Hilm: Iraqi youth looking to revive Sufi music
Baghdad - They are young Iraqi fighters but unlike the large array of combatants in their war-torn country, their weapons are drums, guitar and oud and their fight is aimed at reviving Sufi music, transcending sectarian and ethnic barriers.
The Sufi band — four musicians and an administrator, all in their 20s — came into being in 2013 taking the name Hilm, Arabic for “dream”. It has since garnered fame for composing songs from poems by famous Sufi writers.
“The love of music and singing brought us together as friends first and then as a music group. Our common dream was to hold a music event and to play and sing… Focusing on Sufi music was not in the initial plan,” noted group director Fahd Abdel Rahman.
A concert in which they featured a song by a Sufi poet that was well-received by the public was the main incentive for choosing this pristine form of art, a branch of Islamic religious music and a centuries-old legacy passed down in Iraq and other parts of the Islamic world. Hilm has since performed in mosques and churches and participated in an Arab poetry festival.
The group’s vocalist, Mustafa Faleh’s religious upbringing and his knowledge of Quranic recitals and religious intonation, helped the musicians to develop their own style of Sufi music, which soon became their main feature.
“Our songs deal with religious and humanitarian issues based on Sufis’ work that touches closely on the sufferings of Iraqis,” Faleh said.
“We were a bit apprehensive in the beginning of presenting this type of music, since it is linked to religion and could be unwelcomed by religious groups that have reservations on music and singing,” he said. “However, we are keen on reviving the civil and cultural life in Baghdad, a historical hub for poetry, music and singing, although the political and security conditions in the country have had a terrible impact on culture and civil activities.”
Although the band has not faced harassment, its members are cautious. “We try to be alert and take into consideration certain religious occasions to avoid possible negative reaction by Islamic fundamentalists,” Faleh said.
Shia cleric Sheikh Ghayth al- Tamimi, a staunch supporter of Hilm, contended that religion “has been emptied” of its spiritual and humanitarian principles, overshadowed by the ideological conflict tearing Iraq apart.
“That is why we see that the Islamists’ choices are almost exclusively violent. Backwardness is taking place not only at the cultural and artistic levels but in all fields of creativity,” Tamimi said, stressing that “the best counterpart to terrorism is (singing) love and peace”.
“The group Hilm was born in the midst of conflict and took off amid (gloomy) skies to express themselves through Sufi singing with all what it has of spiritual and creative dimensions. Their force is inherent in their music which they invested to (highlight) sufferings.” Tamimi added.
The cleric lashed out at the government, which he accused of “sponsoring violent and backward Islamist groups”. “But this should not hinder Hilm from growing inside Iraq, before even thinking about seeking fame abroad. Their success at home under the prevailing conditions will pave the way for international recognition later on,” he said.
Resilience and perseverance are an inherent feature of the group.
“Despite our limited means, we have achieved significant success by individual efforts. The love (of music) was the main driving force behind our effort to found the band Hilm,” boasted guitarist and oud player Ali Hussein.
He pointed, however, that the group was deeply disappointed by the “total absence of any (official) financial or moral support” that might drive them to leave the country in quest for better opportunities abroad. “Our hope of a better (culture-aware) Iraq is almost a dream that is hard to realise.”
Member of Parliament Uhud al- Fadali, who is on the media and culture committee, acknowledges governmental shortfalls, contending that “the problems plaguing Iraq whether political, security or economic have adverse effects on all sectors in the country”.
“We need to have a clear and all-embracing strategy to support young talents and prevent their flight outside the country. The youth should be given the chance to lead not only cultural life but also the whole country,” Fadali said.
Activist Zakra Sirsom pinned down the regression of cultural life in Iraq to the policies of religious parties in power. “These parties have no interest in music or any other form of art. It is of utmost difficulty for musicians and singers to gain fame and popularity in a country which considers art as (religiously) unlawful,” said Sirsom, deputy president of Burj Babel, a cultural association.
Expressing her admiration for Hilm, Sirsom said: “They are staunch fighters. They are trying to create beauty amid rubble.”
Sufism is defined as the inner mystical dimension of Islam. Sufis are best known for their performances involving “whirling dervishes”. Their sung poems aim at introducing the audience to God. Some Muslim opponents of Sufism consider them outside the sphere of Islam.