Baghdad’s school of music and ballet beats the odds

The School of Music and Ballet is almost the only mixed-gender school in Iraq.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Ballet students perform at Baghdad’s School of Music and Ballet. (Oumayma  Omar)
Spreading wings. Ballet students perform at Baghdad’s School of Music and Ballet. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD - Decades of wars, funding shortages and a surge in religious conservatism could not force Baghdad’s School of Music and Ballet to close. Music still resounds from the building and ballet dancers continue to glide across its stages.

The Hassan sisters, Tara, 14, and Tamara, 8, are among the 500 students in the school, which offers a full educational curriculum for children aged 6-18, in addition to music and dancing classes.

“I insisted on having my daughters enroll in the School of Music and Ballet because it is the only school where students and their parents share the love of culture and art which is almost non-existent in other establishments,” said the girls’ mother, fine artist Dina Kaissy.

“In addition to the regular curricula applied in the whole country, the school focuses on artistic education. That includes ballet dancing and playing Oriental and Western music instruments.”

Kaissy appeared unmoved by criticism from relatives and friends who perceived dancing and, to a lesser extent, music as immoral and offending to Islam.

“Many disapproved of my choice of the school under the pretext that it does not conform to our social traditions but this is utterly untrue and it is not what we were brought up with,” she said.

“On the contrary, I hope my daughters will become famous musicians regardless of the unjustified criticism,” she said, adding, with a laugh: “They are both over the required weight to go into ballet dancing.”

Established in 1969, founded by Iraqi musicians Aziz Ali, Munir Bashir and husband and wife Fikri and Agnes Bashir, the school had a golden age in the 1970s and ‘80s when ballet was largely accepted in the Iraqi society as a refined and prestigious art.

At the time, the school was generously funded by the Ministry of Culture and benefited from the support of the city’s elite and patrons of art and culture. It had Russian ballet teachers and former dancers of the Bolshoi, which it could no longer afford after Iraq was placed under harsh UN sanctions following its invasion of Kuwait.

The school was bombed, damaged and looted with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but even then, and despite ensuing sectarian strife in 2006-08, it has remained open, though the number of students decreased sharply for a time.

Today, the school has more than 500 students — up from 100 when the number fell to its lowest with many parents fearing to send their children to an establishment that was perceived by the increasingly conservative Iraqi society as opposed to Islamic teachings.

School director Ahmad Salim said the increase in the number of students in recent years was a positive sign of changing perceptions.

“The growing appeal of the school reflects bigger awareness of the importance of artistic education among parents who want their children to be up to date with their time and with arts,” said Salim, an expert contrabass and oud player.

The School of Music and Ballet is almost the only mixed-gender school in Iraq. Male and female students take classes together from kindergarten through high school but that led to the school and its students being threatened in a smear campaign after photos of a student performance were shared on Instagram.

“Some people are opposed to our establishment and regard our arts activities as contradictory to customs and traditions but the school is supported by the government and a large section of the society, which sees in it a platform for enhancing arts and culture,” Salim said.

With limited funding from the Ministry of Culture, the school can barely pay staff salaries. Expenses for operations, maintenance and special projects are sometimes assumed by the students’ families.

Tara and Tamara Hassan, though, said they loved the school and classmates who share with them a strong appreciation for music and art.

“I play the cello and I hope one day I will be able to play with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra,” Tara said. “That is why I practise a lot at home and at school.”

Her sister, who plays the clarinet, is as determined.

“I don’t care what some people say about my school,” Tamara said. “The important thing is that we are able of practising our hobbies and enjoying them.”