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Defending and Negotiating Modernity in Baghdad's Cinema Spaces, 1950-1958
Abstract by Megan Ekstrom On Session IX-28  (TV, Film, and Theater)

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

2023 Annual Meeting

As Baghdad’s residents flocked to the city’s new and upgraded cinemas during the last decade of the Hashemite monarchy, cinema spaces witnessed the collision of competing interests regarding rituals of modernity. This paper analyzes the ways in which the Iraqi government, cinema owners, and cinemagoers alike acted upon their own visions for which practices should be deemed modern and appropriate in urban cinemas between 1950 and 1958. Among other noteworthy expressions of modern subjectivities, this study especially seeks to consider the phenomenon in which multiple cinemagoers claimed social guardianship over Baghdad’s cinema spaces by issuing public complaints about dissatisfactory amenities and disruptive audience members. While the cinematic history of Iraq remains largely understudied, some recent scholarship has encouraged researchers to address the relationship between urban modernization, film, and the Iraqi cinema’s role as a local microcosm of global trends. Building upon these works, this paper underscores the efforts of the Iraqi state and cinema owners to materially and immaterially sway their audiences toward modern habits. Furthermore, this study highlights the socio-historical context in which cinemagoers accepted and contested these efforts to preserve Baghdad’s cinemas as modern spaces. This paper argues that both the physical development and social environment in Baghdad’s mid-twentieth-century cinemas influenced cinemagoers as they encountered, embraced, and negotiated with the modernization efforts pursued by the government and cinema owners. In order to investigate how material and social factors impacted these intersecting interests, this paper combines social history with urban design and crime prevention theories. Specifically, this study draws from defensible space and routine activities theory to identify instances of mechanical and collective guardianship as well as transgressions of spatial guardianship in Baghdad’s mid-twentieth-century cinemas. This paper applies these theories broadly to Baghdad’s semi-public, semi-private cinema spaces to include the city’s efforts to not only prevent criminal behavior, but undesirable or unmodern behavior more generally. Arabic- and English-language newspapers, government census data, memoirs, fiction, photographs, maps, and filmed interviews form the core of the sources consulted in this study. By adopting urban crime prevention theory as a frame of analysis, this paper seeks to contribute to the social history of cinematic culture in mid-twentieth-century Baghdad and to suggest a possible avenue for interdisciplinary approaches to illuminate how historical expressions of normative and transgressive behaviors occurred in the same urban space.
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