The bass notes of a cello waft down the staircase. In a room off the second floor balcony, the brass instruments are tuning up. And in a crowded makeshift classroom in what used to be an embassy reception hall, teacher Ghada al-Taiy is trying to restore one of the many things that have suffered during the war: manners.
Ms. Taiy, who moves with the grace of the ballet teacher she normally is, has taken on the task of teaching etiquette – an important part of the new Peace Through Art academy for children and teenagers opened by the director of Iraq's symphony orchestra.
The classes, free of charge, are intended to teach students from all backgrounds everything from dining etiquette to the art of conversation. But the real lesson in a country emerging from civil war is how manners can help Iraqis get along with one another.
"After a year, your whole life is going to change," director Karim Wasfi tells parents and students at the recent opening of the center he hopes will become a haven for young people as diverse as Iraq itself. "There is no politics here – no Sunni, no Shiite, no Christian.... This is a place to leave your problems behind."
Mr. Wasfi, the US-educated son of a film star and an Egyptian concert pianist, is the dynamic driving force behind the revival of Iraq's symphony orchestra – the academy, in the slowly reviving neighborhood of Mansour, is his latest project.
LOCATED IN A FORMER EMBASSY, the academy offers music and etiquette classes after school four days a week and all day Fridays. Almost all the students attend either regular high school or music and ballet school, although some don't go to school at all.
Taiy, one of 29 faculty who instruct 109 students, plans to impart the lessons she herself learned studying etiquette in England in the 1990s.
"Children here need it so badly," she says. "For young children particularly, everything has been so random for them … even for the teenagers. This isn't about restricting their freedom – what they wear has nothing to do with me. I want them to learn how to talk to people calmly…. If you know your boundaries and other people's boundaries, then you won't have a problem with people."
On the first day of class on a recent Friday, two dozen teenagers crowd into the room, some sitting on the window ledges and the floor.
Taiy is a mother of four, but in her denim jeans and leopard-print turtleneck, she looks more like a student.
"There is nothing embarrassing here," she tells them. "It's never embarrassing to not know how to eat, how to sit, how to talk … you can ask me anything."
This is not a school aimed at children who have suffered trauma, but as the teenagers introduce themselves it's clear that over the last six years, countless young people here have experienced traumatic events.
BILAL ABBASS, WHO PLAYS THE oud, tells the class he was the only survivor among four friends gunned down in Dora three years ago. For a year after the shooting he stayed in his room.
"For two years I couldn't really talk about it," he says after class. "I was psychologically broken." When he started playing music again a year after the attack, he composed a piece called 'The remainder of hope.' "
Bilal, who wants to be a teacher and to travel, aims to learn from the class how to behave outside Iraq.
"It was really bad in the beginning," of the war, she says. Before she became serious about music, "I just watched TV all day." When the electricity would go out, she says she'd feel frustrated and angry.
"War changes people," Ranya says. "Most people think only of themselves. It's their right, but they should try not to think of themselves all the time."
Her friend Lea Hariri – with flowing black hair, dark eye makeup, and a bag printed with skulls – plays viola. But the 10th-grader's first passion is heavy metal.
Lea went to school during the entire war, even when roads were blocked due to fighting. "I tried my best not to let it affect me," she says. "To take the exams, we walked to school when there was shooting. We saw corpses; it was awful."
"Most Iraqis have issues," she continues. "We wouldn't expect them to be nice, but adults don't understand what we've been through – they're always yelling at us."
Outside in the garden below, its high wall topped with barbed wire, friends who play flamenco guitar and fusion wait for classes to start.
The academy has the same pragmatic philosophy Wasfi has applied to the concerts the orchestra has played in looted, damaged buildings – and plans to play in Nassariyah, Ramadi, Haditha, and Karbala as well as other Iraqi cities where Western classical music would not ordinarily be performed.
"This was not a PR campaign," he says. "It was to overcome the situation and ... have a chance for people to be exposed to something other than people killing each other."•