BAGHDAD — It was a gala classical concert with favorites by Beethoven and Schubert. But in Baghdad Friday night that meant blanket security — dozens of undercover police blended into the invitation-only crowd of 300.
Just performing is a victory for the 73 members of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra and it's why Iraqi soloist Karim Wasfi chose the Dvorzak Cello Concerto.
“It has this will of survival,” says Wasfi. “It has this winning feeling in it. The music makes you feel a winner, somehow.”
The orchestra knows all about survival. The first in the Arab world, it struggled through two wars and economic sanctions under Saddam Hussein. The best talent fled Iraq. Musicians who stayed earned $1 a month and instruments fell into disrepair.
Still, the group, somehow, played on. And after Saddam's fall, life — and salaries — improved. There were also gifts of new instruments and a trip to America — all funded by the former U.S. authority in Iraq — highlighted by a concert in Washington, D.C., attended by President Bush.
Karim Wasfi, who studied cello at the Indiana University School of Music, gave up a lucrative music career in America. Instead, he's come home to give back.
“The challenge is huge and the rebuilding process is huge,” says Wasfi.
This mix of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Christians are working hard — and together. The musicians see themselves as more than simply makers of music. This orchestra is their cause. It is living proof that Iraq can offer not just bombs and death, but beauty as well.
Karim Wasfi knows he can't stop the violence, but his music can at least give life to something better.
“The message is that we are stronger than the situation,” he says.
And it's spreading with every courageous curtain call.
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