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Two batons and a harmonic convergence

Surviving dictatorship, destitution, and war, the Iraqi symphony travels to Washington for a joint concert - and lunch with Bush.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2003



WASHINGTON

Last May 1, Hisham Sharaf marked President Bush's declaration of the end of major hostilities in Iraq by setting out on his own mission. The director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) began driving around Baghdad to the houses of every member of the beleaguered orchestra to tell them it was time to get back to making music.

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"I told them we must return, we must put culture and art back in Iraqi peoples' lives. We must show the world we are a cultured and peaceful people," says Mr. Sharaf. The streets were still not safe, and all three of the orchestra's performing venues had been bombed or looted and burned. But no musicians refused. The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) was reborn.

More than seven months later, the clarinetist and music teacher was in the White House Wednesday, discussing over lunch the symphony and the future of Iraq with the man who toppled Saddam Hussein. "It was unbelievable," says Sharaf, smiling. "I had never seen any president before, not even Saddam," who had disregarded the Iraqi orchestra and its classical strains. "But there I was," he adds, "talking about music and Iraq with the president of the United States."

For many of the 63 members of the INSO who visited Washington this week, finding themselves performing in America - or simply explaining a traditional Iraqi instrument to wide-eyed schoolchildren - was one of those experiences that renewed their faith in the unexpected turns of life.

Take Luay Habeeb Yousif. The young violinist had to close his eyes and open them again Tuesday night to reassure himself that he was indeed sitting on the concert hall stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with world-renowned musicians like cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"Every musician dreams of sitting alongside such professionals and learning from them," he says. "It's my dream to acquire that level." He was also able to perform for an uncle he hadn't seen since he was nine, when the uncle and his family left Iraq for Michigan. The family had occasionally sent money back to Iraq to allow him to continue with the violin. Now they were seeing the results.

But Mr. Yousif says he has another dream that came true this week. When the INSO joined the National Symphony Orchestra on the Kennedy Center stage Tuesday, the stars of the show were not just the Iraqi musicians, whose trip was sponsored by the State Department. Also starring were the tar, the oud, the santur, the daf, the zarib, and the balaban.

Those traditional Iraqi and Kurdish instruments are what gave an hour-long concert featuring classical Western and Iraqi music its distinctive and exotic air. The string and wind instruments - the oud, for example, is a bass lute, the balaban a Middle Eastern relative of the oboe - produce music rich in quarter notes that is unlike any found in Western classical music.

And for an orchestra that has long suffered - and even now still confronts - charges that it is a foothold of Western cultural imperialism in an Arab and Muslim land, bringing the ancient strains of the desert and fertile crescent to Washington is important.

"By bringing this traditional music here and mixing it with classical sounds, we can begin to accomplish two goals," says Abdulla Jamal Saguirma, who composed a piece for the concert here. "We give Kurdish music a wider audience among Western people who don't know our music, but we can also gradually introduce Western classical music to our people who don't know it, either."

Taking a picture of his children from his pocket, Mr. Saguirma says: "They would still be living in what amounted to a large prison" if Mr. Hussein had not been removed from power, "but now we have a rebirth, a coming back to life, and music must help in this advance." The incorporation of Kurdish musicians into the INSO is one example of that "advance." Such would have been unthinkable under Hussein, who disdained the Kurds and their culture, he says.

But the reemergence of the INSO is a tale of fortitude in other ways. For American symphony orchestras that have known financial woes and faced community indifference, the Iraqi experience gives a whole new meaning to hard times.

Musicians were paid less than $20 a month under the regime of Hussein - forcing symphony members to live by other means, like cab driving, teaching, even selling coal. A few were jailed for not bowing to the dictator's whims. Conductor Ezzat, who balked the second time he was ordered to set one of Hussein's novels to music, fled the country in 2002 and took up residence in Sweden.

DURING the war and subsequent looting, music scores were damaged or destroyed. Most instruments, though old, survived because the musicians stowed them at home. Still, some instruments were damaged again after it was announced in September that the symphony would go to Washington.

The four-decade-old orchestra enjoyed its zenith during the 1970s and '80s, but gradually declined under the twin forces of Hussein and United Nations economic sanctions beginning in 1990. Basic needs like replacement strings and reeds became harder to get.

All that has changed now. After a global donation drive, the Major Orchestra Librarians' Association has assembled more than 400 musical scores to augment the 40, all composed before 1875, the INSO had left. Other groups have pledged new instruments, and the State Department is creating a number of Fulbright scholarships in music for Iraq.

As Kurd Ibrahim Mirza, who plays the zarib, a chalice-shaped drum made of mulberry wood, says: "We were isolated, oppressed, we couldn't flourish. But now the walls are down, the music plays again, and I feel the future is up to us."

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