Strains of a Symphony Echo in Postwar Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Past the razor wire and barricades, upstairs from a maze of makeshift government offices and down the hall from the briefing room where American generals spar with reporters, a tiny corner of the U.S.-led occupation headquarters is transformed three times a week into an island of civility.

This is where about 60 Iraqis gather every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, bringing violins in tattered cases and oboes in need of spare parts, for rehearsals of Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra.

In one small room, a trio of cellists plays warm-up scales. Next door, clarinetists and oboists congregate around a conference table to practice "On the Palm Trees," a much-loved piece of Iraqi folk music. On the stage of the massive conference hall, violinists sit in a small circle on red plastic chairs, rehearsing a composition by the orchestra's conductor.

It's a cacophony of competing melodies, but a soothing respite nonetheless.

"They're so good, it makes me want to cry," whispered U.S. Army Spc. Rebecca Burt, 24, who wandered in one recent afternoon.

Resting her rifle on the carpet, the Antioch, Calif., native closed her eyes and said: "They really get the emotion into music. Whatever experience they've been through, it translates."

For symphony members, it's a place to get away from the heat and dust, from worries about crime and unemployment, from the daily political turmoil. "No one bothers us here," said Lauy Habeeb, 24, a violinist.

But as much as the orchestra is a symbol of Iraq's recovery and resiliency, it's also a reminder that normality has not returned.

The orchestra recently had to move its rehearsals from Ribat Hall in the city center to the U.S.-protected Baghdad Convention Center, in part because electrical outages were forcing musicians to practice on a dark, stuffy stage.

Despite a much-heralded June concert here, no additional performances have been scheduled in the capital because the director fears that even loyal fans would be afraid to venture out for a nighttime concert.

And the orchestra is having second thoughts about plans to perform in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington amid criticism in the local press that the musicians are kowtowing to an occupying force.

The orchestra director shakes his head and shrugs.

"I don't understand. We're not going to play for the American Army," said Husham Sharaf, 37, noting that his home was shelled by a U.S. tank in the war. "If we go, we'll play to the American audience."

The controversy is frustrating, Sharaf said, because he hopes that the orchestra can be a symbol of national unity.

"We want to be an example," he said. "We are Kurds, Turkmen, Shiite, Sunni, Christians. We are like a family. We don't have any problems when we play."

The symphony orchestra has survived by trying to avoid politics, he said. "We didn't play for the king. We didn't play for Saddam. We're not playing for any new government," he said. "We play for the Iraqi people."

The orchestra, founded in 1959 -- which members say makes it the oldest in the Arab world -- has played through 40 years of sporadic war and political upheaval, earning an international reputation through its concerts in Russia, Lebanon and Jordan.

But over the last decade, several members have fled or have been forced out of the country. The orchestra has had to turn down invitations to perform in France and the United States because of a lack of funding.

With the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent looting this spring, the orchestra was in danger of disbanding altogether. Rehearsals halted.

Sharaf's Baghdad home was struck April 9, and a piece of shrapnel remains embedded in one of his fingers. He can't play the clarinet again until he has an operation.

After Baghdad fell, the School of Music and Ballet, where much of the orchestra's equipment was kept, was looted. Orchestra members lost much of their music and many instruments as looters left a trail of broken lutes, harpsichords and pianos.

After a few weeks, Sharaf started visiting members at home and urging them to return to rehearsals.

"I told them, 'We must make a concert so the world can see the culture we have here,' " he recalled.

"People were only speaking about the bad things happening in Iraq. We have to tell the world that we have a new face in Iraq, a good face."

On June 27 at the convention center, the orchestra reassembled for an emotional return, performing Mozart's Symphony No. 40, a piece from Bizet's "Carmen" and the popular "On the Palm Trees."

But the high point was the orchestra's rendition of "My Country," the national anthem until Hussein ordered it replaced in the 1980s with something that better celebrated his regime.

"People remembered their old lives, and they cried," Sharaf said. "For 13 years, every time there's been a dispute, it's been settled with war and guns. Now people want peace. And they want to listen to music. Iraqis love music."

In October, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council voted to reinstate "My Country" as the national anthem. Sharaf said he'd eventually like to conduct a competition to compose a new anthem.

The June performance was widely publicized as a sign that life in Baghdad was returning to normal.

But with the exception of a concert in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, the orchestra has not performed again.

"The situation is still not good," Sharaf said. "When we have a concert, I want people to come. Now people would be worrying about their cars."

Meanwhile, offers of assistance have flooded in. Musicians from the United States and aid groups such as Norwegian Church Aid and Voices in the Wilderness have provided spare parts to repair instruments. Others are donating money to buy new lutes, stringed santoors and other traditional instruments lost during the looting.

"Every day I get five or six e-mails from people wanting to help," said Sharaf, who has been director since 1997.

The orchestra remains part of the Ministry of Culture, but the musicians' salaries have been increased from $10 a month to $120. Many members still have second jobs as teachers or doctors or taxi drivers, but several can now afford to live on their symphony salaries.

Sharaf said an orchestra committee would decide soon whether to perform in the U.S. Most members are eager to go. "To perform in Washington is a dream of every player," said Anan Nazar, 32, a violinist.

Sharaf said he was worried that there wouldn't be enough time to prepare. "If we go," he said, "we have to be good."

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