Iraq's Symphony Orchestra Makes a Comeback

With strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" wafting out from the hall and tuxedo-clad men ambling about, it could be a symphony concert almost anywhere. But the presence of American and local soldiers, teams of explosive-sniffing dogs and steely-eyed security contractors telegraphs that this isn't any normal performance. As local Iraqis arriving for the performance of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra pass through the metal detector into Al Zawraa banquet hall at the venerable Hotel Rasheed, there is a subtle change in the Baghdad air. Along with a growing number of Iraqis, the standing-room-only crowd at this gala event seems to be expressing a sense that Iraq may finally be leaving war behind. It's an illusion, of course. Just two days after the concert, a fresh round of suicide bombings killed at least 57 in Kirkuk and Baghdad. But on the day itself, the man who did more than most to resuscitate the once flagging orchestra revels in the event. "It's a new beginning," Karim Wasfi, music director and conductor, asserts between cigarette puffs. "A new beginning for a bigger cause and a new vision. We had to fight against time, the bad economy, circumstances, conspiracies, threats. But here we are."

"Here" is a grand mid-afternoon concert—the most lavish inside the country since the war began—co-sponsored by the U.S. Embassy that draws hundreds of Iraqis, contractors, military personnel in and out of uniform and embassy staffers. Most of them, including the Iraqis, live and work in the fortified Green Zone, where the event is being held. Fittingly, the program is a mix of Iraqi and American music, from the epic Arabic sweep of Jamil Bashir's "Ayam Zaman" (Those Good Old Days) to the brass-heavy flourishes of Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait." It is a long way from the days when the INSO scrambled to replace terrified members who fled the country to escape grim-faced and humorless religious zealots who condemned music as un-Islamic and promised death for those who purveyed it. Twenty-seven of its 80 members left in just one three-month period in 2005-2006, when the insurgency was at its zenith. Now, as America's presidential candidates bicker over the degree to which General David Petraeus' "surge" in U.S. troops has worked, the Iraqi musicians are demonstrating that they believe the worst may be over.

Six who fled to Syria are coming back. Another five are considering returning from Jordan, along with six more now living in United Arab Emirates. Those who never left went to great lengths to keep playing music and stay alive. Almost half of the musicians hail from Sadr City, the Baghdad district that as recently as May was the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. "They hid their instruments under the floor. They could not play in their homes until last month. And yet they insisted on playing," Dr. Tahseen Sheikhly, a spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan—an ongoing initiative to end sectarian violence and improve the quality of life in the capital—tells NEWSWEEK. "They could not even get their salaries."

Not that the money wasn't allocated. The Iraqi government funds the symphony, as well as the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet, which provides most of the orchestra's members. "The [Culture] ministry had the money, even during the war, but it was, ah, redirected to...other things," Tahseen says elliptically. He doesn't have to say any more; Iraq's government ministries are known to be rife with corruption.

Unlike most major Western ensembles, the INSO is not a full-time gig for most of its members. The musicians, who range in age from the teens to early 70s, include lawyers, accountants and engineers. Wasfi, 36, holds a master's in performance, but also studied physics and political science and even worked in security at one time. He spent part of the 1990s as a musician in the United States, but stayed in Iraq after the war began. The only time he left Baghdad—for other parts of Iraq—was when his and his colleagues' lives were physically threatened, although he insists there never was a "specific threat directly against the orchestra." He says that in any case, he spent the time trying to figure out how to improve the INSO. "My reaction was that we were no threat, because what we were doing was decent, civilized and a religion by itself and does not adversely affect any Islamic thought or Christian thought or any other thought," he explains. Among the changes he came up with: expanding the overwhelmingly "classical European repertoire" to include at least one Iraqi composition at every performance, as a way to promote Iraqi culture. He also resolved to press hard on musicianship.

The weekend concert underscores the wisdom of that decision: The performances are uneven, albeit with a few striking successes, such as Ahmed Salem's turn on the oud—a traditional lute—during the Bashir composition. Introducing Wasfi and the orchestra, U.S. Ambassaador Ryan Crocker calls the concert "a signal of the transition that's under way in Iraq."

For Samir Basim, the 25-year-old leader of the INSO's double-bass section, the symphony represents unity in Iraq—"unity that never stopped in front of all that violence." Even the teenagers in the audience seem to grasp the significance of the day, if somewhat grudgingly. "I know this is great that everybody can be here like this," whispers Basil, 17. "But it's boring. I'd rather listen to Metallica." Wasfi doesn't mind that. He says everyone is welcome to support the INSO—or not. He has a grand vision of the orchestra's role. "We're not the sad story of a few geeks staying in Baghdad and playing a little music and trying to survive," he says. "We're a symbol that says despite all the violence and disagreements we can still have hopeful and positive things that offer a concrete base for the future." Now, all he has to do is persuade the "special groups," rump militias, Al Qaeda fanatics and sectarian extremists, still fighting a rear-guard war, to put down their weapons and come into the fold.