When Baghdad Central aired at the start of this year, Iraqi viewers across the globe tuned in with hopes of seeing their culture and motherland represented on screen. Instead, the six-part television series, based around the 2003 Iraq war and directed by Alice Troughton, was met with a wave of critical backlash and labelled as “inauthentic”.
In an open letter entitled THIS WAS NEVER YOUR STORY TO TELL, Iraqi-Australian actress and founder of Iraqi Diaspora Creatives, HAJER, 22, told the creators of the show that the global Iraqi community felt their country had simply been used as an exotic “backdrop”. The letter identified this as “a deeply irresponsible move at a time when authentic Iraqi narratives receive little to no airtime”.
The letter’s main criticisms were that: “the production was not faithful to simple regional variants [such] as dialects, accents, and socio-cultural traditions” and that “none of the major roles in Baghdad Central were played by Iraqi actors, including those of the ‘Iraqi’ characters”. For HAJER, the creators’ justification, much like the show, fell short of being accurate – they claimed to struggle to find talented Iraqi creatives but the letter listed Iraqi name, after Iraqi name and was co-signed by many more.
To debunk this idea that Iraqi creatives are in short supply, and to create a space of cultural authenticity, HAJER did a callout seeking video submissions of 10 minutes or less that embody the theme This is What an Iraqi Looks Like. “We’re not just war-torn people, we get sick of that narrative”, explains HAJER. “We are also funny and creative”. The submissions undoubtedly tap into this humour that is often sidelined in place of traumatic narratives.
Alex Beck, a contributor to the 12-part web series “left Baghdad shortly after he was born in 1991 due to a small disagreement between Saddam and Bush Sr, and moved to Oslo […] After the millenium [sic], his family moved to the U.S. and 9/11 happened. The Beck family then moved to the U.K.”
In Alex’s video, his mother makes pointed remarks at him that contradict what he is saying about his identity. Aside from asking him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend yet and why he doesn’t just marry his cousin who “looks sexy on Instagram”, she tells him that he is Jewish Sushi: “your dad is Sunni, I am Shia, my grandfather’s ancestry was Jewish”.
In less than three minutes, Alex brings lightness to his expression of identity but also touches on how intricate and nuanced Iraqi identity can be; there is no monolithic experience for Iraqis, let alone Arabs as a whole. What Iraqis across the diaspora are united by, according to Alex, is the “shared collective diaspora memory of what it means to be Iraqi”.
Creating a community that embodies the variety of Iraqi experiences was important for HAJER, who ‘became very fascinated with specificity’ after being cast as a Lebanese character in her acting work: “The Levantine Arabs are just very different to Iraq and the Gulf. It was kind of hard to relate everything” she explains. Even within the broader Arab diaspora, Iraqi stories are often underrepresented because “it’s a younger diaspora”, so other identities tend to dominate the conversation.
Iraqi representation mostly platforms Muslim narratives, but the reality is that there are many different religious groups within the global diaspora, including Christians and Jews. In the 1940s, as many as 135,000 Jews were living in Baghdad, Basra, Kurdistan, and other regions but the Iraqi Jewish population was exiled from Iraq in the 1950s and now reside all over the globe.
For HAJER, including these marginalised Iraqi voices was important. One video in particular platforms Iraqis in Pajamas, a band whose work combines “ancient Iraqi Jewish prayers with original alternative/ punk rock music”. Loolwa Khazzoom, the lead singer and bass player of the band even told HAJER that her involvement in this project “was the first time she felt welcomed to a Middle Eastern focused group that wasn’t focused on like the Jewish identity and she’s in her fifties”.
In her short video, Loolwa explains that music, as well as diet and lifestyle alterations, helped her to heal from a cancer diagnosis in 2010: “it was only when I started this band Iraqis in Pajamas that the nodules started shrinking” she says.
Their lyrics explore how “we as human beings process the hurts of the world, whether it’s being a refugee, or being abused, or being bedridden”, explains Loolwa, amid shots of her seasoned guitar playing. “How can we express our rage, our pain, our despair without getting stuck in it?” she adds.
As well as championing marginalised Iraqi subcultures, it is undeniably powerful that the web series mostly consists of contributions from Iraqi women, who are too often depicted as oppressed and voiceless by the mainstream media.
“I’m very for women’s empowerment, especially in the Iraqi community which is quite patriarchal”, HAJER tells me. “In one of the videos, there’s a clip where there’s a voice-over that talks about after the dictatorship fell and the rise of the American occupation. Women just kind of got really sidelined and flattened.
“I’ve been to Iraq a few times and just as a woman, you feel like they just want you to be little in every form. They want you to be small and invisible and it’s really frustrating because Iraq wasn’t like that before”.
The video HAJER refers to is a mesmerizing dance piece by an anonymous duo H & H as they experiment with jewellery and makeup, whilst the audio features an academic discussing the plight of Iraqi women. The pair describe their contribution to the anthology as: “an exploration into the realms of identity by two Iraqi women on a soul-searching experimental visual journey”.
The video samples audio from Dr. Nadje Al-Ali, a professor for Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London, saying: “Young women are very much controlled and told where they can go what they should wear, their friendships. Women’s voices have been systematically sidelined. Women are not involved in decisions”.
With the weight of these expectations, it is no surprise that H & H chose to explore their femininity and views on female subordination with hidden identities. HAJER acknowledges that there is still a sense of “not being fully comfortable to be out there” but also believes it is a vital option to create a space for Iraqi women to “talk about their identity, but not have a face” so that they feel truly uninhibited to be their authentic selves.
This project shows us that creatives can facilitate the changes they wish to see in their industries; if we aren’t being given the stories, characters, or experiences that we want to see depicted on screen, then we should simply make them ourselves.
This is What an Iraqi Looks Like is now streaming on YouTube.
To join the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives group, visit their Instagram page.