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Exiled Iraqi musicians play songs of home

DAMASCUS, Syria — When the Iraq War began, Fadi Fares Aziz cut up his flute and carried the pieces in a bag of rice, evading soldiers who might mistake his instrument case for a rifle.

Abdel Mounem Ahmad, a musician from Baghdad who plays a type of zither called the qanun, received death threats from religious extremists who called his secular music blasphemous.

And while living in Iraq, Salim Salem broke the law while playing his oud, a pot-bellied, stringed instrument not unlike the mandolin.

Yet as bombs muffled the music of Iraq, these musicians found ways to play.

“I was not allowed to play the music of my people in public, so I played at home, in other homes,” Salem said.

“With lawlessness raging outside, I decided to concentrate on my music,” Aziz says. “During three years I witnessed six explosions. I am so lucky I was never hurt.”

The trio separately left from Iraq, sometime after the start of the war in 2003.  They met in Damascus in 2007 through a UN-sponsored program for refugees, which provided resources to Iraqi artists and musicians in Syria.

Ahmad, Aziz and Salem have composed and produced an album “Transitions,” a showcase of traditional Iraqi music from the refugee community in Syria. “Transitions” was released at a summer concert in Damascus. The album’s proceeds benefit Iraqi refugee relief programs.

The album revives musical traditions of Iraq that span time and space, especially in today’s refugee diaspora. The album aims to share the beauty and richness of Iraqi culture and the courage of Iraqi people living in transition.

“Whatever the religion of the people in the audience, they are brought together by an appreciation of what it means to be Iraqi,” says Ahmad. “Our ancient civilization cannot be erased in a few years.”

Today, these three musicians live in different parts of the world: Ahmad returned to Iraq, Salem remained in Damascus, and Aziz resettled in the United States.

Aziz lives outside of San Diego, but his brothers, sisters, and parents are still living in Syria. Halfway around the world, he is in contact with them daily, sometimes playing the hollow croon of the wooden flute — nai, in Arabic — over the phone.

“My flute is my link with Iraq,” Aziz says. “The nature of the instrument is to reflect sadness and longing. It is an essential part of an Iraqi ensemble.”

In Iraq, Ahmad continues to play his 26-stringed quanan, an instrument that requires a dedication and concentration uncommon in Western instruments. Ahmad rarely raised his head during this summer’s concert, methodically plucking the tiny strings before him.

“I have returned to Iraq, determined to make my future there,” says Ahmad, who teaches the qanun at Baghdad University. “I know musicians who still have to hide their instruments in black plastic bags to go practice or perform. We are part of a resistance that promotes passion for music and peace.”

Shortly after Salem graduated from college, he packed his flute and moved to Syria, a country that hosts the largest number of Iraqi refugees, perhaps as many as 1.5 million. He lives in Damascus with his two children and continues to compose and record.

“It took me a long time to leave Iraq. My oud was my only luggage as a refugee,” he said. “Within days of arriving in Syria, I was looking for places to perform.”

The oud, Salem’s specialty, is a fret-less lute with 11 strings, five of which are paired. Salem’s oud fits perfectly in the hollow of his belly — when he moves, it moves with him. He danced along the fingerboard, improvising his own compositions in volume and pitch. He occasionally tapped his feet and played an even rhythm that would lure the audience to clap. Salem would look up and smile, changing the rhythm slightly and shifting the audience’s rhythm. He toyed with his audience, controlling them with his finger.

Salem has written more than 400 songs since 1975 and is recording a new album, “Exile.” Salem’s activism comes through his music. He wrote a song called “Dying Iraqi Child” to condemn cruelty against children.

“The sanctions made Iraq a Third World country where simple diseases killed our children,” he says. “Even though the subject is sad, most of my music is joyful and full of hope. Iraqis are strong people, and I want my music to inspire them to keep their spirits up.”

Salem believes that his music represents a global purpose.

“This music is the connection to the spreading suffering of the Iraqi people,” he added.

Syria provides for easier musical expression, but the situation for refugees is dire. Strained economic, political and social capital translates into poor health care, inadequate nutrition, domestic abuse, and other substandards of living reported by various human rights organizations. Despite many refugees’ desire to return, Iraq remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and many remain here, fearing threats to security and poor infrastructure back home.

“I am preparing my homecoming music for the day that I can go home, which I hope will be soon,” Salem says.

After he plucked his last string of the concert, Salem stood up, his pear-shaped oud hanging from his shoulder. He lifted one hand and said in Arabic, “See you soon in Iraq!”

“Inshallah” — God willing — the audience cheered.

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.

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