Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dancing Iraqi Jews: interview with Joe Balass

Glamorous, grinning couples gliding on a dance floor is not most people's idea of Iraq. Joe Balass tells Mideast Youth blog that he hopes his film Baghdad Twist, a nostalgic evocation of Jewish life in Iraq, will shatter stereotypes and build bridges ( with thanks: Esra'a):

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your childhood in Iraq?

I was born in Baghdad in 1966 but escaped with my family when I was 4 years old so I have very few concrete memories of my childhood in Iraq. Despite the fact that I was so young when we left, I still identify as an Iraqi.

Q. What inspired you to create this film?

I wanted to make a film which contrasts with the present-day images we see of Iraq. I don’t want people to think of Iraq only in terms of bombs and destruction. I want people to also think of beauty and of dancing the twist in Baghdad. I want people to think of hope.

Q. What struck you the most about the Jewish community in Iraq?

The diversity of Iraq’s Jewish community has always fascinated me.

Q. Leaders in the Arab world insist that Jews were treated with utmost respect and that no policy of discrimination was enacted upon them. What do you have to say to that?

There were official policies enacted by various governments that were discriminatory. Things happened in cycles which eventually became more and more repressive. I don’t think people themselves are naturally hateful or spiteful, they are manipulated by propaganda and government policies. By the time my parents decided to escape from Iraq, it was because of a real fear for my father’s life.

Q. What message do you hope to convey through your documentary?

I think hateful propaganda can blind people, turn them against teach other. I think it is important to try and bring folks together, to celebrate things that bind us together, to understand that historically many people of different faiths and ideals co-existed in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. We can learn from that past of co-existence and respect to try and build a happy and hopeful future for everyone.

Q. In your opinion, how much information currently exists about Iraqi Jews, and Arab Jews in general, in the mainstream media? People keep referring to them as the “forgotten minority,” are they still forgotten?

I think the notion of Arab identity should be broadened to include people of different faiths and beliefs as a step towards building tolerance. Jewish identity is also strengthened through diversity. The context of different communities and faiths originating in the Middle East is too often simplified by mainstream media.

Q. Due to this topic being taboo, your film will most likely not be heard of or advertised within the Middle East. What do you think about that? Are you willing to push it to a Middle Eastern audience, especially since they are most relevant?

I believe in bridge-building. I would very much like for Baghdad Twist to be seen all over the Middle East. I would be happy to do what I can to make that happen and hope to meet other like-minded individuals and groups.

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