Pelle Valentin Olsen, “Al-Qahira-Baghdad: The Transnational and Transregional History of Iraq’s Early Cinema Industry,” Arab Studies Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2 (Fall 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Pelle Valentin Olsen (PO): During the early twentieth century, due to influences both local and global, Iraq witnessed colonization, independence, the birth of new social classes, and experimentation with new forms of politics, ideologies, and cultural expression. As part of this process, urban environments changed rapidly and new spheres of work and leisure emerged. Simultaneously, leisure moved from the private realm and was transformed into public activities and performances that often took place on a commercial scale. For example, with the emergence of cafés and nightclubs, dancing and musical entertainment moved from private homes to public venues. I explored many of these topics in my dissertation, which I finished at the University of Chicago in 2020. My work on leisure sparked an interest in the history of cinema in Iraq, a subject that has received virtually no scholarly attention.
Recently, an important rewriting of Iraq’s modern history has occurred. New studies have explored Iraq’s cultural, social, and intellectual pasts and connections with the rest of the region and world. With very few exceptions, however, scholars have not yet studied the history of Iraqi cinema and cinema-going. Even reference works and filmographies are few and far between, including in Arabic-language scholarship. My article is an attempt, a first stab so to speak, to write the history of cinema and film production in Iraq. The article suggests that we should not simply study Iraqi cinema through a national cinema framework, but also through its networks of affiliation with cinema in other countries, such as Egypt, as well as with other emerging capitalist industries and interests in Iraq and beyond. The article pays special attention to co-productions, which I argue were important in paving the way for subsequent Iraqi productions. Beyond shedding light on the creation of film and cinema infrastructure in Iraq, including cinemas, production companies, advertisement, and import companies, I also suggest that we should reinsert co-productions into Iraqi national narratives and film histories from which scholars have excluded them. My article borrows its title from al-Qahira-Baghdad (Cairo-Baghdad), an Egyptian-Iraqi co-production that premiered in Baghdad on 10 March 1947. Al-Qahira-Baghdad was a truly collaborative endeavor between the two countries’ cinema industries and is a prime example of the transregional and transnational nature of early film production in Iraq. Trying to unearth these transregional and transnational connections is what really made me write this article.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
PO: The article interrogates the networks, connections, co-productions, and circulation of cultural products and material objects, including films and technology, and explores how they came together at a particular historical moment with capital, performers, and people with technical skills to establish a film industry in Iraq. In doing so, it adds to the growing scholarship on film histories in the Global South that challenge purely national frameworks and engage creatively with the lack of film texts and archives. Iraq is situated at the crossroads of Middle Eastern, South Asian, European, and US film production and distribution. Therefore, the history of Iraq’s cinema industry sheds light on the transregional and transnational qualities of cinema in the many areas across the Global South where national film production emerged only belatedly. The article uses previously unconsidered primary materials, including memoirs, the press, and personal accounts by Iraqis involved in the industry, in addition to secondary works by Iraqi historians and literature about the history of cinema in the regions surrounding Iraq. It draws on theorizations of transregional and transnational cinemas in other contexts, in dialogue with scholars in the fields of South and West Asian Black cinema studies who have developed a method of tracing the material roots of cinema.
The article begins to trace to these multidirectional networks, connections, and flows of capital that brought film exhibition and production to Iraq. I wanted to examine the historical entanglement of capital, culture, and leisure by mapping the local Iraqi capitalist and entrepreneurial elites, many of whom were upper-class Iraqi Jews with international entrepreneurial outlooks, who invested in exhibition and production technology. As a result of the fundamentally transregional and transnational nature of the film industry in Iraq, existing networks of trade and import were crucial for its emergence. Therefore, a small number of individuals and families with ties to other emerging capitalist industries came to dominate the early cinema infrastructures that remained entirely in private hands until the early 1960s. In terms of scope, this article examines the early history of cinema in Iraq, beginning with the screening of the first silent film in 1909 and ending with the emergence of a national film industry in the 1950s.
As elsewhere in the region, Iraqi critics, who viewed popular culture in a negative light, often neglected early melodramatic productions and co-productions that did not fit with later nationalistic notions of film production. As my colleague and friend Claire Cooley has argued, such national narratives also have a tendency to write out the involvement and contributions of women and those with hybrid identities. In the case of Iraq, some of the later accounts have also written out the role of Iraqi Jews in the cinema industry’s first four decades. In addition to Claire Cooley, the recent contributions of Kaveh Askari and Samhita Sunya, Golbarg Rekabtalaei, and Deborah Starr have all made the task of looking beyond the nation a lot easier. I am very much inspired by and indebted to their work. In terms of tracing the material and parafilmic roots of cinema, Allyson Field’s work on African American cinema in the United States and Ghenwa Hayek’s recent articles on Lebanese cinema have shaped this article.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
PO: The article is very much a continuation of my interest in the history of leisure in Iraq. However, this article departs from my previous work in the sense that it attempts to move beyond the screen and beyond cinema as a space of leisure. This article in only a first step and a more detailed account will have to wait until I can do more archival work, but it represents my growing interest in the entanglement of capital, culture, and leisure as well as the infrastructures, architectures and material contexts, and forms of production in which cinema is embedded. This focus was not as present in my previous work.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PO: Compared to the scholarly attention given to histories of cinema-going and film production elsewhere in the region, histories of early Iraqi cinema are largely absent. This is partially a result of the inaccessibility of Iraqi archives, cinematic and otherwise. At the same time, however, my article suggests that moving beyond the screen and understanding cinema as more than individual films can facilitate a more textured analysis of the myriad social, cultural, political, and economic phenomena that are part of cinema-going. I hope that this article shows that it is possible to construct an alternative archive of Iraq cinema across a variety of texts. More importantly perhaps, I hope the article can serve as the start of a conversation with scholars working on the history of cinema in the regions and countries surrounding Iraq.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PO: In addition to my current postdoc project, which explores the global history of solidarity with the Palestinian revolution, I am turning my dissertation into a book titled Idle Days and Nights: Leisure, Time, and Modernity in Iraq. The book examines Iraqi history through the lens of leisure. However, while my dissertation centered on Baghdad, the book expands its focus to also include urban centers outside of the capital, and the ways in which religious time both structured and facilitated leisure. A new chapter argues that moments of religious celebration across confessions carved out temporary leisure spaces for women, children, and families otherwise excluded from public leisure. Another new chapter explores the transregional labor migration of female performers and sex workers who came to Iraq from across the region to work in nightclubs. This chapter argues that forms of labor and exploitation, including that of nightclub performers and female cinema stars, often remain hidden in studies of leisure.
I am also working on a couple of other articles. One of them, co-authored with my friend and colleague Sarah Farhan, examines the emergence of juvenile delinquency as a medico-legal category in Hashemite Iraq. Another article, co-authored with Rachel Schine, situates the 1955 novel Abū Nuwās fī Amrīkā by Ṣafāʾ Khulūṣī as an exemplar of and commentary on the dynamics of twentieth-century Iraqi cultural production. The article analyzes the novel’s protagonist—in the form of a reincarnated, radically reformed version of the ʿAbbasid-era poet Abū Nuwās—as engaging in a “riḥlah-road-trip,” traversing the United States.
I am starting a two-year postdoc at Oxford in September 2022, which means that I will be able to fully devote my time to a historical project on the Iraqi cinema industry. In this project I will continue to focus on my interest in the transnational history of Iraqi cinema and film infrastructure.
Excerpt from the article (from pp. 21-24)
Failures, Coproductions, and the First Iraqi Films
Because several of the first Iraqi films were coproductions with Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon and often employed foreign directors, used foreign actors, and relied on investments, equipment, and trained workers from abroad, in the very limited scholarship on the history of cinema and film in Iraq there has been much debate about what can rightly be called the first Iraqi film. Similarly, critics have written both the early failures and the coproductions out of the narrative of Iraqi cinema history. This section examines examples of failure and coproduction and shows that these were not only an essential feature of the early Iraqi film industry, but that they paved the way for subsequent productions.
Bhaskar Sarkar has described how global media theory outside of the global centers of production has been preoccupied with novelty and national firsts. Similarly, in a recent article on the connections between Iranian, Indian, and Egyptian cinemas Cooley argues that the “intertwined histories such as those of cinemas in the Middle East and South Asia have been chronically erased in national narratives of cinemas that were not globally dominant” and that the task is therefore to excavate the way in which “film and media in a national space are implicated and legitimated by an array of transnational, regional, and local networks.” Cooley accomplishes this task through a study of the traveling sound technologies and transnational sound networks that created Iranian national cinema. In particular, she examines the Iranian entrepreneurs who travelled to India and Egypt in search of technology, training, and collaboration and concludes that “Iranian cinema was partly born of material connections to Egypt and India.” In Iraq as well, film production was established through transregional and transnational cultural and material collaborations in addition to training and education that connected Iraq to film and cinema infrastructures abroad.
Already in the mid-1930s, there were attempts to produce films in Iraq. The popularity of talkies, first from the United States and Europe and later on also from Egypt and India, had increased ticket sales. It was in this context that Iraqi businessmen, cinema owners, and importers of films began to show interest in film production. Around 1935, the US company Fox approached Iraqi actor Haqqi al-Shibli with ideas of producing a film in Iraq with Iraqi actors. The project never materialized. In 1938, the Iraqi businessman Hafidh al-Qadi announced his interest in producing films in Iraq to the press. Al-Qadi had made a fortune through his business, which imported radios and Ford cars to Iraq. In 1938, he sent his brother, Mustafa al-Qadi, to London to purchase the necessary equipment and materials. For unknown reasons, al-Qadi’s project failed. In 1942, an Iraqi production company, about which little is known, was established by Iraqi businessmen. Although the company was licensed to produce films, none were ever produced. The fact that these projects failed makes them difficult to study and only very limited information about them is available. But they nonetheless index Iraqi interest in film production and attempts to bring it to the country. Similarly, stories of failure reveal the difficulties facing capitalist endeavors at the time, particularly in the cultural sphere, where the necessary infrastructures did not yet exist.
Attempts to produce films in Iraq did not materialize until the late 1940s when a number of joint Egyptian-Iraqi production companies were created. The first of these joint companies, Aflam al-Rashid, was founded by ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Wahhab, an Iraqi studying medicine in Cairo. Ibn al-Sharq (Son of the East), the first and only film produced by Aflam al-Rashid was directed by the Egyptian directors Ibrahim Hilmi and Maurice Murad and coproduced with al-Ahram Studios in Cairo. Ibn al-Sharq featured both Iraqi and Egyptian actors and musicians, including ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself, the Egyptian actress Madiha Yusri, and several Iraqi musicians. Ibn al-Sharq premiered in late November 1946 in King Ghazi Cinema in Baghdad and shortly after in Cairo. A semi-autobiographical melodrama, the no-longer-extant Ibn al-Sharq tells the story of an Iraqi medical student in Cairo. In Cairo, a wealthy Egyptian woman seduces the film’s hero, played by ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself and also named ‘Adil, who leaves his fiancée. After a while, however, ‘Adil regrets what he has done and returns to his fiancée. Now a wealthy man due to his discovery of a cure for a dangerous but unknown disease, ‘Adil marries his fiancée and together they return to Baghdad.
The year after the premiere of Ibn al-Sharq, another joint Egyptian-Iraqi production appeared – al-Qahira-Baghdad, described in detail in the introduction to this article. Like al-Qahira-Baghdad, in addition to its actors, directors, and technical staff, the plot of Ibn al-Sharq also moves between Cairo and Baghdad, thereby culturally and materially connecting the two capitals. Both al-Qahira-Baghdad and Ibn al-Sharq were filmed in Egypt and Iraq and the local dialects of both countries appear in the films. On a general level beyond the Middle East, coproductions deserve more empirical and theoretical attention. For now, because they were important in paving the way for subsequent Iraqi productions, it is important to reinstate such collaborations into Iraqi national narratives and film histories, which tend to exclude them. In addition, reinstating coproductions reveals the extent of the transregional transfer of knowledge, culture, film infrastructure, and private capital.
In 1946, the Sawda’i family created Studio Baghdad, the first studio in Iraq. As a joint business venture, the Sawda’i family established Studio Baghdad with investments from Anton Messayeh, whose family owned Iraq’s largest arak distillery, an Iraqi Jewish businessman by the name of Salman Zilkha, and a Muslim business partner named Kamil al-Khudayri. In the first couple of years, Studio Baghdad relied heavily on experts hired from Europe and Egypt. With time, however, Iraqis who had trained abroad took over. It is not clear who took ownership of Studio Baghdad after 1951 when the Sawda’i family, together with other members of Iraq’s Jewish community, left for Israel. In 1954, Studio Baghdad was sold to Iraqis living abroad, but it continued to make films until 1966, when the Coca-Cola Company acquired the land and buildings in order to build a factory. During its first two years, the newly established company produced documentary films, including one for the Iraqi police. In 1948, Studio Baghdad produced its first film, ‘Aliya wa ‘Isam. ‘Aliya wa ‘Isam is a Romeo and Juliet-like melodrama about a prince and a princess from two warring Iraqi tribes looking for revenge. It ends with the tragic suicide of the two protagonists. André Shatan, a French director,directed ‘Aliya wa ‘Isam and employed French equipment and materials in its production. In fact, the majority of Studio Baghdad’s materials and equipment came from France where Me’ir Sawda’i, who had studied engineering there, had contacts. Studio Baghdad commissioned the Iraqi Jewish lawyer, journalist, poet, and editor of the Iraqi cultural magazine al-Hasid, Anwar Sha’ul, to write the songs and script for ‘Aliya wa ‘Isam. Being a poet, Sha’ul wrote the first version of the script in metered and rhymed verse. The owners of the studio, however, found it too formal and he was asked to rewrite it, which shows how aesthetic standards and processes had to be negotiated during the early years of the industry in order to fit the demands of the new medium. Inspired by American, European, and Egyptian productions, the Sawda’is, and Me’ir in particular, wanted a modern melodrama, not a production that could be confused with earlier forms and aesthetic standards.