by Kathy Kelly
April 16, 2003
Nurses are digging graves in front of the Al Mansour Hospital. Baghdad University is a smoking ruin. Other disasters loom, as the Red Cross warns that Baghdad's medical system is in complete collapse, and the millions of Iraqis dependent on the old Oil-for-Food program wait for rations that are no longer being delivered. "Water first, and then freedom," said one Iraqi man on a BBC report this morning.
Two musicians, Majid Al-Ghazali and Hisham Sharaf, came to our Hotel four days ago, hoping to call relatives outside Iraq on a satellite phone. Hisham's home was badly damaged during the war. "One month ago, I was the director of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra," Hisham said with an ironic smile. "Now, what am I?"
We joked that he could direct the telephone exchange as he tinkered with our satellite phone's solar powered battery. I told Majid we had some sheet music and a guitar for him. "What are notes?" he said, "We don't even remember."
Majid had a particularly rough experience. During the first week of bombing, a neighbor called the secret police and turned him in for visiting with foreigners. He was jailed the next day. After the "fall" of Baghdad, the same neighbor claimed he was actually part of the secret police. Majid is terrified now. "I think they want my house," he said. "No place is safe." He put his head in his hands.
I met Hisham at the Baghdad School of Folk Music and Ballet, in January 2002. Hisham and Majid, both graduates of the school, taught there in the daytime and then rehearsed with the orchestra at night. Knowing how busy Hisham was, I felt presumptuous about suggesting a project for him and his students. I told him how meaningful the song "O Finlandia" has been to many people in the US. At least 150 families who lost loved ones on 9/11 had used this peace anthem as part of memorial services. Sibelius composed the melody in the late 19th century. Following World War I, lyrics were created emphasizing the common aspirations and dreams shared by all humanity.
Hisham chuckled and couldn't resist pointing out the irony that someone from the US wanted to teach his students a peace song. "O.K.," said he, "Sing it for me. We can do this." Within two days, an entire class was singing an Arabic transliteration of the song.
Saying goodbye to Majid and Hisham, that morning, I felt a wave of sadness, wondering if the hopeful, idealistic verses might embitter them now.
The next morning they returned, shaken and distraught. They had approached US soldiers the previous evening asking for help to protect their school. The soldiers said it was not their job and ordered Hisham and Majid to go away. They went to the entrance of the school hoping they could somehow protect it alone. Five armed men arrived. Majid, Hisham and Hisham's brother pled with them not to attack the school. The looters argued, "We are simple people. Poor people. Soon there will be no food, no money, and we have no jobs. You are rich people."
"Please," Majid said, "we will give you the instruments, give you the furniture, but don't destroy the music, the records, the history." "No," the armed men said. "Baghdad is finished." They ransacked the school, broke many instruments, burnt the music and the records.
Why do desperate people commit deplorable acts of mindless destruction? I don't know. But some truths help offer perspective. Every day, we who enjoy superfluous, inordinate wealth and comforts, while others live in abject poverty, are ransacking the precious and irreplaceable resources of our planet. We hurtle toward burning up all the available fossil fuels that were created over 4 billion years of the planet's history. Our obscene obsession with creating weapons has cost trillions of dollars that should have been spent to meet human needs.
Through decades of warfare and sanctions, powerful elites in Iraq, the US and the UK ignored millions of Iraq's impoverished people. Hundreds of thousands of children bore excruciating punishment and then died. Very few people cared.
"Here," Hisham said, "listen to this. This is all we have left." He handed me headphones borrowed from a Norwegian television correspondent. The orchestra was playing "O Finlandia." Listening to the children craft their music, I softly sang the words: "This is my song, O God of all the nations. A song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is. Here are my dreams, my hopes, my holy shrine. But other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as deep and true as mine." Then I stopped. Hisham had begun to cry.
Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness (www.vitw.org) and the Iraq Peace Team (www.iraqpeaceteam.org), a group of international peaceworkers pledging to remain in Iraq through US bombing and occupation, in order to be a voice for the Iraqi people in the West. The Iraq Peace Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org