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.
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.
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”.
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.
“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.
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