Magazine article Metro Magazine

Songs of Sadness, Songs of Love: Marsha Emerman's on the Banks of the Tigris

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Songs of Sadness, Songs of Love: Marsha Emerman's on the Banks of the Tigris

Article excerpt

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Music is a powerful force for commemoration and coming together; we see this in the experiences of the Iraqi musicians who were displaced from their homeland following World War II and the rise of Saddam Hussein. In her poignant documentary, Marsha Emerman focuses the lens on actor Majid Shokor, who speaks to Iraqi exiles in Melbourne, the Middle East and Europe in an attempt to reconnect with his roots, writes Brian Yatman.

That the city of Baghdad--scarred by war, scarcity and decades of repressive leadership--was once a vibrant centre of intellectual life may seem unfathomable to some in the West. In a recently published survey of 230 of the world's major cities, the capital of the Republic of Iraq was ranked the worst in terms of quality of life. (1) Yet pre-1950s Baghdad was, relatively speaking, a model of tolerance--a cosmopolitan city where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived alongside one another, doing business, socialising and, most fruitfully perhaps, making music together. Some of Iraq's most celebrated songwriters and composers were Jewish. However, after the oppressive Ba'ath regime took power from the 1960s onwards and appropriated their work, retooling it as anonymous folk music, a generation of Iraqis grew up oblivious to these artists' contributions.

This lesser-known aspect of the country's past is the subject of On the Banks of the Tigris: The Hidden Story of Iraqi Music (2015), a film by Melbourne-based documentary maker Marsha Emerman (who also helmed 2002's Children of the Crocodile, a personal history of East Timor). Her chief collaborator--and our guide--is Iraqi-Shiite actor Majid Shokor, (2) who fled Iraq in 1995, arriving in Melbourne via Jordan and Lebanon. Compelled by a bittersweet nostalgia for the songs of his childhood, Shokor begins a figurative and literal journey, revisiting his past and his homeland, and meeting with other Iraqi exiles across the globe.

The trail begins in Melbourne, where Shokor meets Naji Cohen, a wizened but twinkly eyed violinist who performed in the nightclubs of Baghdad in the 1940s, before being exiled. After breaking out his violin and playing a fragment of a haunting melody, he chokes back tears. 'I lost my life,' he explains, 'and I lost my identity.' In 1950, we are told, the Iraqi Government passed a law allowing Jews to emigrate to Israel on the condition that they forfeit their Iraqi citizenship. As a result of this, Tel Aviv became home to a large community of exiled Iraqi-Jews for whom, like Shokor, music is a powerful connection to their homeland. Cohen encourages Shokor to visit Tel Aviv, which the latter proceeds to do. There, he meets these aged Iraqi brothers and sisters in exile, who welcome this stranger as one of their own. Seated around a large table, they beat drums, clap and take turns at the microphone to sing about extraordinary yearning and endless sorrow. Yet the mood is one of celebration and inclusiveness. It is as though, mid song, their old homes in cosmopolitan Baghdad are just within reach. They dance, they laugh and they playfully improvise new lyrics in honour of their guest, a non-Jew.

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Prominent among these exiles are Elias Shasha, an impish 88-year-old oud player, and the husky-voiced Alber Elias, an expert on the ney. Both were active members of the Baghdad Radio Orchestra alongside the legendary Al-Kuwaity brothers, Saleh and Daoud. Saleh, composer of the song that lends the film its title, 'On the Banks of the Tigris', was venerated during his lifetime for his skills as a writer and improviser, feted by kings and idolised by audiences--until, of course, his songs were taken away from him, and his legacy, erased from the public record. He had no musical heirs. As his son Shlomo Elkivity explains, a disappointed Saleh saw no point in encouraging his children to study music.

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Shokor accompanies Shasha to the crowded market in Ramat Gan known as 'Little Baghdad', where the old man is treated like royalty. …

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