Iraqi National Symphony Plays On Amid the Mayhem

The Age [Melbourne] - 9 June 2003

An elderly, balding musician rests his head on his bassoon, his eyes shut. A normally orderly rehearsal of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra has descended into chaos.

Outraged musicians shout over the top of each other in Baghdad's Ribat Recital Hall, fighting to be heard by the orchestra's director, Hisham Sharaf.

He has just announced that they will be paid only $US20 ($A30) this month from an emergency fund supplied by the US-led coalition.

"Before, I would have just announced the decision about the salaries, but now we are a democracy I felt I had to discuss it with all the players," Sharaf says later, wiping sweat from his forehead.

Over 12 years of sanctions, the former Ministry of Culture paid the orchestra poorly. Most players could not afford parts for their instruments, and worked second jobs as teachers and taxi drivers to supplement their incomes.

"It was very hard for us to get strings for our violins because they were very expensive," says Imad Yousef, 38, brandishing his decades-old violin.

"We also have the oldest notes," he says, holding up a crumbling sheet of Mozart printed in the 1970s.

Despite the derelict state of the orchestra, the players continued to play through the embargo, playing to packed concert halls every one or two months.

"The only message that we were able to deliver in our performances was one of survival," says Yousef. "That we were able to stay alive through all those years."

The final concert the orchestra gave before the war is a good example. Half way through the performance the electricity cut out. Sticking candles on the music stands, the musicians played on, until a violinist's sheets went up in flames.

The recent bombing raids on Baghdad did not deter the orchestra, either. Only days after the war finished, Sharaf visited the houses of the 50 players, informing them of rehearsal times.

Out of the entire orchestra, he was the only player hurt in the conflict. An American anti-tank missile hit his house just outside Baghdad, leaving a tiny piece of shrapnel in one of his fingers.

Sharaf has postponed an operation on the finger to organise the orchestra's first postwar concert, scheduled for later this month.

The orchestra, which was established in 1959, has had many changes of fortune. It had its heyday in the 1970s, attracting players and conductors from across Eastern Europe. During this time the orchestra accepted invitations to Algeria, Russia and Lebanon. Munther Jamel, a viola player and one of the founding members of the orchestra, recalls playing to a packed crowd in Beirut's Piccadilly Theatre in 1974. "We got so much money from the concert," he recalls, his face lighting up. "I remember I bought myself stockings and shoes." The orchestra's fortunes dipped in the 1980s, with the Iran-Iraq War. Salaries fell, most of the orchestra's foreign players left, and many Iraqi players had to do military service.

Things only got worse after 1991 when sanctions were introduced; many of the top Iraqi players left the country. While the orchestra fell into disarray, the players kept their sense of camaraderie and humour, says Sharaf. Every year they hold an Arabic music competition called "The mother of all battles."

The Government never forced the orchestra to play propaganda music. Despite the occasional appearance of former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz at concerts, the Baath party ignored the orchestra.

"None of the orchestra were members of the Baath — we never had to play political music," says Sharaf.

The sheer act of playing music was also a much needed escape for many of the players in the Saddam era.

"We have nothing to do with the country when we play music," says Jamel.

Sharaf is hopeful that now the war is finished, some Iraqi players might return to Baghdad to join the orchestra again. But salaries will probably not improve for some time.

The coalition has outlined a set budget of $US20 for each player for the coming months.

Arguing fiercely about the poor pay, one musician suggests that the orchestra play at private parties for politicians, rather than for the public. But, says Sharaf decisively: "We have never taken invitations from politicians."

The leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, sent someone to talk, and so did the former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi. "But I don't want it, and all the players don't want to be involved in politics," says Sharaf. "We just want to play classical music."