An Orchestra Endures in Troubled Iraq

Iraq has lived with death and destitution for decades, and once again finds itself on the brink of possible war. That the country still has a cultural life might seem counterintuitive. But it does.

There are plays, poetry readings, art galleries — and a functioning symphony orchestra.

For 28 years, Abdul Razzak al-Aazzaui has conducted the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra — even when the chaos of this country has affected him in the most personal of ways.

In 1985, during the Iran-Iraq war, a bomb hit his house.

"My house was destroyed completely and I lost my two children, a boy and girl," said al-Aazzaui.

He was back at work in a matter of months.

"Whatever happened to me," he said, "I never stop working with the music. I love it. Just like that."

A Dedicated Following

Al-Aazzaui's 50 musicians share his matter-of-fact devotion.

The government pays them, but the salary is so small they all have to work second jobs.

Anny Cleminian, who plays violin, is a lab technician.

Lance Joseph, who plays bassoon, is a teacher.

And Emad Yosif Jamil, the singer, has a coffee business.

"We are defying these sanctions and these wars with this music," said Jamil. "We don't want this orchestra to die. We'd like it to continue."

A Few Hours of Happiness

International sanctions make it hard for al-Aazzaui to find sheet music and trained musicians.

But audience members, who pay $1 a ticket, have embraced the symphony.

"Life has to go on," said one woman from the audience. "We have to hear music. This is it. Life has to go on."

For these people, for a few hours at least, music means happiness.