Iraq: Students are still hiding their instruments



Students are still hiding their instruments

Going to school is a dangerous mission for every child in Baghdad – but for the students of Iraq’s Music and Ballet School, there is an added threat of being attacked because of their love for music. This article summons the latest news from the musical life in Iraq.

By: Kristina Funkeson, Freemuse

In 2006 there were 200 students at the only musical academy for school-aged children in Baghdad – today there are only 140.

“People fear for the safety of their children”, the school’s headmistress Najiha Hamadi told the news agency Reuters. The reason for the parent’s fear is the emergence of a new kind of militant Islamists, targeting people who practice arts which are considered to be un-Islamic.

The rise of religious fanatics

Hamadi told Reuters that it was after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, that militant religious movements started to gain influence on Iraqi life.

The musical academy was founded in 1968 but has been in decline since the wrecked economy of the 1990’s when UN imposed sanctions on Iraq because of the country’s invasion of Kuwait. However – the situation got even worse after the American invasion in 2003.

“The rise of Islamism was an unintended consequence of the U.S.-led war to remove Saddam, whose secular Baath party had ruthlessly suppressed religious movements”, writes Haider Salahuddin and Aseel Kami for Reuters.

No practice at home
Artistic director Ahmed Salim told Reuters that many students can not practice at home, in fear of being attacked by gunmen: “We find this a lot with loud instruments. It is dangerous if neighbours hear you’re a musician.”

Students hide their instruments on their way to school to avoid too much attention to their interest in music. Despite this music is still a way for students to handle war and fear: “When I hear the sound of a helicopter droning over my head, I play louder”, an oud student tells Reuters.

Attacks on the academy
Two attacks have targeted the academy. It was looted by a mob in 2003 and partly burnt down in 2004. According to Reuters, it was never clear who was behind the attacks.

The Music and Ballet School is state-funded and has students from both Sunni and Shi’ite sects. Most musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra are former pupils. Reuters reports that some members of the orchestra have been kidnapped or killed and others have received death threats. 29 members have gone into exile. The orchestras music library and instrument store were looted in 2003.

Dangerous rehearsals
In the end of May 2008, the National Symphony Orchestra gave the first significant concert in years. It was a performance in Bagdad to mark the United Nations’ World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development and the program mixed classical Arab, Kurdish and Western works. About 400 people attended the event and it was also broadcast on Iraqi television, reports the Baghdad Bureau of the New York Times.

The orchestra was formed in 1949 and consists of musicians from different ethnic groups and sects. According to an article in the CBC News, the only reason it still exists is thanks to the struggle of its members who have taken other jobs on the side and kept rehearsing despite the danger they face.

The death of Iraq’s music
The Canadian independent journalist Hadani Ditmars started to report from Iraq in 1997 and was interviewed by the LA CityBeat in 2006 about the cultural life in Iraq. Ditmars described life during Hussein’s regime as a humanitarian disaster but with a still-flourishing culture of music and theatre. When she went back to Baghdad after the American invasion, that culture was gone. Ditmar told LA CityBeat:

“A terrible combination of criminal anarchy and de facto theocracy has killed that old secular culture which existed in the pre-invasion Iraq, where you had theatre and the Baghdad Philharmonic. All my musician friends have left. The orchestra’s been getting death threats. The cellist in the book [she has written] has become a mercenary.”

Awakening city
At about the same time that the International Herald Tribune reported about the school children hiding their instruments in fear, the Washington Post published an article about the sounds of violins and saxophones flowing through a corridor inside the Basra University’s College of Fine Arts.

About two months ago, the Iraqi government ordered the military to get rid of the religious militias in Basra, the third largest city in Iraq, and in its article, the Washington Post described the atmosphere in the city like awakening “from a four-year dormancy”.

Non-islamic ring tones
After the invasion and until now, militias with names like Vengeance of God, Soldiers of Heaven and Mahdi Army flourished in Basra and infiltrated every corner of the society. According to the Washington Post, kidnappings and assassinations of people from rival groups were commonplace.

A couple of months ago a man was beaten and shot for selling non-Islamic songs and telephone ring tones. The Washington Post described how the situation has changed: Today he is back on the street; selling 20 CD’s a day.

Things seem to have changed in Basra – but when the Washington Post talked to people celebrating in the street, they were still aware of the discrete presence of two men drifting around listening to conversations. “The Mahdi Army is still here,” a young man told the news paper. “They didn’t totally finish them.”


Reuters – 2 June 2008:
‘Iraqi music school battles violence, persecution’

The Washington Post – 31 May 2008:
‘Renaissance in Iraq?’

International Herald Tribune – 30 May 2008:
‘Iraqi music school battles violence, persecution’

The Baghdad Bureau of the New York Times – 24 May 2008:
‘Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra’

CBC News – 23 may 2008:
‘Iraq orchestra brings healing power of music to parliament’

LA City Beat – 12 July 2006:
‘The Day Iraq’s music Died’

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