Challenging extremists with the sound of the Oud

Friday 10/07/2015
Mahmoud Abdulnabi tries out an oud

Baghdad - In a Baghdad workshop plas­tered with black-and-white photos from a more peaceful time, Mahmoud Abdulnabi hand-carves a wooden oud, a string instrument with ancient roots that has fallen silent in much of the war-torn country.

“The oud is different than other musical instruments,” said Ab­dulnabi, who has crafted ouds played by some of Iraq’s best-known musicians, many of whom look down from photographs on the walls. “If you feel joyful, it can play your joy. If the circumstanc­es are sad, it can play your sorrow and… help to empty whatever is in your chest.”

The Islamic State (ISIS) group has banned music in the one-third of Iraq under its control, but in Baghdad a growing number of musicians and other artists are defying the extremists, hoping to revive a rich culture smothered by decades of war.

“In Iraq there is renewed interest in oud and other high-calibre music since the war but this effort is still in the very be­ginning,” said Bassam Salim, an expert oud player and teacher in Baghdad. “Every artist has a very huge responsibility to renew and revive the real value of (classical) Iraqi music.”

Abdulnabi is one of the last craftsmen in Baghdad who carves ouds by hand. “Our brothers, the makers in Syria, Turkey and Egypt, might produce 12 pieces a day” using machines, Abdulnabi said. “We produce one or two pieces in a month.”

Iraq is widely believed to be the birthplace of the oud, an ancestor of the guitar and a central instru­ment in Middle Eastern music. The oldest known image of an oud is a 5,000-year-old stone carving found in southern Mesopotamia depicting a woman strumming the instrument on a boat.

These days the most prized ouds are made from ebony and Indian sesame, woods not available in Iraq. At Ab­dulnabi’s shop, on the top floor of a building in a his­toric neighbourhood, prices range from $300 to several thousand dollars.

His business suffered during the sectarian vio­lence that erupted after the 2003 US-led invasion, when Sunni and Shia ex­tremists threatened musi­cians and drove them un­derground. Many of the country’s top musicians fled, and parents kept their children from tak­ing up music for fear of attacks.

These days the capital is more secure, despite the war raging in the country and a small group of musicians and other artists hope to in­spire a new generation to see past the war and destruction that has convulsed the country for dec­ades.

Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Baghdad Symphony and founder of the organisation Peace Through Art, says the arts are es­sential to “a life of civility.”

The group runs a school in the former Nigerian embassy at which children study music, art, poetry and even traditional eti­quette. It recently opened a sec­ond Baghdad branch and hopes to inaugurate a third in the southern city of Basra.

“There’s a freedom in it,” Wasfi said. “Radicals tend to control people through ideologies… When we send the opposite mes­sage, we challenge them and we challenge their existence.” Wasfi himself has taken the defiance a step further, by playing his cello at the sites of bombings. His stu­dents have performed in front of prominent sculptures and monu­ments.

Salim says the oud “represents every special moment in life, from sorrow, sadness, joy and all combinations of emotions… It’s a huge national pride when I feel that through this great instru­ment, I represent Iraq’s cultural history.”