Young Iraqis find solace in the symphony
Iraqis such as 12-year-old Fatima Odei, one of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra's youngest trainees, have forged their musical careers amid the trials of daily life in Baghdad.
Fatima Odei's love affair with the violin started in the dark days of the war when, only six years old and sequestered at home, she began watching symphony orchestras on TV.Skip to next paragraph
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It's almost rehearsal time at the National Theatre, where Fatima will perform publicly with the orchestra for the first time tomorrow. Sitting in the theater's cafe with her mother, Rasha Khair al-Din, she professes not to be nervous.
While many members of the orchestra come from musical families, it was Fatima who introduced her parents to the world of classical music.
Fatima and her fellow musicians aren't the only young Iraqis performing classical music. There is the more established National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, but it performs only in the calmer northern region of Kurdistan and outside Iraq.
In contrast, the young INSO members' unlikely musical careers have been forged amid the heat of war in Baghdad, bringing a sweet escape from the daily challenges of a city hardened first by conflict and then the chaos of reconstruction. For some of the students who walked past bodies in the street on the way to school, knowing they had music made them feel they had something to hang onto.
"Everything around us just makes you feel like you live in hell, so when I am holding my violin and start to play it's the only way I can express myself," says Ali Muhsen, a young electrical engineer about to step on stage for the first time with the orchestra.
"It's a dream come true for me," says Mr. Muhsen, who came to the academy in 2010 not able to read a note of music.
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The orchestra began in 1959 – a successor to the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra founded in the 1940s when the capital was a sophisticated regional hub for the arts. But following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, sanctions and the subsequent Iraq war in 2003 led more than half the musicians to flee.
Mr. Wasfi, who took over as director in 2004, has since rebuilt the orchestra and founded his academy – aimed not just at producing new recruits but also giving students a shared love of music that will help bridge religious and sectarian divides. The friends taking time off work to see Muhsen perform are from a group he plays with at a Christian church.
But Wasfi and his musicians still face significant hurdles.
"It takes me two hours to come here and two hours to get back," says Ahmed Abbas, who fights his way to rehearsals through roadblocks and checkpoints from his northern Baghdad neighborhood of Husaiynia, where no one but his family knows he's a musician. (In neighborhoods ruled by militias during the civil war, being a musician was dangerous. In an increasingly religious, conservative Iraq, it's still risky in some places to perform Western music.)