Thursday, December 14, 2006

Report by INEAS -- December 2003

The December Newsletter of the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS), a non-profit organization in Cambridge, MA.


Inside This Issue:

1. Commentary by Wafaa' Al-Natheema, Founder of INEAS, on the concert of the IRAQI National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

2. A selection of letters via email and mail from artists and activists regarding the INSO concert in DC.

3. "IRAQI Symphony Upstages President Bush" by Mike Zmolek of the National Network to End the War Against Iraq.

4. Barbara Jepson's article in the NY Times (Sunday, December 7th, 2003) about the INSO's history and the Kennedy Center performance, along with a note from our Institute.

5. News about the Report on the visit to Baghdad by our Institute's women's delegation in November 2003.

1. Great Music Washed Away A Residue of Pain by Politics
By Wafaa' Al-Natheema

Many have been angered and very disappointed about the collaboration of the State Department and the Kennedy Center to invite the INSO to DC on Tuesday, December 9th. They were equally concerned about how the Iraqi members of the Orchestra allowed themselves to be used by the Bush administration. Further criticism came after seeing Bush, Powel, Rumsfeld and other politicians attend the concert and give an unpleasant and fact-distorting speech (by Powel) about hope and freedom!

Despite the political controversy that overshadowed the project of helping and promoting the INSO, the music performed at the Kennedy Center concert was so superb, it washed away the tension and the disappointment of many. Mohammed A. Ezzat's composition, "Three Fragments" was the best piece performed that night, with all do respect to Beethoven and his fans. It had an exquisite melt of feelings and power from East and West. It penetrated the soul narrating many stories. When the piece ended, my Bravo came out first and loudest. Unfortunately, it is unavailable on CD.

The concert Program included pieces by Beethoven, Bizet, Ezzat, Sagirma and Faure. Members of the Iraqi Orchestra have been working tirelessly for months in preparation for this concert. Indeed they are talented, committed and courageous. However, some history-and-music distorting facts were printed in the program of that evening's concert:

The music instruments, daf, santur, tar, oud and zarb (or tabla, drum) were enlisted as Kurdish instruments! I did not understand the logic behind this gross error other than politics again. There was Kurdish artists wearing Kurdish costumes and playing some Kurdish composed tunes, but none of the instruments mentioned above are Kurdish (in origin or in later development). These instruments were never referred to as Kurdish before this concert took place! If the INSO and the Americans helping with this project wanted to present a cultural event that truly represents Iraq's ethnic minorities and the majority (of Arabs), they should have done it differently. The American and European media seem to emphasize such a distorted picture of Iraq's ethnic majorities and minorities. Barbara Jepson's article in the NY Times (December 7th, 2003) states, "The Orchestra's present ranks include Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Assyrian Christians." Hisham Sharaf, the INSO director, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times (November 6, 2003) stating, "We want to be an example. We are Kurds, Turkmen, Shiite, Sunni, Christians. We are a family."

These are only two examples of so many quotes about Iraq's ethnic and religious communities, quite an "Iraqi family" presented by some members of the INSO and the western media. It seems that there is some kind of an alergy developing from or a conspiracy against the Arab and Moslem majority in the society while also neglecting the mention of other ethnic and religious group! In fact with regard to the INSO, Armenians were a considerable percentage among its composers and musicians and among the present body of the Orchestra, yet they never get enlisted. Currently, two of the three women musicians in the Orchestra are Armenians. The only Iraqi woman composer to receive a grand piano imported especially for her by the Iraqi government in the early 1980s was Beatrice Ohanessian, an Armenian. One of only two musicians who have been performing with the Orchestra since the 1940s is an Armenian by the name of Nubar Pashtikian. Iraq's Armenians and (nearly all) Arabs did not collaborate with the USA in its recent war against Iraq. That explains it!


2. Letters from activists/artists:

Following the Kennedy Center concert, we've received two letters from George Capaccio, a writer, storyteller and an activist, and from Jessica Stensrud, a musician and an activist:

[ Dear Wafaa':

I happened to read an article published in the Independent in which you were quoted. You were talking about the recent visit to Washington by the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. I also read Felicity Arbuthnot's commentary on this visit. It amazes me that it happened at all. I started watching the concert on TV but couldn't bring myself to continue. I kept thinking about the fact that Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice, Bush were all sitting there and feeling so good about themselves, and that the American public was probably doing the same thing. I suppose I can understand how the musicians regarded this visit as a major opportunity not to be missed. But how on earth did they find the largeness of heart to perform in front of the very individuals who organized the invasion of their country and are now overseeing its occupation. I seethe with anger at the mere sight of Rumsfeld and the rest. I cannot imagine performing for them.
George Capaccio
December 13, 2003]


[To Whom It May Concern:

December 12, 2003

I am writing as a concerned musician and citizen of the United States on behalf of the Iraqi National Orchestra. I surely do not have extensive knowledge of the particulars of Iraqi or Arab history, religions or sects. However, I do feel quite strongly that the United States government as regards this orchestra and its musicians is generating the wrong idea. As a musician myself, I feel I can understand that these musicians are non political in their outlook. However, as artists, they represent the greatest product of a culture: its art. They are trying to preserve their way of life as musicians and as proponents of Iraqi culture. If these people lose this identity, then we all lose. We may in the end achieve a monotone general culture with little distinction or interest.

We have lost a museum full of antiquities and records of ancient civilization in Iraq, which affects us all. We all cannot afford to lose more even if it seems to not be our own to lose. I don't feel the United State government can afford to be so short sighted and closed minded to the need to validate other cultures especially ones that we are saying that we are "rescuing" from dictatorship.

In watching a CBS broadcast of a performance of INSO at the Kennedy Center, I was alarmed to see Colin Powell delivering a short statement to say that the concert was "a sweet sound for peace." Perhaps his remark was innocent in its intention, but I felt it entailed a sort of hijacking of the misery that these people have endured for the purpose of a politically motivated sound bite. Sure, the Iraqis want peace and freedom, but they also want and deserve their own culture. If we mean to help others as we say, then we must see first who we are helping and actually communicate WITH THEM to find what they need, what their concerns are and how we all can work TOGETHER. We cannot just make assumptions, make hasty destructive actions, react to negative displays from people trying to protect themselves and their culture and then use their very misery and attempts to receive help as a tool for our political and financial gain.

I will finish by saying that I have always thought this country, the U.S.A., was built on its own religious principles whereby others are treated as we ourselves wish to be treated as well as the injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself." I am very concerned that these philosophies do not seem to be being upheld as regards our dealings with Iraq and other Arab nations.
Thank you,
Jessica Stensrud]


3. Iraqi Symphony Upstages President Bush
By Michael Zmolek

Security was tight as President Bush, Colin Powell and the other starsof the Bush Administration were attending a performance of the IraqiNational Symphony Orchestra (INSO) playing with the (U.S.) NationalSymphony Orchestra (USNSO) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on December 9th, 2003. I managed to arrive only just in time for the music, missing speeches by Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As I waited with a frustrated crowd outside the barred doors of the auditorium, Powell told the audience that the INSO "testifies to the power of the arts to keep hope alive even under the cruelest oppressors" (by which we assume he meant Saddam and not the U.S.-led sanctions). The line into the parking garage had been moving at a snail's pace, aseach car was searched by bomb-sniffing german shepherds. I was asked to pull my car aside for a second check. I thought perhaps this was because the dogs had picked up the scent of my own dog on the upholstery. But when a secret service agent came over to chat, and asked me about the bumper sticker on my car, I figured that was probably the reason for delay #1.

Delay #2 came in the lobby where a sizeable crowd was held up at a security check point right behind the ticket-takers.I did not go for the music. I went to show solidarity with an orchestra that to many represents a nation's pride and its dignity.

The INSO had struggled through the '90s, being short on strings and reeds, just asIraqis suffered from shortages of food, fuel and all necessities. Even sheet music had been banned under sanctions, and I knew of many peacegroups and orchestras in the U.S. who had undertaken to send parts, music and instruments to the INSO in defiance of the absurd 'dual-use'policy of sanctions. I had seen Mohammed Amin Ezzat, the INSO's conductor, interviewed in John Pilger's film Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq, which documented the devastating effects of sanctions on Iraqi civilians and children. In the interview Ezzat, through an interpreter, explained that his wife was badly burned by a noil cooker that exploded in their home. Due to sanctions, thousands of Iraqis turned to cheap oil cookers as a replacement for electric stoves, but they were prone to igniting and exploding.

USNSO Conductor Leonard Slatkin conducted the up-beat opener by Beethoven, and you immediately liked him-this white-haired dwarf whose body convulsed as if the music were an electric current running through him. You could even say he was dancing. Ezzat then took the baton to conduct his own composition: Three Fragments. As this piece unfolded, I gradually forgot about the political nature of this performance-the presence of Bush and his entourage, the fact that the State Department was sponsoring the event*-and was swept away by the music. With three movements, each based upon the musical traditions of Iraq's three major regions (North, Central and South), the music seemed to be telling a story. It was a piece of music that ebbed and flowed, with lyrical traditional melodies woven into a somber, often sad, but dramatic work. For me, it was a reminder that even in a country like Iraq during the sanctions decade of the '90s, even in the midst of a country racked with tragedy, bombings, starvation, military dictatorship, there is still genius at work-a mind is working away at creating something that feels inspired by a divine passion, that takes us beyond the experience that can be described in books and journals and makes a statement through another medium that is captivating and expresses something out of time.

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma played the lead solo in the third piece, a sad French 'Elegie', almost a dirge. He rocked forward and backward, caressing his cello almost as if it were a lover, but with a deep painon his face. I thought of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who but for sanctions might have lived to hear such graceful music.

Next, Ezzat conducted the fourth piece by fellow composer and INSO member Abdulla Sagirma (who was present on stage), a piece that featured a troop of Kurdish players in traditional garb playing traditional Iraqi instruments. When Slatkin came out for the fifth piece he gave what was surely the best speech of the night, talking about how music is truly the universal language and how the performers met only the day before and immediately fell into all sorts of conversations about such details of the art as mouthpieces and technique. And I reflected upon how strange it was that it was possible for Iraqis and Americans to blend together into one big, amazing orchestra to produce truly beautiful music together, while at the very same time in Iraq, Americans andIraqis were trading mortal fire. Slatkin conducted an arrangement of atraditional Iraqi tune called Over the Palm Trees, arranged by German composer Mommer, which when put next to Ezzat's fresh and emotive piece felt artificial, but suitable for this event in that it came from a colonial time when Iraqi art was to Europe only something to be appropriated.

Ezzat 'traded places' and conducted a traditional European piece by Bizet to close the event. Bush and Co. left immediately, and the audience was instructed to remain in their seats for ten minutes. In that moment, it was eery the way power had a kind of freezing effect on the warmth of the event. At the reception there was a sense of jubilation among the INSO's performers, who had been flown from Baghdad for only a three-day visit. Some commented on the way the Kennedy Center reminded them of one of Saddam's palaces-very tacky.

But when Rend Rahim Francke, the new U.S. envoy to Iraq, took the microphone to talk about what a glorious day was dawning for the 'new Iraq', it felt as if all the elites had not left with Bush. Her expensive and uptight dress and makeover, and a very American accent, made me wonder when was the last time she had spent time in Iraq. I later learned that she was born in Lebanon, lived her life in London and was married to an American. Having never actually lived in Iraq, she could sit with Newt Gingrich, and a host of ex-generals and military contractors on the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq," perhaps not knowing or caring about the "price" ordinary Iraqis had paid for Saddam's sins under sanctions.

Whatever capacity for music appreciation President Bush or Condoleeza Rice may have, I could not help but feel that the INSO was brought to please the 'emperor' as a prize art ensemble of a people currently undersubjugation. It had that feel to it, although the INSO is clearly thrilled to be touring again and parched for international recognition. And I had little doubt that for Bush this was a publicity stunt to get some political brownie points by trying to show some appreciation for Iraq and Iraqi culture. But why be so transparent? Why not leave the State Department out of it and let it be all about art? Then it might not be so suspect. The most troublesome aspect of the whole affair was that back home in Iraq, the insurgents are targeting those who appear to be collaboratingwith the occupation. Iraqis who know the musicians personally aredeeply worried that they could be targeted when they return to theturmoil of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. These concerns cast a shadow over the motives behind staging the event and allowing it to besponsored by the US State Department.

*Note: the December 9th concert was jointly sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the Kennedy Center. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has launched 'Operation Harmony,' a project to collect donated instruments and spare parts in collaboration with the Department of Defense and the Pentagon. These parts and instruments are to be airlifted to Iraq by the Pentagon.

Michael Zmolek is the Outreach Coordinator for the National Network to End the War Against Iraq. He can be reached for interviews at: 301-270-4858; 888-363-2927 toll free.


4. Please note that we will be emailing you a commentary about Barbara Jepson's article (below) shortly with a copy to the editor of the NY Times and to Barbara Jepson. We hope you follow up and write to them as well.

Here is the article:

This Battle of the Bands Is Peaceable

December 7, 2003 Soon after the Arab press reported that the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington would play alongside each other at the Kennedy Center, Hisham Sharaf, the director of the Iraqi orchestra, was shot at as he drove down a highway near his home in Baghdad. A bullet penetrated his windshield, but missed him."I don't know who or why," Mr. Sharaf said recently from Baghdad. "I think maybe it's because of the concert. On Al Jazeera, they say they are surprised that the orchestra goes to Washington at this time. We don't have political reasons. Maybe the American side thinks about that, but we go to play music, to see the American people and to show we have culture. Some people think we have only desert and camels."

The concert, a free, hour long event on Tuesday evening, mixes European classics with recent and traditional music by Iraqi composers. Leonard Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony, shares the podium with Mohammed Amin Ezzat, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony. "We're trying to find a way to use music to combat what was a tragic circumstance," Mr. Slatkin said from Washington, "no matter what side of the Iraqi argument you come down on." But political overtones have shadowed the venture.

It is the first of several initiatives by the State Department to restore cultural exchange between Iraq and the United States after nearly 13 years of United Nations sanctions. Perhaps inevitably, some argue that the Iraqi orchestra is being used. "I'm furious that our government is trying to put a happy face on the extinguishment of the cradle of civilization," said Patrick Dillon, an independent filmmaker who shot in Baghdad before and after the American-led assault and is a vocal critic of the war effort.

Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center and a cultural ambassador for the State Department's Culture Connect program, said from Washington that the idea for the invitation was entirely his."It's critical to give visibility not just to the Iraqi National Symphony but to all the arts in Iraq," Mr. Kaiser said. "I also believe the arts can play a role in healing and a role in educating us about Iraq, and the sooner the better in both cases. "The Kennedy Center is covering the cost of the National Symphony's appearance and the use of the hall, and the State Department is paying transportation and lodging expenses for the 60-member Iraqi orchestra, Mr. Kaiser said. But in his view, the event has no more political significance than the restoration of the State Department's Fulbright scholarship program in Iraq.

To muddy the waters further, two assistants to L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian administrator in Iraq, play with the understaffed Iraqi orchestra as substitutes. Asked how he felt about their participation, Mr. Sharaf, the orchestra's director, said: "The problem every time is between the governments, not musicians. We speak the same language do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do."

The political connection has proved advantageous for the orchestra. One assistant, who started a corporate donor program for the Coalition Provisional Authority, has helped solicit donations to the orchestra. Yamaha responded by providing 30 new brass and woodwind instruments, and Steinway & Sons will lend a grand piano. Better string instruments are still needed.As a result of Mr. Bremer's inquiries, the Major Orchestra Library Association, an American-based international service organization, has also become involved. It has begun to send more than 350 scores to lay the groundwork for a national repository available to all Iraqi musical organizations. Other institutions are assisting the School of Music and Ballet in Baghdad, where many orchestra members teach. The school was looted and trashed after Mr. Hussein's ouster. Desks were broken, pianos ruined and other instruments damaged or stolen. Orchestra members say the vandals were angry, impoverished individuals who viewed the state-supported school as a government entity. The school was reopened on a limited basis, but when the Kennedy Center concert was announced, more instruments were attacked.

"There is an element in Iraq that is not happy that Iraqis are playing Western music or teaching Western music to their children," said Allegra Klein, a violinist. She founded a group called Musicians for Harmony, in New York, which raised $1,000 for the Iraqi orchestra at a benefit concert.Hers is only one of several such efforts. Operation Harmony, a project conceived by the National Endowment for the Arts, appealed to the classical music community for instruments, musical accessories and cash to help Iraqi music students. It also appealed to the Pentagon about the logistics of airlifting the donated items, however, and that raised a few hackles."You have a government agency related to the military involved in the music scene, which makes it very political," said Wafaa Al-Natheema, an educator and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Near Eastern and African Studies in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Al-Natheema hopes to arrange future tours for the orchestra and helps edit an unofficial newsletter on its activities. "If the U.S. government really wanted to help," she said, "they could use a nongovernmental agency, a charitable institution like the institute or the U.N."Such extramusical baggage has not dimmed the orchestra's enthusiasm for the Kennedy Center concert. "It's the first dream we get," Majid Alghazali, the principal second violinist, wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Ezzat, the conductor, who fled Iraq for Sweden in 2002 after being asked to compose a score for a novel written by Saddam Hussein (as he had done once before), returned last fall. "They told me the orchestra has more future hope, and I came back to continue on, to make this hope for us," he said from Baghdad. "In the past, our orchestra was not free. Now we are free. We make our future."Part of the hope involves increasing the orchestra's size, wages and artistic caliber. In contrast, say, to Iraqi playwrights, who typically required approval of their scripts and casts to win funds from the Hussein government, the orchestra mostly suffered from benign neglect.Founded in 1959, it once had a German conductor and an international membership.

During the 1970's and 80's, it had more than 70 musicians and occasionally toured Russia, Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan. Guest artists and teachers regularly visited Baghdad.But its budget diminished over the years. Then as now, most members required a supplementary job, like teaching, driving a taxi or selling coal.In 1994, when Mr. Alghazali joined the orchestra, his salary was about $150 per month. By 2002, musicians were earning $10 to $20 per month. Now Iraq's Ministry of Culture pays them $120 per month.Mr. Alghazali reports that orchestras in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon pay about $500 per month. He believes that the Iraqi orchestra will ultimately need to match that figure to attract and retain the best players. There is talk of starting a musicians' union.

THE history of the Iraqi National Symphony is in some ways a microcosm of life in this war-torn country during the last five decades. It was disbanded in 1966 by a government official who is said to have disliked Western classical music. From 1968 to 1971, when the orchestra was allowed to resume public performance, members rehearsed surreptitiously at the home of a cellist, Munther Jamil Hafidh, who taught many of the players at the School of Music and Ballet. And in 1985, during the eight-year war with Iran, two children of the assistant conductor, Abdul Razzak Ibraheem Mahdi, were killed when his house was hit by an Iranian missile. Recent skirmishes have also taken a toll. Rasheed Concert Hall, one of the orchestra's performing spaces, was bombed during the air campaign in the spring. (The orchestra now plays in a spacious air-conditioned hall at the Palace of Conferences.) The second floor of Mr. Sharaf's house was accidentally shelled by American troops during a firefight. His mother was injured, and he was hit by shrapnel in a finger.Omar Hassan Alshikh, who joined the orchestra's cello section in 1991 and began working for the United Nations last April, was seriously injured in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August. He now lives in Amman, Jordan, where he was taken for medical treatment.

The United Nations sanctions imposed in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and maintained after the gulf war had predictably adverse effects on musical life. Although the Iraqi orchestra played 140 concerts after Mr. Ezzat became conductor, in 1989, it did so under increasing deprivation. The sanctions made it hard to obtain replacement scores, strings, valves and other essential equipment.In addition, talented performers left Iraq for Jordan or Europe.

The orchestra's present ranks include Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Assyrian Christians. They also include three women. In June, the orchestra gave its first concert after the war. About 45 musicians played "My Nation," an anthem predating Mr. Hussein's rule. According to press reports, audience members wept as they sang. Since that event, rebroadcast three times on Iraqi television, the orchestra has emerged as a symbol of courage and perseverance through suffering. Meanwhile, another symbol of hope for greater cultural understanding stands at the School of Music and Ballet. Early media reports after the war lamented the destruction of a keethara: an unusual piano with a dual keyboard, one tuned to Western scales, the other to Eastern quarter-tones. Actually, the keethara is intact, damaged but reparable.

It will be far more difficult to heal the wounds of the past and sort out the political challenges of the present."Before, if you were not near the government and you did not talk badly about the government, you were safe," Mr. Sharaf said. "Now we can talk freely, but we don't know who is the enemy and who likes or doesn't like this music. But we hope and I think all the Iraqi people think that the future is better."


5. A detailed report will be emailed on or by December 30th regarding the visit of our women's delegation to Iraq in November 2003 to hand donations to the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra and the Music & Ballet School in Baghdad.

Note: The detailed report mentioned in point 5 (above) can be accessed at: