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Divided Collec­tives. Iden­tity and Its Discon­tents in Samir’s Baghdad In My Shadow

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