Those sacred memories of the Tigris and Euphrates: the fish grilled over open fires, children learning to swim—are an anthem of the Baghdadi diaspora. Recalled and recreated in the opening scenes of the 2015 documentary film Iraqi Odyssey, they ease the audience into what is to be a personal voyage down Iraq’s memory lane.
The film follows Iraqi-born director Samir Jamal Aldin’s quest to uncover his family’s place in the nation’s history. Spanning continents and generations, Samir’s conversations with relatives—aunts, uncles, cousins and a half-sister—uncover his family’s role in Iraq’s oft-overlooked Communist tradition.
A mix of archival and family footage shows moments of the 20th century when an independent Iraq, free from dictatorship, may have seemed possible. The revolution—or coup—of 1958 against the British-backed king, the May 1968 rebellion, resistance to Saddam Hussein, and underground newspapers all come to the surface. The film gets its name from an alternate reading of Homer’s Odyssey. In this version of the epic, imagined by an uncle of Samir’s, Odysseus’s wife Penelope grows tired of waiting for her husband to return from war. Unlike the faithful wife of Greek myth, Penelope goes to bed with one of her suitors. “This woman is Iraq,” Samir’s uncle says in the small office of his London home, “and she has married the Americans.
But reminiscing of popular uprisings and daydreaming of what was lost but never forgotten, inevitably gives way to the less glamorous, bureaucracy-filled daily life of modern Iraqi refugees. We see disappointment on the face of Samir’s young half-sister, as we follow her through her new home: post-industrial Buffalo, New York. On a quiet overcast day, she takes us to the neglected brick building that welcomed her to the West. The foreclosed remnants of a more prosperous time are not the America she had envisioned. She was denied a family reunification application to follow Samir to Switzerland, and now makes a living teaching English to incoming refugees.
On Samir’s return to Iraq, he visits his family tomb in Baghdad. The room is dusty, neglected and riddled with bullet holes. His family comes from the Jamal Aldin clan, an intellectual lineage, who trace their ancestry directly to the Prophet Muhammad. Many were Communists throughout the 20th century, many still are. One was a famous poet and critic of the Hussein regime. After rinsing his father’s grave and lighting a stick of incense, continues on to the fabled Freedom Monument on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. There, we witness, by way of a counseled camera, Samir and his crew being stopped by American soldiers and forced to show their papers. Modern reality again asserts itself.
Through archival footage we see Iraq’s Communists suppressed under British mandate, attacked by Hussein and ignored by the Soviet Union. Always, it appears, caught in the middle. An elderly cousin recounts Communist mobilizations, and what it was like to give up politics to work as a high-ranking oil-surveyor for Hussein. We meet an aunt who represented female students to the Communist Party’s commission in the late 1950s.
Many questions are left unanswered. Samir’s interviewees are comfortable speaking of Iraq’s past, but when it comes to their own, a few become cagey. Some refused to appear on camera altogether.
The film is long (2:42:42), but it weaves together several important stories of that time. It provides the country’s secular democratic tradition a rare space to breathe in the West, and shows an Iraq where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived peacefully. Histories we rarely hear are retrieved. The film produces a cognitive dissidence for Western narratives of the region—something Samir has a penchant for. In his previous film, Forget Baghdad, he traced the recent history of Iraqi Jews now living in Israel.
But unlike Iraq’s Jews, Communists still make Iraq their home.
Following the film’s NYC premiere at the IFC Center Samir spoke of a modern, secular, youth-led movement alive in Iraq today. He told the audience that Iraqi Odyssey was made in part to help these modern movements better understand the legacy which they continue.
“Everyone forgets,” Iraqi historian Sinan Antoon told me over the phone, “and keeps forgetting, that a few months after the revolts in Tunisia and in Egypt, there were massive demonstrations in Baghdad in 2011.”
On February 25, 2011 a weekly “Iraqi Day of Rage” began in many of the country’s major cities. Millions took to the streets—early gains included the calling of a general strike in Mosul, which pushed the governor to back the protests and oppose a government curfew; the blocking of a major Iraq-Jordan-Syria throughway; and the resignations of the mayor of Kut and the governors of the Babel and Basra provinces, where demonstrations decrying crumbing public services in the oil-rich region began as early as June 2010.
Samir’s film makes us receptive to news of Iraqi communists’ modern equivalents like the September 2007 labor-led uprising that halted the Cheney-backed hydrocarbon law that would have removed government control over oil. Or the 2008 labor coalitions that rallied for the undoing of Saddam’s 1987 law, which to this day bans public sector collective bargaining. Or the fifty-three day strike in 2009 by the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions and associated unions that won new safety protections for workers.
Like the Iraq of old, these movements largely maintain a secular agenda.
“The youth who came out to demonstrate in Baghdad’s Liberty Square last year and the year before,” says Antoon, “raised slogans like ‘In The Name Of Religion, The Thieves Have Looted Us.’ They are anti-sectarian, they are patriotic and talk about social justice and freedom, and specifically denounced all sectarian parties.”
They oppose the US-backed government’s divisive sectarian quota system, which mandates a Shia prime minister, Kurdish president and a Sunni speaker of parliament.
These movements and Samir’s film provide context for one another.
Antoon tells me, “There is a history in Iraq that these modern movements can invoke and imagine and think of themselves as descendents of.” Iraq’s current ruling Dawa Party for example was founded in direct response to the growing power of the Communist Party in Nagaf in the 1950s, says Antoon. And in a repetition of history, after the 2011 uprisings the Dawa Party shut down the Iraqi Communist Party headquarters.
Civil society is indigenous to Iraq. Not long ago, Christians, Jews, Muslims and their secular counterparts—all Arab—lived in relative peace with one another. But now Iraq’s situation seems irretrievably catastrophic. ISIS, new militias, impending austerity and sectarianism reinforce the notion that Iraq is a lost cause. Only inside Iraq, it appears, has the hope of Odysseus’s return not yet faded.
“Optimism,” Samir said following the IFC premiere, “is a question of recognizing the existence of popular movements.” And that is precisely what his film does.
Iraqi Odyssey has had theatrical releases across Europe, the United States, Asia and parts of the Middle East, but still awaits a response from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture in order to screen the film in Iraq.
Simon Davis-Cohen is the grandson of two Iraqi Jewish Communists.