This Battle of the Bands Is Peaceable
The New York Times
by BARBARA JEPSON
Soon after the Arab press reported that the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington would play alongside each other at the Kennedy Center, Hisham Sharaf, the director of the Iraqi orchestra, was shot at as he drove down a highway near his home in Baghdad. A bullet penetrated his windshield, but missed him.
"I don't know who or why," Mr. Sharaf said recently from Baghdad. "I think maybe it's because of the concert. On Al Jazeera, they say they are surprised that the orchestra goes to Washington at this time. We don't have political reasons. Maybe the American side thinks about that, but we go to play music, to see the American people and to show we have culture. Some people think we have only desert and camels."
The concert, a free, hourlong event on Tuesday evening, mixes European classics with recent and traditional music by Iraqi composers. Leonard Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony, shares the podium with Mohammed Amin Ezzat, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony. "We're trying to find a way to use music to combat what was a tragic circumstance," Mr. Slatkin said from Washington, "no matter what side of the Iraqi argument you come down on." But political overtones have shadowed the venture. It is the first of several initiatives by the State Department to restore cultural exchange between Iraq and the United States after nearly 13 years of United Nations sanctions. Perhaps inevitably, some argue that the Iraqi orchestra is being used.
"I'm furious that our government is trying to put a happy face on the extinguishment of the cradle of civilization," said Patrick Dillon, an independent filmmaker who shot in Baghdad before and after the American-led assault and is a vocal critic of the war effort. Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center and a cultural ambassador for the State Department's CultureConnect program, said from Washington that the idea for the invitation was entirely his. "It's critical to give visibility not just to the Iraqi National Symphony but to all the arts in Iraq," Mr. Kaiser said. "I also believe the arts can play a role in healing and a role in educating us about Iraq, and the sooner the better in both cases."
The Kennedy Center is covering the cost of the National Symphony's appearance and the use of the hall, and the State Department is paying transportation and lodging expenses for the 60-member Iraqi orchestra, Mr. Kaiser said. But in his view, the event has no more political significance than the restoration of the State Department's Fulbright scholarship program in Iraq.
To muddy the waters further, two assistants to L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian administrator in Iraq, play with the understaffed Iraqi orchestra as substitutes. Asked how he felt about their participation, Mr. Sharaf, the orchestra's director, said: "The problem every time is between the governments, not musicians. We speak the same language — do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do."
The political connection has proved advantageous for the orchestra. One assistant, who started a corporate donor program for the Coalition Provisional Authority, has helped solicit donations to the orchestra. Yamaha responded by providing 30 new brass and woodwind instruments, and Steinway & Sons will lend a grand piano. Better string instruments are still needed. As a result of Mr. Bremer's inquiries, the Major Orchestra Library Association, an American-based international service organization, has also become involved. It has begun to send more than 350 scores to lay the groundwork for a national repository available to all Iraqi musical organizations. Other institutions are assisting the School of Music and Ballet in Baghdad, where many orchestra members teach.
The school was looted and trashed after Mr. Hussein's ouster. Desks were broken, pianos ruined and other instruments damaged or stolen. Orchestra members say the vandals were angry, impoverished individuals who viewed the state-supported school as a government entity. The school was reopened on a limited basis, but when the Kennedy Center concert was announced, more instruments were attacked.
"There is an element in Iraq that is not happy that Iraqis are playing Western music or teaching Western music to their children," said Allegra Klein, a violinist. She founded a group called Musicians for Harmony, in New York, which raised $1,000 for the Iraqi orchestra at a benefit concert.
Hers is only one of several such efforts. Operation Harmony, a project conceived by the National Endowment for the Arts, appealed to the classical music community for instruments, musical accessories and cash to help Iraqi music students. It also appealed to the Pentagon about the logistics of airlifting the donated items, however, and that raised a few hackles. "You have a government agency related to the military involved in the music scene, which makes it very political," said Wafaa Al-Natheema, an educator and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Near Eastern and African Studies in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Al-Natheema hopes to arrange future tours for the orchestra and helps edit an unofficial newsletter on its activities.
"If the U.S. government really wanted to help," she said, "they could use a nongovernmental agency, a charitable institution like the institute or the U.N." Such extramusical baggage has not dimmed the orchestra's enthusiasm for the Kennedy Center concert. "It's the first dream we get," Majid Alghazali, the principal second violinist, wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Ezzat, the conductor, who fled Iraq for Sweden in 2002 after being asked to compose a score for a novel written by Saddam Hussein (as he had done once before), returned last fall. "They told me the orchestra has more future hope, and I came back to continue on, to make this hope for us," he said from Baghdad. "In the past, our orchestra was not free. Now we are free. We make our future." Part of the hope involves increasing the orchestra's size, wages and artistic caliber. In contrast, say, to Iraqi playwrights, who typically required approval of their scripts and casts to win funds from the Hussein government, the orchestra mostly suffered from benign neglect.
Founded in 1959, it once had a German conductor and an international membership. During the 1970's and 80's, it had more than 70 musicians and occasionally toured Russia, Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan. Guest artists and teachers regularly visited Baghdad. But its budget diminished over the years. Then as now, most members required a supplementary job, like teaching, driving a taxi or selling coal.
In 1994, when Mr. Alghazali joined the orchestra, his salary was about $1.50 per month. By 2002, musicians were earning $10 to $20 per month. Now Iraq's Ministry of Culture pays them $120 per month. Mr. Alghazali reports that orchestras in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon pay about $500 per month. He believes that the Iraqi orchestra will ultimately need to match that figure to attract and retain the best players. There is talk of starting a musicians' union.
The history of the Iraqi National Symphony is in some ways a microcosm of life in this war-torn country during the last five decades. It was disbanded in 1966 by a government official who is said to have disliked Western classical music. From 1968 to 1971, when the orchestra was allowed to resume public performance, members rehearsed surreptitiously at the home of a cellist, Munther Jamil Hafidh, who taught many of the players at the School of Music and Ballet. And in 1985, during the eight-year war with Iran, two children of the assistant conductor, Abdul Razzak Ibraheem Mahdi, were killed when his house was hit by an Iranian missile.
Recent skirmishes have also taken a toll. Rasheed Concert Hall, one of the orchestra's performing spaces, was bombed during the air campaign in the spring. (The orchestra now plays in a spacious air-conditioned hall at the Palace of Conferences.) The second floor of Mr. Sharaf's house was accidentally shelled by American troops during a firefight. His mother was injured, and he was hit by shrapnel in a finger. Omar Hassan Alshikh, who joined the orchestra's cello section in 1991 and began working for the United Nations last April, was seriously injured in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August. He now lives in Amman, Jordan, where he was taken for medical treatment.
The United Nations sanctions — imposed in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and maintained after the gulf war — had predictably adverse effects on musical life. Although the Iraqi orchestra played 140 concerts after Mr. Ezzat became conductor, in 1989, it did so under increasing deprivation. The sanctions made it hard to obtain replacement scores, strings, valves and other essential equipment. In addition, talented performers left Iraq for Jordan or Europe. The orchestra's present ranks include Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Assyrian Christians. They also include three women.
In June, the orchestra gave its first concert after the war. About 45 musicians played "My Nation," an anthem predating Mr. Hussein's rule. According to press reports, audience members wept as they sang. Since that event, rebroadcast three times on Iraqi television, the orchestra has emerged as a symbol of courage and perseverance through suffering.
Meanwhile, another symbol of hope for greater cultural understanding stands at the School of Music and Ballet. Early media reports after the war lamented the destruction of a keethara: an unusual piano with a dual keyboard, one tuned to Western scales, the other to Eastern quarter-tones. Actually, the keethara is intact, damaged but reparable. It will be far more difficult to heal the wounds of the past and sort out the political challenges of the present.
"Before, if you were not near the government and you did not talk badly about the government, you were safe," Mr. Sharaf said. "Now we can talk freely, but we don't know who is the enemy and who likes or doesn't like this music. But we hope — and I think all the Iraqi people think — that the future is better."
We left Amman, Jordan, at midnight on a cool November evening, and nearly five hours later drove into Iraq, as the early morning sun rose over the golden desert. I had finally arrived in this awe-inspiring land known as "the cradle of civilization." We'd heard that the next five hours on the highway to Baghdad would be plagued with bandits and rebels. Fortunately, we did not encounter any, though we did pass several military convoys manned by machine-gun–toting American soldiers, who glared into our car as we drove by.
The city of Baghdad was vibrant and beautiful, in spite of burnt-out buildings and immense concrete barriers erected around American-occupied buildings and hotels after the recent war. Traffic was chaotic, due to broken street lights and frequent blackouts, and most cars looked old and battered for a lack of spare parts—a by-product of the UN trade sanctions endured by the Iraqi people since 1990.
My excitement grew as we approached our destination, a small hotel in the relatively safe district of Karrada. We checked in to a modest but well-appointed apartment, which had a gas tank in the kitchen to light the stove. The owners were Christian, and in spite of the fact that I was traveling with someone who'd grown up in Baghdad, they kept a watchful eye on us Americans.
Two days earlier, I had flown into the Jordanian capital of Amman with a suitcase full of instruments, strings, and sheet music for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) and the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad. The organization I represent—Musicians For Harmony, Inc., in New York City—had held a stateside concert in
September to benefit them. Through this event, I met Wafaa' Al-Natheema, an Iraqi-American woman from Boston who organized our charitable mission, and together we traveled to Iraq.
A short time after the 9/11 attacks, a group of chamber musicians– including the Guarneri, Juilliard, and Shanghai quartets, and Musique Sans Frontières (Musicians Without Borders)–formed Musicians For
Harmony as a way to help provide solace for those affected by the attacks while fostering peace through music. The INSO, under the auspices of the Institute for Near Eastern and African Studies, was one of two recipients of the nonprofit organization's fundraising efforts in 2003.
We spent our first evening in Baghdad in our room, as it was not advisable to go anywhere after dark. The hotel staff brought us dinner—a delicious local specialty of freshly caught, fire-grilled fish—and we watched programs from all over the Middle East on our satellite-TV hookup.
The next day, I awoke to the hauntingly beautiful strains of the call to prayer from the local mosque. After breakfast, we took a taxi to the home of one of the most senior and revered musicians in the INSO–the principal violist Munther Jamil Hafidh–to deliver our donations. Now 72 years old, he has been with the orchestra since its official inception in 1959.
Munther greeted us with a sparkle in his blue eyes and a teasing manner that reminded me of musicians I'd known my whole life. His studio was filled with instruments, including a majestic Steinway grand piano–a gift from Saddam Hussein to the famous Iraqi pianist Beatrice Ohanessian, who left it behind when she moved to the States after the first Gulf War. There were also books on art and music in both English and Arabic. Munther is also quite an accomplished painter and was working on a canvas displayed on an easel near his bookshelves.
The INSO's manager, Hisham Sharaf, arrived soon after, and we presented our gifts. Among them were a quarter- and a half-size violin that I had used as a child, as well as dozens of strings, pegs, bridge blanks, and sound posts. These would be used by the first ever (to my knowledge) Iraqi violin maker, Nabil Abd al-Salaam, who is also the orchestra's principal cellist. In fact, Nabil made an instrument during the war that was the subject of the short film The Rose Violin. Filmmaker Patrick Dillon brought the violin back to the United States after the war. It is now being displayed around the country.
In keeping with traditional Iraqi hospitality, Munther and his wife invited us to stay for lunch, and offered a lavish spread of local dishes–a few of which included the omnipresent date, of which (I was told) there are over 400 varieties in Iraq. Among the many visitors to Munther's house that afternoon was his nephew, a venerable professor of physical chemistry now living in London, who returned recently to help revitalize the university system in Iraq.
The next morning, Hisham took us to the Baghdad Convention Center, a compound within the so-called Green Zone that houses most of the major ministry buildings. It now also serves as a replacement for the concert hall, which was bombed during the war and subsequently looted.
On the way, we picked up the conductor, Mohammed Amin Ezzat—a soft-spoken, dignified man, who told me of his desire to obtain proper scores and parts for the INSO. Upon arriving, we walked along a narrow path lined on both sides with sandbag barricades and razor wire, and then passed through four security checks before gaining entrance. As we approached the auditorium (just down the hall from the room where US generals hold daily press briefings), I heard the familiar sound of a French horn player warming up for the rehearsal.
I was surprised to find that the concert hall was pitch black, but the musicians seemed used to this. As my eyes adjusted, I recognized a violinist named Bashar, whom I had met the day before at Munther's house. He was studying at the local university and graciously offered to lend me his instrument so I could participate in the rehearsal. As we were chatting, violinist Annie Melconian joined us. She was a dark-haired and bubbly young Armenian woman–a biologist by training who had lost her job during the war and now earned only her $120 a month from the orchestra (a significant increase from the $20 that musicians were paid each month under the Saddam regime, but still not enough to cover their monthly rent). Most of the musicians, as it turned out, had held other jobs but had also been let go because of the war.
In spite of this, Annie was upbeat and excited about the prospect of going to America with the orchestra for its December 9 appearance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. In its first foreign performance in 11 years, INSO would present a joint concert with the [American] National Symphony Orchestra.
Another violinist, named Adnan, came over and asked in broken English if I knew the Bach Double Concerto. After we played a few bars together, the lights suddenly went on and the musicians started to take their places. Hisham invited me to sit with the principal second violinist—Majid Al-Ghazali—and we began to rehearse.
What a wonderful feeling to play with the very same musicians whose plight I had been following for nearly a year. We started with "Morning" from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. I was worried I wouldn't understand Maestro Ezzat's directions, since I don't speak Arabic. But he called out the rehearsal letters in English, and the dynamics and tempos in Italian, so I felt right at home.
At the break, I returned my borrowed violin to Bashar. We were told that Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was about to arrive and I noticed bomb-sniffing dogs checking every row of the 2,000-seat auditorium. Army personnel instructed the musicians to exit the hall, leaving their instruments behind for the dogs to inspect.
When we returned, I was delighted to hear Bremer announce that the Major Orchestra Librarians' Association had gathered music from orchestras throughout the United States for the INSO. He added, "All across Iraq, people are working hard to return the country to normal. You play a very important role in that mission."
We spent our third and final day in Baghdad at the Music and Ballet School, where many teachers are also members of the Iraqi Orchestra. Students range in age from kindergarten to high school, and there are classes in all subjects, not just music and dance.
A heavily armed guard greeted us at the door and we were then given a tour of the school. There was a piano in nearly every room, including in one room a very rare keethara—a "double piano" that features both a western-style and an Arabic quarter-tone keyboard.
Sadly, many of the school's furnishings and musical instruments were damaged in the war and subsequent looting. But seven pianos had already been repaired, and they are slowly replacing other instruments that were smashed or stolen, though the need is still great.
As we passed the schoolyard, children were playing games and chanting, "Long live Iraq!" while another armed guard stood nearby. We were shown buildings that had been occupied by American troops during the war and were badly burned. After seeing the conditions under which these children had to study, we hoped to find a way to continue helping them, even after we were gone.
I was truly sorry to leave this beautiful country and my new friends. However, after returning home, I was consoled by an email from Majid, who wrote: "You are a member of the INSO because you are a musician."
This would not have been possible without the universal language of music, which knows no ethnic, national, or religious boundaries.
Violinist ALLEGRA KLEIN is an arts administrator from New York City. She earned her B.A. cum laude in music from Harvard University, and subsequently founded Sterling Music Ensembles, which provides music for weddings and other events. Klein has worked for Carnegie Hall, Sony Classical, Marlboro Music Festival, and the New York Youth Symphony, where she is currently director of operations. In 2001, she founded Musicians For Harmony, Inc., which brings together music of different cultures to further the cause of world peace.