With his oud, this musician transports audiences to Iraq

Rahim AlHaj, who has been nominated for Grammys, hopes to draw attention to the experiences of those caught in violent conflict in Iraq and elsewhere.

Pinar Istek/IWMF
Iraqi-American musician Rahim AlHaj plays his oud, a string instrument commonly used in the Middle East and North Africa, during a rehearsal before a performance on May 5 at the Logan Center at the University of Chicago.
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Rahim AlHaj's music career was launched in second grade when his teacher in Baghdad brought an oud to class and let him take the pear-shaped stringed instrument home on the condition that he take lessons. “I put my hand on this beautiful oud and the electricity came to me,” he recalls.

As a teenager, he composed a song that was regarded as critical of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Targeted as an enemy of the regime at age 17, he served time in prison and eventually fled Iraq for Jordan after the first Gulf War. At the border, the childhood oud was confiscated because he lacked permission to take it out of the country. 

He has since gained a new country – the U.S. – and a new oud. The two-time Grammy nominee is focused on making music he hopes will help audiences understand the plight of those in Iraq and elsewhere. 

Tesbih Habbal, a young Syrian who heard him play in Chicago recently, says the music reminded her of home and the tragedy taking place there. “It was a mixture of sadness and despair and hope in something,” she says. “Sometimes through such experiences you can create a beautiful thing.”

Rahim AlHaj knows about loss. He knows about losing his country and losing the beloved musical instrument that set him on his life’s path. The distress of fellow Iraqis still cuts deeply. But he is driven to promote peace and empathy in a new home thousands of miles away.

His voice is the oud, a pear-shaped ancestor of the lute, mandolin, and other stringed instruments.

At a recent concert here, a large painting splashed in red depicts a boy whose home in Baghdad has just been destroyed by a car bomb. The pigeons he nurtured have flown away. Mr. AlHaj, accompanied by five classical musicians and a cajon (box drum) player, express the boy’s loss with music that builds a swelling sense of melancholy. 

In one sad moment, the oud seems as though it is reciting a prayer. And Mr. AlHaj seems as though he may be crying.

The music, from the 2017 album “Letters from Iraq,” is deeply personal for Mr. AlHaj. Its message about the suffering of Iraqis and others around the world is so urgent for him that he is continuing to tour it this year in cities such as Chicago, Austin, and Iowa City, despite a wealth of other projects and a subsequent album, “One Sky,” released last year.

Mr. AlHaj has embraced far more than loss since coming to the United States 19 years ago as a political refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He has become an advocate for those who have suffered from war, and like himself, tumbled into homelessness. At a time when migration is one of the hottest issues in his new homeland, he speaks out firmly on behalf of immigrants.

“I’m a man with a mission, and we have only so much time,” says Mr. AlHaj moments before his concert at the University of Chicago. His mission, he explains to the audience, “is about human rights and how this planet needs to be nurtured as a gift for our children.”

‘Rooted in deep emotions’

Mr. AlHaj has made an impact. He has performed on 12 albums, twice been nominated for a Grammy, and received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has melded his music with Iranian and Indian performers, written compositions for orchestras, played with the band R.E.M. and jazz groups, and joined in performances and a CD with a group that promotes bonds across the U.S-Mexico border.

Atesh Sonneborn, a former associate director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, says Mr. AlHaj’s synthesis of Pan-Arabic and Western music is powerful. “My take is that it is rooted in deep emotions, and something we call the heart,” he says.

Despite many setbacks, Mr. AlHaj marvels at his good fortune.

It started in Baghdad, when his second-grade teacher brought an oud to class. “I put my hand on this beautiful oud and the electricity came to me,” he recalls. The teacher let him take it home, and the next day allowed him to keep it on the condition that he take formal classes, which he did.

As a teenager, he composed a song that was interpreted as being critical of Mr. Hussein’s rule. Targeted as an enemy of the regime at 17 years old, he served two terms in prison, for a total of two years. He doesn’t talk much about prison except to say he saw a friend killed, and that he suffered torture.

He fled Iraq for Jordan with fake identification papers after the first Gulf War, but at the border the oud he had clutched from childhood was confiscated because he lacked permission to take it out of the country. He calls that his most painful loss. Fearful of Iraqi agents, he soon moved to Syria, where his musical career flourished.

After years of waiting, he was accepted by the U.S. as a political refugee, and given only two days to prepare to leave. He wound up in Albuquerque, where a social worker told him he would be working at a McDonald’s.

“I said, What kind of conservatory is that? My second instrument is a violin.” 

He didn’t take the job and mulled going home. He was working as a night watchman when a friend offered to help pay for a recording. He figured he could raise enough money from it to return to Syria.

They only had enough money for one hour of recording time, and so he made the album, “The Second Baghdad,” with no retakes. That first album led to gigs around Albuquerque. At one, he met then-Columbia University music professor Steven Feld, who invited him to come to Columbia to perform. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had just begun. Mr. Feld helped him record his second album, ”Iraq Music in a Time of War.”

“The way he introduces each piece and the music really gives you a window into the mind of somebody who has experienced multiple wars and tragedies, but also reaches out to the deep side of music to come out whole,” says Mr. Feld. 

His initial albums were solos, but then Mr. AlHaj started to compose and collaborate. He also realized that he had found a home in Albuquerque, and that he needed to tell the story of others still searching for theirs. 

“I’m obsessed about music and arts, except that I have a zillion things to do in this country to make a difference,” he says, adding how American he feels because of his love for the country and how hard he has worked. Every year on March 21, the anniversary of his arrival in the U.S., he celebrates with a special concert.

He also conducts workshops and sessions with younger audiences in which he explains his music and what it was like to grow up in Iraq. In Chicago, he spent two days going to public schools, some in low-income, African American, and Latino communities.

As a refugee himself, he speaks out forcefully for immigrants. “Immigration makes any country more powerful and advanced and greater,” he says. “We need not just doctors and musicians. We need everyone.”

Yet his bonds to Iraq run deep, and “Letters from Iraq” illustrates that.

Influential correspondence

Visiting Baghdad in 2015, he was moved by a letter in which his disabled nephew told how he narrowly escaped death in a bombing at the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence. 

“I was in tears,” Mr. AlHaj recalls.

He went about collecting other letters and used them in a lecture showing Americans what Iraqi women and children had endured. But he felt he needed to do more. So he composed the album, which later included illustrations by Iraqi artist Riyadh Neama that are used as a backdrop for Mr. AlHaj’s concerts.

On stage here for his presentation of “Letters from Iraq,” Mr. AlHaj was joined by three violinists, a bass, a cello, and the cajon player. A small, thin man with an expressive smile, Mr. AlHaj chatted casually and joked with the audience before performing.

But when the performance began, he became somber, leading the players with his eyebrows, a nod, or smile. The sweep of the music was classical Western, with Mr. AlHaj stepping in and out with his oud to lead the way.

At a reception afterward, an Iraqi university student who had only arrived a year ago in the U.S. said he wished that the music had been more traditional, and that it had not been so sad. A Kurdish musician from northern Iraq wished that there had been some music pointing to Kurds’ suffering in Iraq.

Others heard something else.

“I felt like it was one long meditation because of the profound effect on me,” says audience member Tamara LaVille. It surprised her, she adds, that the “oud was almost a hushed bystander.” 

Tesbih Habbal, a young Syrian from Aleppo who left her country in 2013, says the music reminded her of home and the tragedy taking place there. “It was a mixture of sadness and despair and hope in something,” she says. “Sometimes through such experiences you can create a beautiful thing.” 

This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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