“Ageless Iraq” is one of them, shot in the 1950s to introduce “a new country” to the world, “one that hasn’t forgotten the glories of its history.”
Since this movie was made, Iraq has been the site of repeated conflict and atrocities — chemical warfare, sectarian violence, a US-led invasion, and now ISIS’ blitz across the country. Many observers wonder whether Iraq will even be able to survive as a single, coherent political unit.
Despite the movie’s aged Orientalist tone, it is still a jarring reminder that nothing in history is inevitable and that there was a time when even one of the world’s most problematic countries seemed like it was on a promising trajectory.
“Ageless Iraq is no longer a remote, isolated country,” the narrator says. “Today she is a main junction linking the east and west” — as these European tourists are meant to prove.
“Ageless Iraq” emphasizes the country’s budding modernity, which is presented as a straightforward boon imported from a more advanced western world.
A disciplined police force is credited with keeping Baghdad running safely …
… a city where “the tempo of an age-old way of life contrasts with the swifter rhythm of the new.” The narrator declares that “the 20th century has come to Baghdad, with steel and concrete, with shining cars and wide streets.”
Here’s what Baghdad’s waterfront looked like in the 1950s …
… and here’s what it looked like from the air, with the Shiite Al-Kadhimiya Mosque in the foreground.
“The sport of kings,” horse racing, has apparently also arrived in Baghdad in the 1950s, with horses descended from three British purebreds brought from the UK over two centuries earlier.
A view of the grandstand on race day.
The film soon leaves Baghdad to explore the natural wonders of Mesopotamia, the fertile region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The legendary waterways are credited with making the deserts of Iraq hospitable. The film gushes about Iraq’s agricultural riches: “With water, man has made the desert green with grain and vegetables, rich with spices and dates for all the world.”
The film takes viewers through the marshland of Iraq’s south …
… a place where water has “created a way of life all its own … a way of life well-suited to these strange surroundings.”
“Ageless Iraq” also takes viewers to the Kurdish north, where the narrator can’t resist a Biblical comparison: “When you visit their villages, you begin to remember Jacob and his flocks, or Rebecca at the well.”
The Kurds, “farmers and hunters all,” get screen time capturing their pastoral lifestyle …
… as well as one of their festivals. Here are Kurdish men rocking out to the zorna, a traditional Kurdish pipe.
The film continues on to the port-city of Basra. It’s described as “Iraq’s waterway to the world,” a place where “ships, laden with the goods of the new age, sail out from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean and the Far Orient.”
Iraq’s southern port is described as a Venice-like cultural oasis, organized around waterways lined with historic buildings.
The film heralds the ruins of Iraq’s ancient civilizations, places where “men first began to build and create a settled way of life.”
It takes viewers to the ruins of ancient Babylon …
… then describes the “era of a peace and learning” that came after the Arab conquests and the introduction of Islam.
It describes the “dark ages” that followed the Mongol invasions of the 13th century but comes full circle by explaining that modern industry will lead Iraq to reclaim its former glory.
Oil is a critical ingredient in Iraq’s future: “The revenue from this new wealth is being used to create more wealth for the betterment of the country.”
Iraq was ruled by a monarchy in those days. Here, men in Baghdad gather around a radio to listen to a broadcast of the coronation of King Faisal II in 1953.
Faisal II was overthrown in a coup in 1958 …
… but if there were tensions building, the film doesn’t hint at them. In Faisal II’s day, there were plenty of signs of Iraqi modernity, according to “Ageless Iraq.” Like a new army …
… technologically advanced agriculture …
… and equal opportunities in education. “Now girls as well as the boys can take up almost any profession they choose and know they have a good chance to succeed.”
“The people of today know that life for them is going to be different, and better, far better than it was for their fathers.” Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party took power about 25 years after this film was made.
“Ageless Iraq” is nothing if not optimistic, and a bit self-serving in its depiction of Iraq as a grateful beneficiary of western enlightenment. “Today the streets of the city are alive with the bustle of a young people,” the narrator reads, “who are taking back from the West the means to a brighter future.” The next half-century wouldn’t be quite so simple as that.
You’ve Seen Iraq In The 1950s …
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