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December 7, 2014

 

WHEN IRAQ’S JEWS WERE FORCED OUT

A Film That Dramatizes Their Exile
 

by Myriam Miedzian

Reviewed in this essay: The Dove Flyer, directed by Nissim Dayan. Written by Nissim Dayan & Eli Amir. United King Films, 2013, 108 minutes.

THE DOVE FLYER, aka Farewell Baghdad, was shown at the November 2014 Other Israel Film Festival at the JCC of the Upper West Side in New York. Directed by Nissim Dayan, the film is based on a recently translated 1992 novel of the same title by Eli Amir, an Israeli of Iraqi origin. In 2015, it will be shown nationwide at film festivals from Broward County to San Diego.

The film tells the story of the 1950-51 exile of Iraqi Jews, many of whose families had lived in Iraq for 2,500 years. It is done entirely in the Jewish-Arabic dialect spoken in Baghdad (with English subtitles). The Israeli actors of Iraqi Jewish origin who star in the film had to memorize lines in a language they were familiar with — they had heard Arabic in their parents or grandparents homes — but did not speak.

The film came out in Israel in 2013 and has been a major hit. It is centered on the solidly middle-class  family of Naima and Salman and their older son Kabi, a high school student (he looks more like a college student) who plays a central role in the film. Salman is a tailor who owns a successful clothing store. All of the family are deeply pained at the thought of having to leave their homeland — of all the Jews living in Muslim countries, the Iraqis were the most deeply imbedded in Arab society. Culturally and politically integrated, they viewed themselves as Jewish Arabs. But Naima is the most adamant — she will not leave her homeland, she asserts; she cannot abide the notion of seventy generations “gone with the wind!” But at the end she has no choice.

THE FILM OPENS WITH IRAQI POLICE searching Naima and Salman's apartment and arresting Hezkel, Salman's brother, a journalist suspected of Zionist activities, who is thrown into prison. A major focus of the film is on Hezkel's beautiful and highly irascible young wife, Rakel, who now lives with the family. She is constantly urging family members to persist in making sure her husband is alive and that he will not be hung. Kabi, the son, disguised as an Arab tea server, succeeds in visiting him in prison and even bringing him food. 


Early on we witness a public hanging of a governmental dissident, with spectators — including many women in abayas — applauding and chanting "Allah is Great."

Between the  efforts to save Hezkel from suffering the same fate comes the revelation that Salman — a dutiful but frequently absent husband — has long been in love with Salima, a Jewish singer who performs in the predominantly Muslim nightclub that Salman frequents, burying his sorrow in heavy Arak drinking. We learn also of Kabi’s  teenage crushes on his aunt Rakel and on Amira, the daughter of a pigeon-raiser and a close friend to Salma, and Rakel’s developing relationship  with the Muslim attorney who is trying to get Hezkel out of prison. As a multi-layered family saga, the film is very effective.

But it is much more than that. For the viewer who is not particularly familiar with the story of the Jewish exodus from Iraq, It provides an enlightening panorama of the political and socio-cultural situation of Iraqi Jews at the beginning of the 1950s. A majority just want to live in peace in Iraq.  Some want to work with the Muslim brothers to change the regime. Some are part of the Communist movement — for them “there is no stopping a revolution” that will bring peace and brotherhood to all Iraqis. Others are part of an underground movement to get Jews to Israel.

In a scene which takes place at a time when Jews are not  yet allowed to leave Iraq, Amira, who is in love with Kabi, gets on a truck that will smuggle her and other Jews to Iran. She tells Kabi, who watches her leave, that they will easily find each other in Israel because it is "a very small country." From Iran, this and many more truckloads of Jews will be flown to Israel.

In one of the key scenes in the film, the Iraqi prime minister comes to dinner at the home of an extremely wealthy and prominent Jewish family. Kabi, who has been hired to help prepare the squab, overhears him say that Jews will have to leave Iraq. This conversation, and the fact that Kabi is interrogated, thrown in jail, and badly beaten up -- "your plotting against the king" is the accusation — increase his inclination to leave Iraq.

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE FILM IS THE 1941 POGROM known as the Farhud, in which 179 Jews were killed, hundreds of businesses looted, and thousands of homes pillaged. The Farhud came as a horrendous shock to Iraqi Jews who had not experienced the kind of severe and ongoing persecution that European Jews had suffered at the hand of Christians. It grew out of a combination of increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine, which led to the hostility of Palestinians — riots instigated by the Nazi-sympathizing Grand Mufti of Jerusalem resulted in the 1936 murderous attacks on Jews — and Nazi-influenced Iraqi political leaders. In reaction to this, some young Jews formed an underground Zionist movement. By the end of World War II, anti-Semitism had subsided and many Iraqi Jews felt safe again. In 1946, Iraqi Jews wanting to draw a sharp distinction between Judaism and Zionism formed a league that dismissed Zionism as a "colonialist phenomenon."

But once the state of Israel came into existence in 1948, with Iraq as one of the five Arab nations that waged war against it and lost, Iraqi anti-Semitism became official. Hundreds of Jews were dismissed from public service; they were prohibited from buying and selling property; restrictions were enacted on travel abroad. Many fled illegally. In 1950 a bill was passed allowing Jews to leave the country after giving up Iraqi citizenship. A later law froze all assets of those who left. By 1951, a vast majority realized that they had no alternative but to leave.

The film ends with a large procession of Jews, including Naima and Salman's family (with the exception of Rakel), heading towards the plane that will take them to Israel.

The showing I attended was followed by a discussion with two of the actors, Abu Saleh and Ahuva Keren. Keren, who played Naima, was introduced as the creator of the film, the person behind the scenes whose tireless efforts made it happen. Both were born in Israel; their families are from Iraq. The film’s importance to them grows out of the fact that the “stories of people from Mizrakhi and Sephardic countries — we didn’t learn in school.” They are gratified that the film has been a huge success in Israel. Listening to them, one understands how terribly difficult the transition was for their families who viewed themselves as Jewish Arabs to a predominantly Ashkenazi country with a very different cultural and social outlook. These Arab Jews arguably had more in common with Israeli Arabs than with Ashkenazi Jews.

That so many Ashkenazis looked down on Jews from Arab countries, whom they perceived as less advanced, and discriminated against them, made it even more difficult. This must have been especially galling to the Iraqis, so many of whom were highly educated and successful in their professions.

I was struck by the similarity of the Iraqis experiences to those of immigrants to the U.S. — Irish, Jews, Latinos, middle-Easterners — who have a difficult time adjusting to a new and different culture and are almost universally initially looked down upon and discriminated against. The cultural gulf between Ashkenazi Jews and “Arab Jews” was probably even more vast than the gulf between WASP Americans and some of the immigrant groups. When Abu Saleh relates that his grandfather wanted the children to speak only Hebrew, I was reminded of Ashkenazi immigrants to the U.S. who spoke Yiddish to each other but wanted their children to speak only English. Some of those children who were deeply embarrassed by their Yiddish-speaking parents were eager to take Yiddish classes forty years later!

The speakers told us that it had gotten better in the last twenty years; Israelis have become more open-minded. There are by now several generations of Jews of Iraqi descent born and educated in Israel; for them the adjustment is no doubt much easier than for their parents and grandparents.

A substantial number in the audience were of Iraqi extraction and confirmed the veracity of the film — “that’s exactly how it was,” a New Jersey resident stated. She was 8 years old when she left, she told us, and her brother and sister were in prison. When I asked Keren if the red-light district street scene in which a young virgin is auctioned off to the highest bidder captured a common event, she answered, "Sadly yes."

The speakers drew a very angry and loud reaction when they said that had it not been for the creation of the state of Israel, they would  in all probability have been able to continue to live peacefully in their Iraqi homeland. "Just like the German Jews!” someone yelled out — a reference no doubt to the fact that they also were highly integrated, viewed themselves as Germans of Jewish religion, and believed that the Nazis represented a passing phase.

While I was taken aback and disturbed by the level of hostility, I must admit I was baffled at the speakers seeming to put the blame for their expulsion on the creation of the state of Israel instead of on the Iraqi government, which failed to distinguish between Israelis and their own Arab Jews who had lived side-by-side with Arab Iraqis for millennia.

Dr. Myriam Miedzian (myriammiedzian.com), a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, is a former philosophy professor who writes frequently on social, cultural, and political issues. She is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence.