LONDON - “Who is even going to believe there were Jews in Iraq? Baghdad was the centre of the Jewish world for over 1,500 years. I can no longer carry on living as if nothing has happened.” These powerful, haunting words from north Londoner Edwin Shuker begin the documentary “Remember Baghdad: Iraq’s last Jews tell the story of their country.”
Shuker decided to return to the country he loves. Filmmaker Fiona Murphy documented his journey to Baghdad, his visit to the family home and the synagogue where he once worshipped. Shuker bought a house in Erbil so he could say the Jews have not all gone. He wanted to plant a seed of hope for the future.
“Maybe in 30, 40, 50, 60 years’ time Jews will reconnect with their birthplace. Iraq is in our bones,” Shuker said as he opened the door to his new residence.
The realities suggest Shuker’s dream could one day come true. Iraq’s new emerging leader, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said he would welcome back Jews who were expelled from Iraq decades ago.
Asked by one of his followers if Jews, who were forced out of the country due to the discriminatory policies of past regimes, could return under his leadership, al-Sadr responded in the affirmative. “If their loyalty was to Iraq, they are welcome,” he said, adding that Jews who wanted to return to the country could receive full citizenship rights.
Murphy’s insightful documentary traces the history of Jews in Iraq. The focus is the 20th century and the experiences of several families. The story is told through vivid home movies, news footage and interviews, which provide a penetrating flash of insight into the lives of Iraqi Jews during both the good and bad times. The characters tell their stories with poignant regret and bitter clarity.
The Dallals imported tyres, the Khalastchis sold cars, the Shamashes were property developers and politicians and the Dangoors imported Coca-Cola — all working in partnerships with Muslims.
“Jews, Muslims and Christians, we were all Iraqis. It was a good time. I still miss Baghdad,” said Eileen Khalastchi. She was among the last few hundred Jews to flee Baghdad in 1974, leaving just 280 behind. She had seen the country through British rule, independence, revolutions, war with Israel and persecution under the Ba’ath Party.
As a child, Khalastchi’s life in Baghdad was idyllic. She said she misses it still and stayed in Iraq as long as she could.
The first sign of change was when the grand mufti of Jerusalem moved into the house next door to her home. In 1941 she was too young to understand the reason for the sudden acid attack on her on the riverbank of the Tigris, that the politics of Palestine/Israel and the influence of the Nazis were behind the frightening change of atmosphere in Baghdad. However, anger over the British reconquest of Iraq and the partition of Palestine was building and it led to violent attacks against the Jews in Baghdad.
Khalastchi and her family ignored all opportunities to leave until it was almost too late. By the late 1960s, their lives were in danger, their passports withdrawn and two or three families were escaping every week. Nevertheless, today she remembers the good times, always smiling. She does not want to return to Baghdad. “I want to remember it as it was,” she says.
“The families I filmed were ordinary but lived through an epic in their kitchens and living rooms, making life-and-death decisions before school in the morning,” Murphy said in a statement on the documentary’s website. “I hope people who watch the film will identify with them and recognise ethnic hatred for what it is and see that it is still with us.”
Murphy was offered a job cataloguing an extraordinary archive of early home movies belonging to an Iraqi-Jewish family. “Bit by bit, I was also drawn into the turbulent history of Iraq before Saddam Hussein, infinitely more complex than I knew, and for which Britain and the US bear much of the responsibility,” she said.
“I learned that the Jews once made up a third of the population of Baghdad. They spoke to me of idyllic times, picnics by the Tigris, fancy dress parties and beauty pageants. It was difficult at first to reconcile it all with the brutal place Iraq has become today. I wanted to know, step by step, how this happened.”
“Their story opens onto everything that happened in the Middle East between the first world war and the Cold War 50 years later,” she said. “A mosaic emerged telling the story of a nation under intense pressure, descending into darkness. I was surprised by the light moments and unexpected paradoxes: the Arab friends and business partners, the ambivalence about Israel, the genuine affection for home. I pushed on and ended up going to Iraq at the peak of the ISIS insurgency with a man [Shuker] determined to rekindle the Jewish presence by returning to buy a home there himself.”
Karen Dabrowska is an Arab Weekly contributor in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.