A progressive “identity politics” pursued in the name of resistance to nationalist retrenchment depends on the mobilization of various disparate “collective identities” around a common aim. But what if those collectives are themselves fragmented? A new film explores this conundrum.

  • Rafaël Newman

    Rafaël Newman studied classical philology at the University of Toronto and comparative literature at Princeton University, where he earned his doctorate. He has published essays on literature and contemporary culture in Germany, New Zealand, Poland, Switzerland, and the United States.

As the ongoing global move­ment of people, more and more of them in the process of “forced migra­tion”, adds ethnic, reli­gious, and ideo­lo­gical nuances, as well as a host of inter­sec­tional subject posi­tions, to an already eclectic web of social and sexual iden­ti­ties in the indus­tria­lized world and beyond, the project of orga­ni­sing coll­ec­tive iden­ti­ties as a bulwark against the rise of ethno­cen­tric popu­lism becomes more complex. How can such a network of iden­ti­ties be coor­di­nated for progres­sive poli­tical action? Will it be possible to heed the calls for a “left popu­lism”, from such spokesper­sons as Chantal Mouffe and Bernie Sanders, without homo­ge­ni­zing the various indi­vi­dual agendas beyond reco­gni­tion? Can a common­wealth of “coll­ec­tive iden­ti­ties”, in Carolin Emcke’s formu­la­tion, with­stand the strains of compe­ting loyal­ties? Can internal divi­sions within osten­sibly mono­li­thic commu­ni­ties or “cultures” – female, LGBTQI+, refugee – be produc­tively over­come? Must they be over­come? And how are such “mino­rity” (!) commu­ni­ties to absorb, transva­luate, and instru­men­ta­lize the abuse and exclu­sion they have suffered at the hands of a domi­nant class prepared to stage coups, dispatch armies to put down civi­lian protest, and reverse elec­tion results by decla­ring states of exception?

Insults and verdicts

In signal works of auto-analysis, and in his poli­tical acti­vism, the socio­lo­gist Didier Eribon has studied the crea­tion and meaning of margi­na­lized iden­ti­ties within systems of domi­na­tion. He has iden­ti­fied the func­tion of insult in poli­cing “mino­rity” or “deviant” iden­tity, and the assign­ment of social class by means of “verdicts” uttered by the forces of order. These twin appa­ra­tuses, accor­ding to his colle­ague Edouard Louis, give rise to a “nega­tive iden­tity”, by circum­scribing a given agent’s social ability, which in turn leads to the estab­lish­ment of ghet­toes, in the case of ethnic iden­ti­ties, and closets, in the case of sexual identities. 

Film­still aus „Baghdad In My Shadow“, Quelle: dschointventschr.ch

These are the cons­traints faced by indi­vi­dual bearers of coll­ec­tive iden­tity, both in their rela­tions with the majo­rity culture and within their respec­tive “subcul­tures”, as they strive to mobi­lize and resist; and these are the forces that are thema­tized in Baghdad In My Shadow, the latest film by Samir. The director further compli­cates matters by setting his account of iden­tity poli­tics in the “multi­cul­tural” west almost exclu­si­vely within an Iraqi expa­triate commu­nity in London, a puta­tively homo­ge­neous “foreign” element that is reve­aled to be riven by inter­ne­cine conflict and paradox. And true to Yuval Harari’s conten­tion that cultures are best unders­tood at moments of self-contradiction, Samir paints a portrait of a parti­cular immi­grant expe­ri­ence that is at once deeply singular, and emble­matic of the internal strug­gles faced by other coll­ec­ti­vi­ties else­where in an emer­gent post-national world.

Taufiq, the poet

The story follows Taufiq, an Iraqi dissi­dent under Saddam Hussein who has lived in exile since the 1990s and now works as a night watchman at the British museum. We first encounter him there among the relics of Meso­po­tamia, which sets the stage for the film’s great secon­dary subject, the asym­me­trical rela­ti­onship between the cultures of the “Occi­dent” and those of the “Orient”. For while Samir’s primary didactic aim, in a feature-film “enter­tain­ment”, may be to explore and explode three central taboos of the Islamic world – apostasy (renun­cia­tion of Muslim faith), adul­tery (a woman’s erotic freedom), and homo­se­xua­lity (prin­ci­pally male) – his story is also an essay on the unequally distri­buted fami­lia­rity with the cultural heri­tage of the Other. Taufiq is employed to guard the treasures of his own ancient past, locked away for safe­kee­ping in a monu­ment to the British colo­nial project, and, although nomi­nally acces­sible to the general public, yet largely unknown – as his own cultural produc­tion is as well: for his ambi­tion is to publish the poetry he writes during his shifts at the museum with a repu­table London press, whose editor he has been wooing. His efforts have so far proven vain, evidently stymied by a lack of British reader­ship for Arabic verse. Indeed, even as she is profes­sing her admi­ra­tion for Meso­po­ta­mian culture and history, Maud, the non-Arab editor, fairly emble­ma­tizes the epis­te­mo­lo­gical disjoint by stumb­ling over key names. Taufiq, mean­while, knows his English romantic poets by heart.

Film­still aus „Baghdad In My Shadow“, Quelle: dschointventschr.ch

Taufiq’s poetry enjoys a consider­ably warmer recep­tion at the Abu Nawas Café, a meeting place for the Iraqi commu­nity in its district of London and the focal point of the film’s action. Named for a clas­sical Arab poet who was “an alco­holic homo­se­xual”, accor­ding to one of its habi­tués, the café is run by Zeki, an Iraqi Kurd and a Commu­nist, with the help of Amal, a Chris­tian Iraqi who has sought refuge in the UK and is awai­ting the papers that will allow her to use the archi­tec­tural trai­ning she received in Baghdad. When Taufiq stages a reading of his verse there, the enthu­si­a­stic audi­ence includes other figures from the commu­nity: his widowed sister-in-law Maha, a Shiite Iraqi, and her son Nasseer, who rejects his atheist uncle’s tutelage for the lure of a charis­matic funda­men­ta­list imam; Samira, a fiery Commu­nist Iraqi and a wry observer of the unre­con­s­tructed machismo of her comrades; Ahmed Kamal, a visi­ting Iraqi cultural attaché with a sinister Ba’athist past; and Muhanad, a young Iraqi refugee whose homo­se­xua­lity has endan­gered his life in Baghdad and who has found happi­ness in London with a German lover, whom he is, however, unwil­ling to intro­duce to his puta­tively homo­phobic Iraqi friends.

Layers of belonging

Woven throug­hout the fabric of the film and serving as a back­drop to the high-minded lite­rary produc­tion of Taufiq and his illus­trious ancestor Abu Nawas is the popular culture that these friends have left behind, shown on tele­vi­sion screens in the café and in their homes. Indeed, Amal, who left Iraq to live in freedom from the cons­traints of a tradi­tional marriage, zaps away from an eman­ci­pa­tory Arab-language talk show about female plea­sure to indulge herself in a senti­mental song of heart­break and women’s lot; while Zeki and Samira, the progres­sive inter­na­tio­na­lists, scare away Amal’s British (i.e. non-Arabic) boyfriend with a chau­vi­ni­stic rendi­tion of a schmaltzy paean to the agonies of romantic love. This Arab pop music, toge­ther with the Arab daytime TV consumed by Maha, is at once a sign of the dispa­rate expats’ shared heri­tage and a reminder of the contra­dic­tions that divide them from one another, and which run through their very iden­ti­ties: the tropes of triba­lism, torture, and terro­rism deployed in ballads, soap operas, and situa­tion come­dies are a trivia­lized distor­tion of the histo­ries these charac­ters have actually suffered, both at home in Iraq and abroad in the diaspora, and which have set them at odds with each other, and with them­selves, and give the lie to the domi­nant culture’s verdict on them as a single unified bloc – of “Arabs”, “Muslims”, or even “Iraqis”.

Film­still aus „Baghdad In My Shadow“, Quelle: dschointventschr.ch

These multiple tensions demand narra­tive reso­lu­tion, which comes here in the form of a violent show­down between the forces of a certain paro­chial, ethno­cen­tric, right-wing radi­calism and the eclectic, post-tribal, aesthe­ti­cally refined demo­cratic socia­lism of the café. Samir, of course, like Taufiq, knows his “western” culture, in this case his Anglo-American cine­matic history, and there are nods in the set-up and reso­lu­tion of the film’s crisis to such recent clas­sics of alter­na­tive socio-political film as Spike Lee’s 1989 Do The Right Thing, with its parable of commu­ni­ta­rian strife and mino­rity divi­sion, and Stephen Frears’s 1985 My Beau­tiful Laun­de­rette, a Thatcher-era account of immi­grant entre­pre­neu­ria­lism and “inter-racial” sexual libe­ra­tion. But whereas Lee pits one mino­rity group against another – African-Americans versus Italian-Americans – and Frears features a clash between “white” British racists and their erst­while “brown” colo­nial subjects, the threat to peace in Baghdad In My Shadow comes from within the Arab commu­nity itself, in the form of an attack unleashed on the Iraqi apostates, adul­ter­esses, Commu­nists, and homo­se­xuals assem­bled at the café by Muslim hard­li­ners at the local mosque.

Conflict and resistance

Mobi­liza­tion of the forces of resis­tance comes from an unex­pected quarter. Muhanad, the young Iraqi refugee whose work at the mosque serves as a flash­point for the reac­tionary violence, exhorts his friends to action in terms that echo their own smir­king remarks on his sexua­lity: “Are you cocks or chickens?” This is the insult with which the film opens, a film filled with insults – “Commu­nist”, “infidel”, “faggot”, “failure”, “adul­terer”, even “Kurd” and “Englishman”, all of them func­tio­ning as verdicts and assign­ments of social cate­gory. As Taufiq and Zeki observe Muhanad with his lover, Sven, outside the café, they wonder wryly which of the men is active – a “cock” – and which passive – a “chicken”. They are reproved for their facile essen­tia­lism by Samira, who reminds them that they, too, may play either role in their sexual rela­tions with women. Now, as Muhanad takes up these cate­go­ries himself to urge his friends to resist the Isla­mist fana­tics at Nasseer’s mosque, he insists on a non-essentialist inter­pre­ta­tion of social agency and reminds his friends that rela­tions of domi­na­tion are arbi­trary, not fixed, in poli­tics as in sexua­lity, and are a matter of performance.

In the melee that ensues, Taufiq is compelled to abandon the communal barri­cades for a fatal rendez­vous, spurred by a will to protect his kin and expiate the guilt he feels for aban­do­ning his family for exile. He will place himself in peril, and become an active parti­ci­pant in the private revenge drama that is also a part of the story, by allo­wing himself to be directed by ties of blood rather than by perfor­ma­tive affi­lia­tion with a coll­ec­tive social cate­gory. And he will sacri­fice his freedom for that of his nephew. In the words of the poem he is compo­sing when we first meet him at the British Museum, and which he will later recite at the café, it is the Baghdad that accom­pa­nies him in his “shadow”, his memory, that claims him, and replaces one prison with another.

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“Poetry makes nothing happen”

Who would cast a poet, or even simply a lyrical soul, as the prot­ago­nist of an enter­tain­ment? It’s a rare­fied group, inclu­ding Ian MacEwan, Jim Jarmusch, Donna Leon – and of course Homer; and now, Samir. But why do it? In the case of Baghdad In My Shadow it may be useful to recall the often-quoted line in Auden’s elegy for Yeats: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” This blunt propo­si­tion, surpri­sing in one poet’s tribute to another, is nevert­heless capable of two diver­gent inter­pre­ta­tions. One, the “neo-liberal”, deli­vers a verdict on poetry as non-productive, barren, an expen­sive frill that should be dispensed with in the name of austerity. The other, the “utopian”, is a stronger reading: poetry brings about – makes happen – that which does not exist – yet. It is a memory of a bygone time or place – the para­disal Baghdad of Amal’s youth, with its gardens and amiable disputes; the intact Baghdad of Taufiq’s prel­ap­sa­rian inno­cence – which persists, like the shadow that is inse­pa­rable from the subject who remem­bers, and which marks that subject’s distinct presence as resis­tance, as obstacle to the sign of domi­na­tion. It is a memory that serves as foun­da­tion for a future in which, in Amal’s words, “nobody will judge us for who we are.” A future free of insult, social verdict, and enforced coll­ec­tive identity.

Film­still aus „Baghdad In My Shadow“, Quelle: dschointventschr.ch

Taufiq the poet’s ulti­mate gesture, his active incur­sion in the narra­tive, is made in the spirit of E.M. Forster, who famously hoped that he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friend. Taufiq’s sacri­fice, which also expiates his guilt, cements an alle­gi­ance, at a sub-national level, to the ties of family and symbolic pater­nity. And it leaves open the rift that runs through his coll­ec­tive iden­tity as a former citizen of “Iraq” – an imagined commu­nity that is the histo­rical product of empire, colo­nia­lism, and the rela­tions of class and ethnic domi­na­tion. A nation that is nearly as great a fiction, in fact, as the “United Kingdom”.


Portrait photo­graphy: Nina Mann