Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Abdelrahman Zeyad
BAGHDAD (AP) — War has estranged him from his beloved homeland for decades. Now virtuoso oud player Naseer Shamma hopes to help rebuild conflict-scarred Iraq through a series of concerts and other projects to support culture and education.
The Iraqi National Theater audience was on their feet, overwhelmed with emotion as Shamma performed an evening of classic Iraqi songbooks and modern compositions.
“We are going to work on the lighting of the stage, to come out of the darkness towards the light”, he declared to the crowd, before launching the evening with, Sabah El Kheir Ya Baghdad or Good Morning Baghdad. Behind him, an orchestra, made up of young musicians, played traditional instruments.
Shamma, 59, is considered a modern master of the oud, a lute-like pear-shaped stringed instrument whose deep tones and rapid chords are at the heart of Arabic music.
Born in the southern city of Kut and raised in a conservative family, he received his first oud lesson at the age of 11 and later graduated from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987.
He fled Iraq in 1993 during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and achieved international fame, performing around the world and receiving dozens of awards. In Cairo, he founded the Maison du Oud, a school dedicated to teaching the instrument to new generations.
Shamma, who currently lives in Berlin, returned to Iraq for the first time in 2012 to perform in a concert organized by the Arab League. He said he was shocked and overcome with sadness to see what had become of his country, which had fallen into endless cycles of war and sectarian bloodshed after the US-led invasion. States that overthrew Saddam. “I found concrete T-walls around Baghdad, I felt like I was walking through a tin can, not a city,” Shamma told The Associated Press in an interview, referring to the blast walls that line many streets in Baghdad.
He has returned several times since, most recently in 2017 when Iraq was torn apart in its battle against Islamic State group militants who had captured much of the north.
It was the first time that Shamma had returned to a relatively peaceful Iraq, albeit ravaged by the economic crisis. The mood, he noted, has changed, the city is more relaxed and the public more responsive.
“The artistic taste of the public had changed because of the wars, but last night it was similar to the public of the 80s. I felt like it was in an international concert like the one in Berlin,” Shamma said after the first of the four concerts he is organizing in Baghdad this month.
The concert series, held under the slogan “Education First”, aims to shine a light on Iraq’s decaying education system, which has suffered from years of conflict, government neglect and corruption.
Education levels in Iraq, once among the highest in the region, are now among the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the World Bank. Ticket sales will be used to renovate Baghdad’s music and ballet school.
“In Iraq, there are still schools made of mud, and the students don’t have desks, they sit on the ground,” Shamma said. “Education is the solution and the answer for the future of Iraq.”
Shamma is known for using his fame to support humanitarian causes, Iraqi children and art. A few years ago, he led an initiative that rebuilt the destroyed infrastructure of 21 main squares in Baghdad. He is also a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Peace Ambassador.
Shamma said he hoped to be able to return to Iraq permanently in the near future and launched a list of projects he had in mind to support reconstruction.
He expressed his opposition to religious parties that try to silence artistic and political opponents and hailed the Iraqi youth who paid a high price to revolt against their corruption.
“The Iraqi people and the Iraqi youth will not accept the hegemony of the so-called religious parties. It is an open country where culture plays a very big role,” he said, arguing for the separation of politics and religion.
Fatima Mohammed, a 55-year-old Iraqi, shivering as she walked out of the concert on an unusually frosty January evening, said the event was a message to everyone that Baghdad will never die.
“I felt seeing the women play that Baghdad is fine and will come back despite all the pain we carry with us,” she said.
“I will come tomorrow also to listen to music, it gives me hope in life.”