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The hidden story of Iraqi music

October 31, 2015 at 12:32 pm

There is a moment towards the beginning of Marsha Emerman’s award-winning documentary On the Banks of the Tigris in which the protagonist and co-collaborator of the film Majid Shokor asks Naji Cohen, an elderly Iraqi Jewish man living in exile in Australia, what he feels when he looks at his violin. The violin lies on the table in front of him, its gleaming mahogany surface reflecting his lined features. Cohen’s smile vanishes from his lips, his eyes downcast, and he descends into silence before looking away from the camera, tears in his eyes. Silently, he gently places the violin back into its case and closes the lid with a resounding snap.

“I lost my life,” he says, tapping the violin case. “This is part of my life. And I lost it. We lost our identity.”

It is an intimate and moving scene, and a fitting introduction to the film itself, which sets out to tell the little-remembered story of Iraqi music’s Jewish past. Cohen, like many Iraqi Jews of his generation, grew up in a thriving and cosmopolitan post-independence Iraq, an era that witnessed the cultural flourishing of Iraqi music, literature and culture; and nowhere more so than in Baghdad, the heart of the Iraqi nation and the ancestral home of a significant and well-regarded Jewish community. As well as boasting a rich 2,500-year-old history in the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, in the early 20th century the Jews of Iraq became prominent amongst the most influential and popular musicians of the time, with many contemporary household Jewish names such as Saleh Al-Kuwaity and Salima Mourad Pasha. In the 1940s, however, and particularly following the creation of Israel in 1948, the golden era of Iraqi Jews was brought to an abrupt and occasionally violent end. With public opinion turning against them, including several instances of riots and lootings against Jews and their property, and a number of social and political incentives provided by the new state of Israel, Iraqi Jews fled the country in unprecedented numbers, and by 1951 a mere 15,000 remained of a population of more than 121,000.

But Iraqi Jews weren’t just physically exiled from Iraq. Following the rise of the Ba’ath Party throughout the latter part of the 20th century, and especially under the totalitarian control of Saddam Hussein, the history of Jews in Iraq was gradually and efficiently wiped clean from the nation’s collective memory.

“I read an article in an Arabic newspaper and I found out that a lot of these songs I grew up with were written by these old Iraqi Jewish musicians,” says Shokor in the film. “I didn’t know anything about Jewish musicians in Iraq. I didn’t even know there were Jewish people living there.”

Thus begins Shokor’s journey to explore the history of Jewish influence on Iraqi music, one that takes him from his suburban home in Melbourne, Australia (where he and his family found asylum after fleeing Iraq in 1995), via Israel (to meet exiled Jewish Iraqis) and eventually culminating in London, where he and his new friends put on a concert celebrating the Jewish heritage of Iraq via the medium of music.

In this sense at least, the film follows a rather predictable and even somewhat clichéd storyline, but nevertheless brings to light some significant narratives about the role of Jews in Iraq and serves as an important corrective to the censored Ba’athist version of Iraqi history that generations of Iraqis have had to endure. What makes the subject of this film so captivating, as attested to by its numerous awards and prizes, most recently winning Best Documentary at the Baghdad International Film Festival, is the enduring significance of its material, especially with regards to the chronic lack of education in Iraq itself regarding the country’s history. Many Iraqis, although they know the tunes and lyrics to the songs, have no idea they were originally composed by Jews or political dissidents who were later simply written out of the sanctioned state narrative.

Where the film shines is in its nuanced and humane portrayal of the Iraqi Jews themselves, the vast majority now elderly, living in exile in Israel and around the world, unable to ever return to their lost homeland but their eyes full of nostalgia for the golden days of the 1920s and 30s. Naji Cohen crying silently over his violin in suburban Australia; a group of Iraqi Jews who meet weekly in Israel to play music together as they once did; Yair Dalal, a second-generation Israeli of Iraqi origin, teaching a group of mixed Ashkenazim and Mizrahim students how to play the Iraqi maqaam; these are portraits that linger in the mind of the audience, evocative in their subtlety and execution. What remains, too, is the evocative power of music to bring people together across generational, linguistic, cultural and even sectarian divides; to unite people against all odds and against all voices of criticism or dissent.

But it is the Iraqi Jews who also harbour the saddest elements of the film, both in the older generation’s continual longing and sense of loss for the Iraq of their memories and in the younger generation’s eschewal of their Iraqi roots to embrace their Israeli reality. The Israeli-born son of Saleh Al-Kuwaity, possibly the greatest Iraqi singer and composer of his time, for example, doesn’t speak a word of Arabic. Neither does Yair Dalal, who despite his passion for Iraqi music and desire to transmit such music to the younger generation, nevertheless intones in a heavy Israeli accent that “it is so nice to have Jews and Arabs playing music together”; simultaneously parroting Israeli state propaganda as if the terms “Jew” and “Arab” both designated equally discrete racial categories and denying his own (Iraqi) Arab background.

Equally, the film’s sole focus on the Jewish element of early-20th century Iraqi music serves to inadvertently sideline some equally significant musicians of the time who just so happened not to be Jewish. Salima Mourad’s husband, for example, the acclaimed maqaam singer Natham Al-Ghazali, was Muslim, as was one of Saleh Al-Kuwaity’s lovers and the girl for whom he wrote some of his most famous songs. The film also claims the Iraqi song Foug Al-Nakhal (“Above the Date Palm”) was written by Saleh Al-Kuwaity, when in fact it existed long before Saleh came on the scene and was more of a folk song which he on occasion performed. In this way, in its quest to tell the story of Jewish Iraqis the film unfortunately overlooks the sheer diversity and cosmopolitanism of Baghdad during that era, as well as occasionally elevating the role of Jewish Iraqis in the cultural production of the time. For the Western audience uninitiated in the intricacies of Iraqi music and history, however (towards whom this film seems undoubtedly to be geared), On the Banks of the Tigris provides a moving and intimately human portrait of the lost story of Iraqi music, and for this alone it should be applauded.