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Lute-makers maintain quality

Iraqi lute-makers strive to maintain quality come war or peace.

music Updated: Dec 18, 2002 14:09 IST

For Faiq Mohammad Fadel, the quality of lutes still made in Iraq is unrivalled across the Arab world where the pear-shaped string instrument dominates the traditional music scene.

He is one of a dwindling band of classical lute-makers, perhaps only 20 or so today, striving to maintain that reputation against war and peace, amid sanctions and the grinding poverty they have created.

In his workshop in eastern Baghdad, Fadel proudly says his role is to ensure the craftsmanship is passed on to future generations. On the walls hang photos of his late father, Mohammad Fadel, presenting lutes to President Saddam Hussein.

Mohammad, who opened the workshop in the 1930s, was one of the greatest lute-makers, his 61-year-old son swears. "Lutes made in Iraq enjoy an international reputation for quality," Fadel says. "We are proud that Iraqi lutes are the best and, God willing, they always will be.

He said, "Arab music stars such as Mohammad Abdul Wahab, Farid al-Atrash, Wadih al-Safi, Mohammad Kassabgui and Munir Bashir were our clients."

Hussein Kilani, a lute-maker visiting the workshop, quickly recites the names of Mohammad Abdu, Abbad al-Juhar and Abdul Majid Abdullah, noted singers from Gulf Arab countries, among his own clients.

Iraqi lute-makers have also gone abroad to seek their fortunes, including a brother of Fadel who is now set up in Tunisia.

The art of lute making is passed on from father to son and Fadel has kept up that tradition with his own children. However Iraq's highly decorated lutes were traditionally made with high quality wood imported from India.

"Today, we use Iraqi walnut because of the collapse in the value of the dinar and difficulties over imports," under sanctions, which have been in force since 1990, admits Fadel.

Before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 sparking war the following year, a dinar fetched more than three US dollars. Today nearly 2,000 dinars are worth just one dollar. "We also buy the strings on the local market. Before they were imported from Europe," he adds.

The culture ministry subsidises the whole music scene in Iraq where a lute retails for between 100 and 200 dollars, a price beyond the reach of most people. "Business was bad after the (1991) Gulf War but things looked up again quickly even if sales inside Iraq have plummeted," says Fadel.

"I make four or five lutes a month," says Yussef, another artisan. "It's a work of art and there's no room for error. Otherwise the prestige of the whole Iraqi product is at stake." However Yussef voices fears that if the current difficulties continue the art will die out, as new generations will be obliged to make a living.

First Published: Dec 19, 2002 10:30 IST