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Sat 26 Sep 2015 09:56 AM

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'I play music to create hope, to help people who have no past, present or future': The extraordinary tale of the Iraqi cellist fighting bombs with music

The story of Karim Wasfi made global headlines earlier this year. In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, the Iraqi national explains why his craft can be “a bridge between civilisations”.

'I play music to create hope, to help people who have no past, present or future': The extraordinary tale of the Iraqi cellist fighting bombs with music

“Since tomorrow is always questionable and never guaranteed in Baghdad, then the sooner is the better.”

Karim Wasfi’s text message about whether to do our interview that evening or postpone it for 24 hours gives a chilling reminder of what life is like in the Iraqi capital.

Baghdad’s recent history has been mired in conflict. Even after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought an end to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the sound of bomb blasts has remained ever present.

In February this year, Iraqi authorities lifted a decade-old night-time curfew on Baghdad as a way of showing the capital was no longer under threat. Despite the celebrations, the bombs continued.

In April, in one such instance, a trio of car bombs detonated in various busy streets and marketplaces in the city, killing 19 people.

The deadliest of the three attacks took place in the busy, upscale district of Mansour where ten people were killed and another 27 were injured.

Wasfi, the renowned conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, decided to take action in the only way he knew how.

As people in the area attempted to get their street back in order, clearing up the debris in the hours after the attack, and place some semblance of normality on their daily lives, the morning after was to prove to be a day like no other for Mansour.

Amid the sound of the sweeping of brushes, as people cleaned up their place of business, the streets bustled with people shuffling about their day and passing traffic slowed to see the damage caused.

Wasfi emerged onto the footpath, smartly dressed, with his chair in one hand and his prized cello in the other, and set up for what was to become one of the most-watched performances of his career.

In the video that captured the event, the scorched exterior of the Mr Potato restaurant building provides an unforgettable backdrop to an extraordinary scene. The sound of alarms and the chatter of loud discussions can be heard, and Jassim, a local, sidles up in his wheelchair, casually smoking his cigarette as he leans in to better hear the performance of the ‘Baghdad Maestro’ (as he is sometimes known). 

Above everything, though, is the unmistakable sound of a cello that breaks the humdrum noise of a city piecing itself back together once more.

Officers and soldiers who had recently secured the area, and numerous bystanders, gathered to hear one of the world’s finest cellists play for two hours from his massive repertoire, including his own composition, Baghdad Mourning Melancholy (as heard in the video).

“Some parts are very chaotic, representing the situation in Iraq and the way Baghdad is living right now,” Wasfi says, when asked to describe the tune. “It combines different techniques of the bow, playing the effects with the cello that could be related to the death, the lives, the bombs, civility, and beauty, as a cycle of life progresses,” he adds.

Wasfi says life in Baghdad had become too familiar with death and destruction, and so he felt compelled to break that cycle with his impromptu performance.

“When the situation had reached a certain level of vulnerability and death became evident through terror, I decided to play the cello [at the bomb site],” he says, speaking from his Baghdad home.

“They [bombers] turned every element, and every aspect of life, into a warzone. That’s how I see it. When you’re doing your day-to-day stuff, at the bakery, or restaurant, and then there are bombs, the other side has turned every aspect and element of life into a battlefield. Therefore, I decided to turn every element and aspect of life into a field of beauty and refinement, and cultivation,” he adds.

The performance went viral on the internet and news organisations around the world ran story after story on it.

Wasfi says he wanted to make a statement with a simple message: “to overcome the ugliness of killings by beauty, by music, by art and creativity”.

“I decided to perform with my cello at the site of explosions, to honour the lives and souls of the fallen ones — these people who had no reason to die, other than terror and intimidation. I think it was an attack on life. The car bombs started to become an attack on the very basics of life, not necessarily a political target or an economical target,” he says.

“It was the very fact that you would want to start and end your day normally but then you are interrupted by intimidating car bombs,” he adds.

It was to be the first performance of his week-long peace campaign at the sites of bomb attacks.

“That same night, we went back and lit candles and we played again. I did it for a week in seven different spots around Baghdad — twice in Mansour, twice in Karrada, once at Hayy Al-A’amel and two other spots,” he says.

At Karrada, Wasfi says he made plans to meet with his good friend, Ammar Al Shahbander, chief of mission in Iraq for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Described as someone who inspired many to follow his hopeful visions for Iraq, Al Shahbander had been discussing with Wasfi the possibility of changing the tone of the music, from melancholy to a happier mood.

“I was calling him earlier that night, convincing him to wait for me so we can go together to that place in Karrada,” he recalls. 

“The night before he wrote on Facebook saying that he was waiting for my positive tunes, not the tunes of a ceremonial elegy for those who are dying; we were looking for something positive to play,” Wasfi adds.

The following night, in a surreal twist of events, Al Shahbander was leaving a cafe in Karrada when a car bomb exploded, killing him and 14 others, including four policemen.

“Unfortunately, 24 hours later I would be playing again the elegy in mourning to respect this time Ammar, who was supposed to be there listening to my cello playing. I went to the place exactly where he died, wearing a full white suit — not black — dedicated to life and respecting his soul and spirit, and hard work, like he respected my hard work since 2004,” says Wasfi.

“I performed for Ammar, but also for everybody else who lost their lives due to terror and intimidation around the world.”

Performing at the various sites was a continuation of the work that Wasfi has done since he returned to Baghdad in 2004, when he has set up the Karim Wasfi Centre for Music & Creativity — Peace Through Art. Students who attend the centre — Sunni, Shia and Christian Iraqis — have generally been affected by the ongoing conflict and they learn music and etiquette in after-school programmes.

Leaving behind any religious prejudices, Wasfi says they learn how to see beyond their differences and learn, talk, and perform with each other.

“Recently I started visiting various places to see 31 orphans who were displaced from places like Fallujah and Ramadi. They live in different mosques. I visit them and play music and then try to create hope and stability through music. It’s a bit therapeutic, almost like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. This will be my new wave of development over here — to help these people who have no past, present or future. They have no hope. They are exposed to music and lots of normality,” he says.

Before he left for the US, where he studied at the Indiana School of Music in Bloomington, Wasfi became the youngest instrumentalist member of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, joining at the age

of 13. In Bloomington, he was able to study with a cellist who had inspired him in those teenage years.

“Back in the 80s, one old 33 record LP had struck me — a cello solo sonata by Kodály that was performed by Janos Starker, who happened to be the faculty cellist at the Indiana School of Music. I was 14 when I listened to this recording, and it was almost like a channel of teleportation,” Wasfi recalls, saying he studied with Starker for five years.

Wasfi returned to the Middle East to teach in Amman in 2001, helping to form a youth orchestra there, which was to have a profound effect on his career.

“It was a time when I felt that community outreach and community understanding and cultural integration should be prioritised. In ‘98 there was an attack on Iraq for four days. It was called Desert Fox. I was in the States, in Bloomington, and felt the grief of instability and the negative, dramatic effect of the lack of mutual understanding between nations,” he says.

“Growing up in Iraq and then being in the US, living and studying there, and then witnessing things that are happening due to politics that people had really no say over what was taking place, it was then that I considered Peace Through Arts, and I consider music in particular as a great instrument to facilitate or materialise peace and understanding, compassion, passion and mutual respect, and many other aspects of civility,” he adds.

Wasfi returned to Iraq in 2004, with great hopes and ideas about how to help society overcome the obstacles of instability, and to offer something back through music.

“The city [Baghdad] was vibrant, to some extent, and people wanted to overcome what they had lived in for some time. People wanted to reach a level of normality, and to be busy building instead of destroying things. It had reached that level of normality and there was a certain reluctance to some extent and people did not believe that the problems were over, because of previous experiences,” he says.

“It didn’t take too long for us to realise that peace was not a possibility and the only inevitable aspect were the bombs,” he adds.

Getting involved in music and business development, Wasfi says the situation in the city worsened, and by 2006/7, he had to make a decision whether to stay or join the other intelligentsia, as he puts it, who were leaving Iraq because of a brewing civil war due to ethnic and religious tension.

In the end, at great cost to himself, he decided to stay and Wasfi says he can recall the day he made the decision.  

“One day, we had a rehearsal in a certain area of Baghdad called Haifa Street. Across from Haifa Street was the morgue of Baghdad. Apparently, because of the tension and the fierce fighting around different areas, basic services were seriously hit. The rehearsal venue was across from the morgue,” he says.

With no services and no power for two days, the stench from the morgue invaded their rehearsal space, which prompted him to make a decision there and then.

“I was conducting a piece by Mozart and in a very, very dramatic turn of events, when the scale turns very minor, here comes the smell of the dead bodies from the morgue into the hall. I felt we were all invaded by the grotesque, sad killings. I felt so powerless and speechless, to the extent that I decided actually to stay in Iraq instead of leaving to go back to the States. It was then when I decided to stay and fight back, because it had reached a certain level of instability to the level that we either had to leave or stay. I decided to stay,” he says.

Unsure if the decision was right or wrong, Wasfi says he soon realised that he was right to stay.

“I started a whole campaign of fighting back through culture, based on our simple resources. We gave concerts, despite the situation. I convinced enough families and community clubs in Baghdad to host some concerts in a matinee, not a soiree, because by 4pm or 5pm Baghdad would be shut down. We had a couple of matinees and actually 23 families made it. It was a very happy moment of perseverance and dedication to civility,” he says.

By 2008, he was chief principal conductor and director for the symphony and was always trying to be proactive by “cultivating the lives of the people through civility and arts”.

“I didn’t think that Iraq only needed new buildings and new cars. I thought I could empower self-confidence by helping people to attend events, and by community outreach,” he says. 

After 13 months of negotiations with the government he managed to raise the salaries for orchestra members by 500 percent. By the third year, the number of musicians in the orchestra had risen from 47 to 120.

Through ‘Peace Through Arts’, 43 young musicians have since joined the senior orchestra, which still gives a concert every month. Still surviving on meagre allowances, they have to make do without proper repairs or spare parts.

“It’s not in the budget,” he says. “I’m trying to get private sponsorship or funding to get into the situation of developing the work of the orchestra but it’s taking some time.”

The lack of funds was why he took a break from the orchestra in 2012, because many of his development plans were interrupted by the bureaucracy.

“For every new step you had to justify for five different committees why you want to do a new thing,” he says.

There were magnificent plans for a $150m opera house on the banks of the Tigris river, but that has been put on hold.

“Three years ago we got the land and the budget allocated, but I don’t know what happened to the budget. Like many development plans in Baghdad, they are interrupted by the situation,” he says.

The tight budgetary constraints means the orchestra is limited to playing locally. There were plans to perform in Mosul and Ramadi, but they were cancelled because of the situation in Iraq.

Ideally, he says, he’d like to bring not only the orchestra to the region, but also his philosophy and programme of development.

“If I had the opportunity to share my development strategies in other countries, even in the Gulf, I would absolutely consider that. As I am still here, I am prioritising development over here where it’s mostly needed.

“Music is not just entertainment. It’s much bigger than that. It’s a philosophy, it’s a science, it’s a civilised approach to life, it’s a language, and it’s a bridge between civilisations.”

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

Nick Darling 4 years ago

Culture Saves....

Wasfi is an inspiration that should be repeated throughout areas in conflict.

Michelle Kim, Founder of Culture Saves 4 years ago

Karim Wasfi is the symbol of hope, life, and peace. His courage and determination will be an inspiration not only for Iraq but for the rest of the world.