Baghdad may be sinking, but amid the smoke and the dust and the sectarian violence sits a lone chair, and on it is an American with his cello.
Karim Wasfi, conductor of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra, protests Iraq’s discord through music played in the wake of inexplicable death.
An American citizen since 2001, Wasfi chooses to live in Baghdad while his ex-wife and two children reside in Virginia, partially because he feels obligated for things to “work out” after so much has been invested in the country.
Wasfi studied at Indiana University in Bloomington, living in the U.S. from the mid-1990s until returning to Baghdad in 2004.
Speaking to The Daily Caller News Foundation via Facebook video call, Wasfi says music provides a tangible experience in a very brutal and uncertain Iraq. It is “helping them [Iraqis] to unify by at least appreciating something,” said Wasfi.
When a car bomb exploded in his neighborhood of Mansour in April, “The only thing I could do the next morning was just to walk there, grab my cello, and sit and play,” said Wasfi. “Other than that, I didn’t know what kind of meaning life has anymore.”
He and his friend Ammar al-Shahbander, 41, the Iraq director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, returned after the invasion in 2004 with hopes of reviving Iraq’s artistic life. Shahbander was killed by shrapnel from a car bomb shortly after the attack in Mansour, and Wasfi returned to the spot to play.
Both had the chance to leave Iraq but didn’t because “we appreciate beauty and we want to build, not to destroy,” Wasfi told The Washington Post.
Shopkeepers wandered into the street and police stopped traffic as the maestro performed his own piece, titled Baghdad Mourning. “There is enough civility despite the losses,” he said.
He decided “there must be another way to proceed with life and to help people overcome their inner fears … releasing this frustration of intimidation.” In an increasingly sectarian Iraq, Wasfi insists music shouldn’t be limited to entertainment but used as a tool of integration.
Wasfi’s performance, the stark contrast of a cellist playing on the blackened, crumbling roadside, was widely circulated on social media. He continues to play in the wake of bombings, solo renditions meant to show respect for the fallen and embrace the feelings of those still alive.
“I’m unifying death with life,” said Wasfi.
Baghdad has suffered repeated bombings, leading to a decade-long nighttime curfew. It was lifted in February, authorities seeking to normalize the capital city despite the lingering threat of the Islamic State, according to The Telegraph. But attacks haven’t diminished.
Wasfi describes Iraqis as accepting the inevitability of death yet remembering life is still worth living. “With different approaches, people do try to live it,” he said. “They keep looking left and right.”
When asked if he’s optimistic about Iraq’s future development, Wasfi demurred. “I wonder if Iraq will ever be normal,” he said. “I don’t know if they can deal with normalcy.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tyDtGAGoqI
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