Now that the US government shutdown is over, normal service is being resumed. Iraq is coming to the National Archives building in Washington DC – or more precisely, an exhibition of 24 Iraqi-Jewish artifacts, Discovery and Recovery.
I will not dwell on the controversy surrounding the ‘Jewish archive’, which the US military salvaged from a sewage-filled basement in Baghdad in 2003. The 2,700 books and documents, seized from Jewish homes, schools and libraries, are due to return to Iraq after restoration, with all its moral implications – rather than being restituted to their rightful Jewish owners now living outside the country.
Instead, I will tell you about a remarkable documentary to be screened in DC in the shadow of the exhibition: Shadow in Baghdad.
Made by the Israeli filmmaker of Iraqi origin Duki Dror, the film tells the story of the destruction of the Jewish community of Iraq through the unusual internet relationship between Baghdad-born Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin, a columnist and blogger now living in Israel, and an inquisitive Muslim journalist based in Iraq.
The journalist, whose face is blanked out on his Skype calls to Linda, had been moved to contact her after reading her Arabic blog. She had described her emotional journey to Jordan to cast her vote in the 2010 Iraqi elections. The journalist agrees to risk his career and personal safety to help Linda find out what happened to her father Yaakub Abdul Aziz, a prominent lawyer who was abducted in Baghdad in 1972.
From eye-witness interviews we learn that Yaakub Abdul Aziz – his wife, Linda and two other children had escaped the country two years earlier and were waiting impatiently for him to join them – was on his way to synagogue in Baghdad on the eve of Yom Kippur. He never arrived.
In the early 1970s the strongman of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was conducting a reign of terror against the remaining 3,000 Jews: the great bulk of the 140,000-member community had left in the early 1950s carrying 40 dinars each and a single suitcase. At the time of his abduction Yaakub was under financial pressure – not only to provide a dowry for lovesick Linda, but because he had posted bail for a group of 90 Jews arrested after trying to escape through northern Iraq.
The regime had determined that 100 Jews would never be issued with passports to leave Iraq – and Yaakub was one of them. He was among dozens of Jews to disappear without trace. He is presumed buried at Kasser al Nihaya, the fortress jail from whence no prisoner ever emerged alive.
In one of the film’s most suspenseful scenes, the Iraqi journalist combs the al-Musbah district where Linda used to live. Yaakub’s trail has run cold. Nobody remembers the Jews in their distinctive hats. When prodded, the older locals will admit that the entire area was Jewish-owned, but cannot explain why the compound which used to house the Jewish Shamash school is off-limits.
Yet, after 40 years, the quest for her father at last brings closure to Linda. She can now put to rest the shadow her father’s unexplained death has cast over her life. Linda gains a journalistic award for her part in bringing Arab and Jews together, in spite of one veteran remarking that her blogging activities “are like emptying a bath with a teaspoon.”
Individuals like the Iraqi journalist give hope for reconciliation between Iraq and its Jews. But first, visitors to the National Archives exhibition need to grasp what a high price the Jewish community paid, both in terms of property confiscated and human life cut short.
Duki Dror and Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin will show a version of ‘Shadow in Baghdad’ at the Library of Congress at 12 noon on 28 October and at the DC JCC on 29 October. Details from: firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.shadowinbaghdad.com The petition requesting the US government not to send the Jewish archive back to Iraq is to be found here.