Irada al-Jabbouri remembers Baghdad at the height of the sectarian violence. “It was like a ghost town, under curfew, its streets almost empty by 4pm,” recalls the Iraqi novelist and women’s rights activist. “Day and night were organised according to a mysterious schedule of when car bombs might go off, or mortars or improvised explosive devices or kidnappings.
More than once, I escaped from snipers’ bullets passing in front of me. Once, US soldiers went mad and started firing at the houses in my neighbourhood after an explosive device had gone off. All the windows in our house were shattered; the shards of glass were like shrapnel.
“I saw a young man riding a motorcycle get shot. He fell off the bike and drowned in his blood while the wheel of the fallen motorcycle kept spinning.”
Set in the last week of 2006, it is an ensemble piece focusing on the lives of ordinary citizens trying to survive the occupation while coming to terms with the Saddam era. The characters include a woman whose son was “disappeared” by Hussein’s regime; a man who was a prisoner of war in Iran; a man blackmailed into accepting bribes at work; a blocked novelist called Sara, who is a single mother; and a student who distracts herself from daily violence with fashion and music. There is also a Christian character forced into exile in a city that used to be known for its religious diversity and mixed neighbourhoods.
Everyone associated with the film, including the Iraqi actors who auditioned in 2014 and 2016, had their own experiences to add to the story. “They were people who had dug their heels in and stayed, but there had been one thing that was the straw that broke them,” says the film’s director, Maysoon Pachachi, born in Iraq but now living in London. “Someone gets kidnapped and his vocal cords are cut; one woman was from a minority group and they burned her sister in front of her; a guy had three shops taken over by the mafia, his son was kidnapped and died as a result of torture using drills. I spoke to a teenage girl about seeing her first corpse on her way to school, with its eyeball hanging out.
“And that’s the thing – the unthinkable becomes normal. You’re sitting in the car and you hear gunshots and someone has been shot next to you, or one of these crazy people has exploded something. People would find bits of body parts on their roof after an explosion.”
Pachachi set the film in 2006 because this was the year that Shia/Sunni sectarian violence “started to become intense”.
“Of course, this is the fallout from the US invasion, because that’s how they divided the country. They had this attitude of tabula rasa [blank slate]. They didn’t think about the past, and when they did think, it was all about Shia/Sunni. It’s all they saw.
“In February 2006, there was a big explosion at a Shia shrine outside Baghdad and that lit the touch-paper. The Shia Muslims really reacted to that. The explosion was caused by al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of Isis. Suddenly, the city became divided by these big concrete security walls, split according to ethnicities or religions.”
The violence led to a particular, regressive threat against women, she recalls. “Women were under pressure from the religious militia. Lots of women’s bodies were found on the street or thrown in the river, and their bodies had writing on them: ‘This is what happens to fallen women.’ They were killed for wearing the wrong thing, or because they were out of the house. A friend of mine was in a taxi going to the university and the driver said: ‘Did you girls at the university get our letter? We don’t like what the girls are wearing.’ The girls were wearing jeans. And a few weeks later the girls at that university got blown up.”
She remembers being afraid to give a taxi driver directions in case the route she chose put them in the path of an explosion, and feeling guilty for enjoying a coffee with her mother on the same morning that her young son’s school was bombed. On New Year’s Eve, because of the curfew, it wasn’t possible to celebrate without spending the whole night in the house you were visiting, and there were no halls, cinemas or hotels to be used as venues for weddings or events. “All the tiny details of life changed. And we fought it – it wasn’t our choice.”
Asee’s son’s school was closed, leaving him and many other children housebound. “We had a generator for necessary things in the house,” she says, “but we decided to give him all the electricity so he could play Xbox.” As a result of these conditions, says Asee, an entire generation of Iraqi children are “socially isolated. They can’t share anything, not even their feelings.” Her son “always thinks he is the champion and he is the hero, because he plays Xbox. When he played Monopoly with a neighbour and lost the game, he got upset because he couldn’t imagine losing against another child.”
Asee runs workshops on peace-building and conflict resolution with civil society groups in Baghdad. She works with many young people born around 1999 or 2000, who are now coming of age and “wouldn’t recognise what kind of life we older Iraqis had, because they were born in the middle of the tragedy.
“There used to be gardens everywhere, people on bicycles everywhere. When I grew up it was a tradition to go to the cinema once a week; when my son was young there was no cinema he could go to. Young people feel they have the right to be angry, to be in the army. They don’t believe in peace. But we tell them what happened in reality: blood everywhere, garbage everywhere. Whenever someone died, I had to remove their name from my mobile phone. I thought I’d soon just be a name needing to be removed from someone else’s mobile.”
Asee does find some bleak humour in the situation. She recalls having to hide alcohol in a Fanta bottle. “So now when I say: ‘I want a Fanta,’ my friends say: ‘You mean a vodka.’”
Both Pachachi and Asee remind me that the story of Iraq is not just about one invasion, one war or one event. “There were many, many women of my mother’s age living through the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s,” Asee says. “They didn’t tell their stories of how they lived without men and built their lives. It happened again in 1991 in the Gulf war and it happened again in 2003.”
Pachachi mentions the sanctions that preceded the latest US occupation “tearing society to shreds” and describes an “ongoing relentless loss that people have had for decades. It’s about the loss of the place you thought you lived in, the people you thought you lived with, major cultural institutions being blown up.” Jabbouri feels the country has been viewed with ignorance by the rest of the world: “Iraq has been presented for decades as a source of evil and cruelty and a threat to its neighbours and the world. The media did not differentiate between the dictator and the individual citizens of the country.” Another Day in Baghdad will show the lives of ordinary citizens, she says, which are “absent in the media and absent from the conscience of the world. It was very easy to blame these absent people and hold them responsible for what happened [on 9/11] in a place thousands of miles away, such as the United States.”
While Jabbouri stayed in Baghdad throughout the occupation, Asee was forced to leave in 2007 to protect her son. He was cared for by relatives in Jordan while Asee pursued her asylum case (successfully) in Sweden. She returned to Baghdad as soon as her son was old enough to go away safely to college. Like Jabbouri, she feels a powerful love for the city: “I’m from this place; I have to defend it against all the things that pushed me out.”
All three women say that life in Baghdad has improved somewhat. Explosive violence and intimidation have been replaced by a wary shell shock, with economic difficulties, inadequate infrastructure, basic services and state corruption – which, says Jabbouri, “has now become the culture of the society as a whole”. She warns: “The space of our freedoms narrows day after day, by which I mean personal freedoms, especially for women of all political parties, who are demanding their rights.”
Speaking to Pachachi, Jabbouri and Asee, I am struck by the way these women’s individual lives, their pride as Iraqis and their love for Baghdad, their political activism, feminism, intellect and creativity are indivisible from one another. All three mention the power of art in resisting oppression and representing viewpoints that usually go unseen. For Jabbouri, Pachachi’s film will be a corrective to macho, war-fetishising stereotypical depictions of the Middle East. Another Day in Baghdad aims to “express a feminist stand against destruction and patriarchal control in the world, from international patriarchy to local social and cultural patriarchy”.
It also foregrounds women’s stories and promotes women’s authorship behind the camera, in a year when, despite the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, neither the Golden Globes nor the Baftas nominated any women in their best director category and a major study showed no improvement for women directors in Hollywood in more than a decade. Pachachi says: “This film is a small step toward bringing women back into history and into film art as active actors and not passive ‘things’.”