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Making music, not war, in Baghdad

The Baghdad Institute of Music once again hums with activity after years of silence enforced by fear. Students hasten along corridors, lute in hand, as others laugh and gossip on a sun-bathed patio.

world Updated: Feb 28, 2009 10:07 IST

The Baghdad Institute of Music once again hums with activity after years of silence enforced by fear. Students hasten along corridors, lute in hand, as others laugh and gossip on a sun-bathed patio.

Hazar Bassem, 20, is wearing a denim skirt and high-heeled court shoes as she practises patiently on the hurdy-gurdy, or wheel fiddle.

During the "events," as many Iraqis call the wave of murderous sectarian slaughter that followed the US-led invasion of 2003, Bassem was one of the few students to keep turning up for class.

"We made jihad (holy war) with music. This year is the first time the institute has returned to normal," said Bassem who lives on Haifa Street, once the most notorious and deadly thoroughfare in Baghdad.

The institute's location has been partly to blame for its problems.

The stone building dating back to the 1940s stands near Iraq's telecommunications headquarters, torn open by bombardment during the invasion nearly six years ago.

Later it suffered even further as looting and militias, both Sunni and Shiite, imposed their will on sections of the Iraqi capital, proving an even greater obstacle to learning and making music.

"The windows were smashed, doors torn from their hinges, library books ripped apart and strewn everywhere... You'd have thought the place had been hit by an earthquake," says the director, Sattar Naji.

But good humour now reigns as the sound of music filters through windows shattered by explosions that rocked the area.

"I had colleagues who were killed or kidnapped," says Bassem. "We still haven't heard what happened to some of them."

Restored with help from the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, the Baghdad Institute of Music may have returned to its former physical glory, but the number of dusty and unused music stands remains a worry.

-In those dark times we kept our heads down-

The Institute now has around 60 students - as opposed to more than 120 in 2003 - who began returning at the start of 2008 following the reduction of violence because of the US-Iraqi security "surge" in the capital.

Before aspiring musicians had to be under 18 years old to be accepted, but that requirement has now been waived in an effort to attract more talent.

The schools' activities come amid a revival of cultural life in Iraq, with art galleries planning to return from their exile in Amman, the opening of the Iraq Museum - closed since the US-led invasion in March 2003 - on Monday, and a cautious pickup in nightlife.

During a five-year course, the young musicians specialise in one or several traditional Arab instruments such as the nay or cane flute, and the santur, a form of hammered dulcimer.

They then complete their studies at the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts.

At the institute, students play the oriental lute or oud, sitting along the rim of a now dry fountain. Girls studying here, once as numerous as the boys, can be counted on one hand.

But as before, they all hope to follow in the footsteps of Iraq's late Munir Bashir, a founder of the institute known as the "Emir of the Oud" for his rendition of the "maqam" or traditional Arab music.

"The students are so enthusiastic that they even come on their days off and holidays," beams director Naji.

Twenty-year-old Saif Salman nods in agreement.

"I come every day," he says. "Sometimes my family worries, but at least these days I can go out with my oud and not be afraid."

Not long ago, an artist carrying such an instrument in the street was likely to be targeted by roaming death squads.

"All we could do in those dark times was keep our heads down," says Naji.

The memories of those terrible days are still too strong for some.

"I don't want to talk about that," says 21-year-old Saad Alaydin, lowering his eyes. He prefers to show off his home-made hurdy-gurdy instead.

"A coconut, a few screws, some shells to make it pretty - and there you have it," he smiles before walking off to return to class.