Music Struggles to Drown Out War in Iraq

Member had prized violin smashed during house raid.


BAGHDAD, May 20, 2007 — -- Ordinary people are being killed in Iraq at the rate of 100 a day, according to the United Nations. But recently, there was another casualty of the violence that was almost as shocking, perhaps because the victim was an inanimate object.

The Baghdad Symphony Orchestra is a phenomenon, an anomaly, an anachronism, in a country on the brink of civil war. It meets twice a week for rehearsals and performs whenever and wherever it can. The American-educated director, Karim Wasfi, has had many death threats, and so have many of the musicians. But Wasfi has a dream: To use music as a weapon against the bombs and the bullets.

"I don't believe it's all kidnapping and car bombings, and killings and atrocities that work in Iraq," said Karim. "I think that culture and music is also working."

To see Hilary Brown's report on the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra and the challenge art faces in Iraq, watch "World News" this evening. Check your local listings for air time.

The orchestra plays all kinds of music -- not just Bach, Beethoven and Brahms but also George Gershwin and American jazz. Incredibly, only one musician has lost his life in the violence since the war. But recently, one of them lost something almost as precious.

Mohammed Qassim plays the violin -- a beautiful 19th century violin that he bought in Czechoslovakia 25 years ago and has treasured ever since. But in a raid on his apartment building by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, his priceless instrument was taken out of its case and smashed to pieces.

"The whole apartment was in a complete mess," said Qassim, his face twisted in pain. "It reflected some basic hatred by these people. Some extremist soldier says, 'What's this?' and then goes, 'Bang! Bang! Bang!' and just leaves it."

Qassim picked up the splintered remnants of his lovely violin, which he still keeps inside its case. He cannot bear to throw it away, though it's beyond repair. Could he get any compensation?

"When you lose something that has spiritual value, it's difficult to compensate," he said with a bitter smile.

In any event, he can't possibly afford to replace it himself. Qassim still plays with the orchestra on a vastly inferior instrument that just isn't the same.

"It breaks my heart," he said. "But it's important to keep on playing."

And that is precisely what all the musicians of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra are doing -- though many have received death threats, must practice in semi-secrecy and don't dare show their faces to our television cameras. The religious extremists who are fighting for control of Iraq believe that freedom of expression and learning and music and culture are dangerous, wicked and against the Koran.

In spite of this, orchestra director Wasfi has tried to put on a concert for all the warring religious groups in Iraq, to unite them, just for an hour. His idealism is impressive.

"Music and arts are uniting us," said Karim. "This is one of the approaches I am trying."

That "unity" is still just a dream. In the meantime, his musicians play on, including Qassim and his borrowed violin.

Recently, the orchestra was in a concert in the Green Zone sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce. They played Mozart. On that night, the religion was the music itself, in all its sweetness and beauty.

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