The Day Iraq's Music Died

Canadian independent journalist Hadani Ditmars's first glimpse of Baghdad wasn't hunkered in a Humvee full of terrified American soldiers. She'd been there off and on since 1997, reporting for the New York Times and other papers on the effects of the Hussein regime and U.N. sanctions on the Iraqi people. What she found was a humanitarian disaster, but a still-flourishing culture of music and theater; when she went back to Baghdad just after the invasion to finish her recent book, "Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq," that culture was gone. The country had spiraled even further downward into "criminal anarchy and de facto theocracy," and the country's music had died.

Being of mixed French and Lebanese heritage, and speaking Arabic, Ditmars could penetrate layers of Iraqi society other Western reporters could not -- especially the private world of Iraqi women and now-persecuted artists. Though "Dancing" covers some of her hard news assignments, including a tour of Abu Ghraib, the book's greatest achievement is in taking the reader where no other reporter has dared: into the hearts of the Iraqi people themselves.

Dean Kuipers: Why has your book has been attacked by right-wing critics?

Hadani Ditmars: It's not a partisan book. It's subversive in that it's the Iraqi narrative. There's so many books out there -- endless hand-wringing about American foreign policy, and what's good for America. Well, my book is about the impact of that foreign policy on the lives of average Iraqis. But for some reason, I've been demonized by the American Enterprise Institute, which everyone says is a badge of honor.

Kuipers: Showing empathy for the Iraqis is a threat to their war.

Ditmars: The book is unique in that it offers us a sense of perspective that you can't get from most of the journalists' books out there. That's the subversive thing: to humanize the enemy. And to show that Iraq was a secular, middle-class, educated society that is now, thanks to decades of American foreign policy and despotism and sanctions, etc., come close to becoming a failed terrorist state. But it's been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Iraq was a police state, but not every aspect of the state was negative. It had the best health care and education system in the Arab world. Rights for women were enshrined in the constitution. It had the most liberal family law in the Arab world. Post-invasion, the women have been sold down the river. Sherry Blair and Laura Bush, who did their little feminist flag-waving to promote the invasion of Afghanistan in the name of women's rights, seem to have completely forgotten what's going on in Iraq.

Kuipers: Why did you first go to Iraq?

Ditmars: I first went to Iraq on assignment for the New York Times Magazine in 1997, to do a day in the life of an Iraqi hospital, to talk about sanctions and health care issues. So, I hung out in this hospital in Karada, in this middle-class neighborhood of Baghdad, a private hospital run by a nun. A very tough, French-speaking nun who had to negotiate with black-marketeers to buy penicillin -- who performed abortions in this Catholic hospital. Which is pretty mind-blowing, for the average American.

Kuipers: Health care was in crisis because of sanctions and the previous wars?

Ditmars: Yeah. The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years. It really bankrupted the country. And then, the first Gulf War, which killed, by some estimates, 100,000 Iraqis. So many families were left bereft of husbands. In fact, one of the women in my book, Ahlam, who is a beautician and became my friend, her husband had died on the infamous "Highway of Death," which Seymour Hersh so well documented.

So, she was raising two kids in sanctions-plagued Baghdad, and she saved up just enough money to buy her own beauty parlor right before the invasion, and when I saw her after the invasion, she had very few customers, because women were having to wear hijabs, they had no money, they were terrified of going out. So, the beauty parlor was this interesting crucible, for me, of Iraqi society. And I went there before to escape the Baathist minders that we had to pay to spy on us, basically.

Kuipers: Did the women in the beauty parlor give you insights you could not get from interviewing men?

Ditmars: Oh, yeah! Hanging out with a bunch of Iraqi women in a beauty parlor, talking about life, is a vastly different experience than an official press conference. It was New Year's Eve, right after Desert Fox -- Clinton's three-day bombing campaign. We were all stuck in the Al-Rashid Hotel. And I thought, "Well, I've got time to kill, I'll go get a pedicure." So I went to the beauty parlor, and the women looked at me, but I didn't want to get into the fact that I have Lebanese grandparents. So as they're kind of rearranging my feet on the chair, they catch a glimpse of thigh. And the woman says to me, [in Arabic] "Oh, Hadani, you have legs like an Arab woman!" [Laughs] This is kind of an in-joke among women who have curves. I didn't have those skinny little white-girl legs, you know? So that kind of cemented this bond between us.

So then they kind of just took me in. I'd go to Ahlam's house and go to dinner and meet her kids.

But the theater was another place where I could escape the minders. Just like Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, the theater was the place where the dissident poets and intellectuals plied their trade, and through double-meanings that escaped the grasp of stupid bureaucrats, they could critique the government.

Kuipers: As a woman, is it hard to get good information out of Arab men on the street?

Ditmars: If you're in a place where you look like the local girl, you do not benefit from the colonial deference afforded to your blonde-haired, blue-eyed colleague. They get the memsahib treatment. They get the, "Oh, aren't you cute, you're foreign woman? Let me give you candy!" [Laughs] But the men at the Ministry of Information, who are already control freaks by nature and profession, because they are secret policemen, a lot of them, just went into overdrive with me. Because not only was I a foreign journalist, but I looked like their daughter or sister or wife. So they wanted to control my movements even more. I was able to pass as an Iraqi in a lot of Iraqi-only situations, but at the same time, I didn't get the sort of respect that my more Western-looking colleagues did.

The U.N. noted that women and children were better off under Saddam. I was having breakfast with Hans Blix the other day, he was in Vancouver for the World Peace Forum, and he said, "Well, neither is ideal, but I guess that you'd have to say that anarchy is worse than having a police state."

Kuipers: What happened to all your artist friends in Baghdad?

Ditmars: A terrible combination of criminal anarchy and de facto theocracy has killed that old secular culture which existed in pre-invasion Iraq, where you had theater and the Baghdad Philharmonic. All my musician friends have left. The orchestra's been getting death threats. The cellist in the book has become a mercenary. All my playwright friends have left. The theater scene in Iraq was wonderful. Beckett was actually really popular, because "Waiting for Godot" plays so well in police states. It's like Iran after the revolution. Live music is banned in public, in a lot of places. You go to a wedding, it's just DJs. All the educated people are leaving. There's a campaign, now, of assassination against doctors and professors. It's like the Khmer Rouge. The kinds of people that could actually be leaders and help the situation have all left or been killed.

Kuipers: The music has died?

Ditmars: Maqam, which is the essential Iraqi poetic form, it's like tragic, unrequited love songs, sung and played on oud; there's no more maqam in the cradle of civilization. Live music has been banned. Iraq has weathered so many storms, but to think that now, this terrible combination of theocracy and criminal anarchy means that there's no more maqam in Baghdad? It's like no more Beach Boys in L.A.

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