed until the end and recorded their repertoire. It was then played but never attributed to the Jews. Then about eight years ago, an Iraqi Muslim in Australia did some research on the music of Iraq and found that it was all created and played by Jews; so in 2012, he made a film of a famous exiled Iraqi woman singer, Farida Muhammad Ali, performing with the Israeli musician Yair Dalal in London. The performance is part of the film ‘On the Banks of the Tigris,’ and won first prize in an Iraqi song competition.”
Murphy, who made the film, has an interesting story of her own in that her mother married a man from Barbados and disowned her Jewishness. Indeed, Murphy did not know of her Jewish roots until she was a teenager.
“When I saw David Dangoor’s archives it immediately clicked,” recalls Murphy.
“They reminded me of photographs of my mother. It was so similar. These were narratives of communities that would vanish, so I was attracted by the story. I also felt guilty because I knew nothing about being Jewish.”
Murphy became obsessed with the stories of the Jews of Baghdad. “This was 2,600 years of history. I thought it was unfortunate that no one had told the story artistically.
People vaguely knew about it, but they never connected Nebuhadnezar and the 20th century. The picture we have in our minds is that the story of Iraq started with Saddam Hussein. But it was the build-up that I thought was interesting,” she says.
Her viewpoint necessarily took in the political and religious dimension of the community. One of the scenes she cut from her film was of the Iraqi chief rabbi, who opposed Zionism. For him, the Jews of Iraq were responsible for the Babylonian Talmud. What greater reason for Jews being present in the country? She also came across strong evidence that the Jewish Agency planted bombs in Iraq to scare the Jews into coming to Israel.
“Remember Baghdad” will be screened on January 12 at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. It focuses on a scandalously neglected community, both inside Israel and beyond, yet with the help of the film, this scattered community can serve as a symbol of tremendous creativity and courage. Or, as Dangoor says, “We are part and parcel of world Jewry.”