'The Pianist' of Baghdad -- Losing Music to the Ruins of War

Baghdad, Iraq -- On a recent morning, as nurses dug graves in front of the Al Mansour Hospital, Baghdad University lay in ruins, and the Red Cross warned that the city's medical system was collapsing, two musicians from this wounded city came to our hotel room.

Majid Al-Ghazali and Hisham Sharaf hoped to call relatives outside Iraq on our satellite phone. Hisham's home was badly damaged during the war. "One month ago, I was the director of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra," Hisham said with an ironic smile. "Now what am I?"

As Hisham tinkered with the phone's solar-powered battery we joked that he could direct the telephone exchange. I told Majid we had some sheet music and a guitar for him. "What are notes?" he asked. "We don't even remember."

Majid had a particularly rough experience. During the first week of bombing, a neighbor called the secret police and turned him in for visiting with foreigners. He was jailed the next day. After the "fall" of Baghdad, the same neighbor claimed he was actually part of the secret police. Majid is terrified now.

"I think they want my house," he said. "No place is safe."

I first met Hisham at the Baghdad School of Folk Music and Ballet last year on one of my visits with Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end sanctions on Iraq and prevent further aggression against the Iraqi people. Hisham and Majid taught at the school during the day and rehearsed with the orchestra at night. As the war approached, I told Hisham how meaningful the song "O Finlandia" has been to many people in the United States. At least 150 families who lost loved ones on 9/11 had used this peace anthem as part of memorial services. Sibelius composed the melody in the late 19th century. Following World War I, lyrics were created emphasizing the common aspirations and dreams shared by all humanity.

Hisham had chuckled then, and couldn't resist pointing out the irony that someone from the United States wanted to teach his students a peace song. "OK," he said, "Sing it for me. We can do this." Within two days, an entire class was singing an Arabic transliteration of the song.

Now, as they finished with the phone and said goodbye, I wondered if the hopeful, idealistic verses might embitter them today.

The next morning the two returned, shaken and distraught. They had approached U.S. soldiers the previous evening asking for help to protect their school. The soldiers said it was not their job and ordered Hisham and Majid to go away. They went to the entrance of the school hoping they could somehow protect it alone. Five armed men arrived. Majid, Hisham and Hisham's brother pled with them not to attack the school. The looters argued, "We are simple people. Poor people. Soon there will be no food, no money, and we have no jobs. You are rich people."

"Please," Majid said, "we will give you the instruments, give you the furniture, but don't destroy the music, the records, the history."

"No," the armed men said. "Baghdad is finished." They ransacked the school, broke many instruments, burned the music and the records.

Why do desperate people commit deplorable acts of mindless destruction? I don't know. But through decades of warfare and sanctions, powerful elites in Iraq, the United States and the United Kingdom have ignored millions of Iraq's impoverished people, who have suffered tremendously.

"Here," Hisham said, "listen to this. This is all we have left." He handed me headphones borrowed from a Norwegian television correspondent. The orchestra was playing "O Finlandia." Listening to the children craft their music, I softly sang the words:

"This is my song, O God of all the nations. A song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is. Here are my dreams, my hopes, my holy shrine. But other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as deep and true as mine."

I stopped. Hisham had begun to cry.

PNS contributor Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness and the Iraq Peace Team. She has lived continuously in Iraq since January 2003.


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