Friday, March 28, 2008

Passion, dedication and bravery I cannot hope to match

The Wall Street Journal updates us on the status of the Iraqi National Symphony:

Mr. Wasfi launches into a bewildering tale. The symphony performed at the Al Rashid theater downtown for years, but soon after the invasion the place was looted and burned. So the orchestra moved to Al Ribat Hall, which was merely vandalized. But it was officially given Al Shaab Hall, which was attacked in '06 and has been ineffectively repaired twice, while the Convention Center popped open briefly before that deal was rescinded.

So now the symphony performs regularly at the Hunting Club in Mansour, a kind of haute-suburban country club with a large ballroom, and anywhere else they can. It uses Al Shaab Hall for rehearsals. For many orchestra members, that requires driving down Haifa Street: Its once-elegant bullet-pocked apartment blocks saw some of Baghdad's most intense sectarian firefights before the Surge and pro-government Sunni militias had an effect. As in much of the city, open streetfighting has abated. Suicide and car bombs are the new threat. During one trip I took with friends to the auditorium, an Iraqi soldier shot a car behind us.

That the symphony has kept playing appears nothing less than heroic to the outsider. Aside from location, Mr. Wasfi has to worry about the audience, orchestra members, instruments and sheet music, funding, punctuality, electricity, bathrooms, air supply -- every aspect of the job. He is also the orchestra's solo cellist. Many essential professionals have fled the country, from musicians to technicians.

"Any of us could find a job abroad," Mr. Wasfi says. "In fact, I moved my sisters to Sweden -- they think I'm crazy to stay. So why stay? To fight back against the malevolent and the ignorant. I like to think that we inspire people -- they see us and they see the barbarism everywhere. It gives them a choice: It could be like this, or like this."

Ultimately, though, Mr. Wasfi is disdainful of the heroic; every day he faces a highly complicated and distracting logistical challenge that gets in the way of the music and its quality. He has also launched a nationwide composition contest and his wife, who lives with him in Baghdad, has just had a baby.

"Of the 70-something orchestra members, we have some 50 left in town. Of those, on any given occasion, you can't tell how many won't show up, especially for rehearsals -- most do, thank God. We adapt. We play pieces that favor the orchestra we still have . . . a lot of Mozart and Haydn. Instead of a harp we use the piano and so on. Also our library was badly looted so we choose pieces from what sheet music we can muster. I've developed a number of new young players and others have had to become proficient in second instruments -- finding music teachers is another problem.

"We need new instruments, cases, maintenance tools. Things wear out here quickly what with Baghdad's weather, the absence of heating or air conditioning, the dust storms, and the like. At one point, carrying around a musical instrument was such an invitation to disaster -- to kidnapping, robbery or attack from a religious fanatic -- that we all had to keep one at work and one at home."

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