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.

Jane Arraf
Muhsen (l.) had always dreamed of becoming a musician, and taught himself to play the violin. Last year he entered a new arts academy not able to read a note of music; recently, he played in his first concert with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

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.

"I saw a Japanese girl playing violin and I really liked her," says Fatima, now 12 and one of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra's youngest trainees.

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.

She'd had no musical training when they enrolled her at the Peace Through Art academy founded by Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) director Karim Wasfi two years ago.

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.

Orchestra's history

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.)

The Ministry of Culture has begun paying salaries to INSO members, but the orchestra still does not have an operating budget. It has no rehearsal hall and no money for supplies like reeds for the woodwinds or replacement parts.

And there are regular power cuts that often halt rehearsals, leaving orchestra members in the dark.

At the recent rehearsal, administrative manager Furqan Khalid was trying to make sure there would be enough diesel for the generator to run the lights for the next day's concert. "I've been here since yesterday night," he says. One of his main tasks is coordinating with Baghdad security commanders to get the instruments through the checkpoints.

Last year, Mr. Khalid says he slept in the street with the instruments once when they couldn't get them to the hall because of the evening curfew.

Veteran members help cultivate teens

On the dark and dusty backstage on a recent rehearsal day, older musicians – some of whom have been with the orchestra for 40 years – coached the teenagers.

"The mix sometimes creates instability musically and artistically, but both [groups] are learning," says Wasfi, the director. "The older are learning how to deal with the younger ones and the younger ones are learning from the professionals."

On stage, Ranya Nashat sits laughing with a pair of French horn players three times her age.

"They're amazing – they treat me like their granddaughter," says Ranya, who plans to study physics and nuclear engineering. For this concert, horn player Mehdi Khasaf, who has played in the orchestra since 1971, is letting Ranya play first horn as a reward for finishing her high school exams.

The young women are stunning in elegant dresses and evening gowns; the men are in black suits. Admission is free, but the run-down theater is only half full. Because of security concerns and power cuts, the concert is held midafternoon and many in the audience have taken time off work.

After the concert, Muhsen is beaming in his new suit, searching for his father and friends, who had snapped photos and waved as he played. "I thought it would be harder but it was so easy – it's much easier than it looks," he says. "I'm so happy."

Reporters on the Job: The story behind the story

One of correspondent Jane Arraf’s most indelible memories of the Iraq war was the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra’s first public concert after Saddam Hussein was toppled from power.

It was June 2003, and what was left of the orchestra after a decade of sanctions and war gathered at the Convention Center. The guest of honor was L. Paul Bremer, the US administrator of the new Iraq. Flanked by Blackwater guards with submachine guns, Mr. Bremer declared that the concert signaled Iraq’s return to normalcy.

It wasn’t. But that didn’t matter.

As the well-dressed Iraqis sang “My Homeland,” Iraq’s de facto national anthem, many had tears streaming down their faces.

“I’ve known some of those musicians since the 1990s, when they drove taxis to survive,” says Jane. They suffered much since. “Hearing them rehearse and perform is never just a musical experience – it’s an affirmation that there’s an Iraqi spirit that can’t be extinguished.”

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