First Published: 2003-06-12

Baghdad orchestra struggling to survive

First symphony orchestra in Arab world still willing to perform before public despite facing uncertain future.


Middle East Online

By Marc Carnegie - BAGHDAD

We're trying to show the world that Iraqis have a great culture

For Hisham Sharaf, the director of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra, their first performance after the war will not be about the beauty of music.

It's about showing that Iraqis are doing more than just robbing and pillaging in the aftermath of Saddam Husseins ouster.

"We're trying to show the world that Iraqis have a great culture," he said, paying only fleeting attention as the musicians ran through Mozart's Symphony No. 40.

"We were the first symphony orchestra in the Arab world. This has been difficult for us. We've never had anything to do with politics."

But politics have had plenty to do with the orchestra in the chaotic weeks since the US-led war to bring down Saddam.

Sharaf's house was bombed in the wars final days, injuring his finger and leaving him incapable of playing his beloved clarinet.

Majid al-Ghazali, a violinist, was jailed by Saddam's secret service during the war after he invited a US journalist to his home.

And after a local journalist used the new freedom of the press to accuse him of pandering to US forces, Sharaf found himself fearing an attack from Islamic hardliners.

"We never played specially for Saddam and of course were not playing now for the Americans. We play for anyone who wants to come and hear us," he said. "This is music."

The long-suffering musicians of the orchestra, preparing for their first post-Saddam concert in July, are now facing an uncertain and difficult future.

Sharaf has cut rehearsals to just four hours a week, scheduled at early hours so that the players can get home early enough to avoid the risk of being robbed or attacked.

Apart from a 20-dollar emergency payment the US occupation government gave to all civil servants, they have not been paid since before the war.

"I came to the orchestra and I have stayed with it out of love," said Annie Melconian, a 24-year-old second violinist.

"But things are difficult. My father brings me here and stays to drive me home because of the danger on the streets," she said.

"I have so many dreams for the orchestra, yet nobody knows what will happen next."

Ghazali said that one major fear among the players is that whatever government is eventually put in place in post-war Iraq may not be supportive of classical music.

That fear was deepened when Piero Cordone, the Italian appointed by the US-led coalition as its senior advisor to Iraq's culture ministry, failed to show last week for a meeting to discuss their salaries.

"It was like getting hit on the head with a pipe," Ghazali said of Cordone's no-show. "We need someone to support us. There are great musicians here. We need help."

Sharaf, the director, said everyone was stuck waiting to see when the coalition would be able to establish security and order in the post-war disarray.

"There's so much uncertainty for us. No money, worries about whether the Islamists will crack down on our music, everyone wondering when there will be a government," he said.

In addition to traditional Iraqi folk songs, the orchestras first concert will feature Mozarts 40th - whose rising opening statement is known as a "rocket" theme.

Sharaf wouldn't say if there was any wry statement in that choice of music. He said what really mattered was simply to get out before the public and play.

"All we can do is keep performing our music and hope for the best," he said. "This is our lives."


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