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Q&A: ‘On the Banks of the Tigris’ to deliver hidden history at Temple Beth Israel

On the Banks of the Tigris: The Hidden Story of Iraqi Music is a film about cultural ties and the ways in which history can hide them, according to director Marsha Emerman. It features musicians like the Iraqi-Israeli Yair Dalal, Maqam singer Farida and Ahmed Mukhtar. The Emerald sat down with Emerman this past Tuesday to talk about her third film and the importance of making cross cultural connections. On the Banks of the Tigris will screen at Temple Beth Israel Nov. 20 at 5 p.m. with a Q&A after the screening.

Emerald: How did you get into documentary filmmaking? Where did that start for you?

Marsha Emerman: It started with an interest in photography, which I did at university. I’ve always loved film and I also had a background in sociology, so I suppose it was my interest in visual media and my sociology orientation that came together in documentary filmmaking.

E: Why is cultural identity so interesting to you? Why talk about refugees, especially now?

ME: Especially now, I think refugee issues are important. I mean, we know what’s going on in this country and around the world. There’s not enough understanding of and empathy for refugees. They have been driven out of places and kept out rather than welcomed.  Australia, where I live, has that problem, has that huge problem with refugees and asylum seekers. America has that problem and it might get worse.

Our film [On the Banks of the Tigris] is a counterpoint to that. It explores issues that relate to refugees and to cultural connection, rather than separation. Understanding that people can have that connection across religions, across cultural boundaries, across other boundaries. So basically, it’s about finding, recognizing and celebrating our common humanity rather than dividing people.

E: You shot in Israel for part of the film with the Iraqi Israeli community there and in Europe, Iraq and other places. Can you speak a little bit about your experiences in each place? I’m wondering if it was different than you originally expected it to be.

ME:  Well, I can’t really speak about filming in Iraq, because in all honesty, I didn’t go to Iraq. We hired a crew. Majid was going. Majid has family there still, so we hired an Iraqi crew who worked with him. And I didn’t go.

I went to the other places. We filmed in Israel. We met mainly Iraqi Jewish people. We were in the Iraqi Jewish community in Tel Aviv, a section of Tel Aviv in particular, Ramat Gan, and the amazing thing was how well Majid connected with the people there. He’s an Iraqi from a Muslim background and from an Arab country and they embraced him completely. He felt completely comfortable. It was this immediate connection.

They spoke Arabic. The older Iraqi Jews had not lost their language or their culture. In fact, they were very attached to their culture, very nostalgic about their time in Baghdad. They spoke about the beauty of Baghdad and what they remembered.

There were some very beautiful quotes, very beautiful things that they said in the film. In fact one of the older men in the film Eliya Shasha, an oud player, says when he thinks of Baghdad he might start to cry. He said, “I remember the beautiful hours, beautiful places, the Tigris, the boats, the fish. I can’t forget that I was born in Iraq and I am an Iraqi. Or that “I was born in Baghdad and I am an Iraqi.” He’s still so connected to that identity.

E:Yeah, there’s that longing. Refugees are in-between, that longing for home that they have. You want to go back to the place you are from but you can’t.

ME: And they have that longing because when they lived there, for the most part, people were living harmoniously. There was a real rift that started to happen in the 1940s. And you know, the political situation changed for a number of reasons, but prior to that, Baghdad was a very cosmopolitan city, very multicultural, very multi religious. And people were getting along pretty well.

E:Why feature these specific musicians in the film? What is it about them?

ME: They are peacemakers. They are involved in lot of initiatives for peace. The others, also, they were people who were sympathetic to the purpose of the film. You know, we picked them because they were great musicians and because they understood what we were trying to do.

E: So what is it about music that connects people besides the act of the people coming together? Is music inherently political, too?

ME: Music is one of the strongest possible ways people connect and [that’s] probably because music is so emotional. People can connect with it, they sort of dispense with a lot of the cerebral stuff and tune into it. I think people connect with music in that way. I think music overlaps a lot. Music of different places often have a lot in common with each other, too. Just as people do.

E: Do you think this film then aims to uncover this music then or bring it out?

ME: It’s doing a few different things. The film is called On the Banks of the Tigris: The Hidden Story of Iraqi Music. It’s a movie about how certain things were suppressed very deliberately, so people in Iraq didn’t really know the origins of their own music, which is Majid’s story.  

E: Why screen it here of all places?

ME: Well, we want to screen everywhere. The film has a role to play in helping people understand and open their minds a bit, hopefully. Maybe shatter some stereotypes people have. Maybe shatter some stereotypes of Muslims which is a big issue at the moment. [We have] some serious problems going on there. I think the film has a role to play. We want as many people to see it as possible. Why not, Eugene?

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Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies is the senior A&C editor at the Emerald. A former editor at the youth-run music blog Garage Music News, her written work has been featured in City Pages in Minneapolis, Eugene Weekly and Sirius XM's music blog. She's one of many Minnesotan transplants in Oregon.

Send her tips and questions at [email protected] or check out her work at