Music and Dance for talented Iraqi students  

 Ahmed (12) has a dream. He wants to become a famous ballet dancer. Ahmed is very skinny, very serious and very silent. “For a boy to study dance is difficult in Iraq”, he says. Fahad (15) is also very skinny, but he is only serious when he plays the violin; other than that, he smiles and shares – he also shares his nightmare stories: “My friend was killed in a bomb attack in Baghdad. I carried him home to his mother.” Suhel (xx) smiles as tears fill up her eyes: “I only went to school for two months this year. It is too dangerous for me to get there.” Suhel plays the piano. She also has a dream: Someone may invent a pocket piano. Ahmed, Fahad and Suhel are three of 21 Iraqi students from Baghdad’s Music and Ballet School who did attend classes for three weeks: They were invited to a Summer School in Jordan for talented Iraqi students of music and dance. Here, they enjoy of freedom to dance classical ballet, to practice classical music and to do what teenagers classically do: enjoy each other’s company.

Agnes Bashir is the driving force behind this Summer School. Agnes is a Russian composer, musician and teacher of classical music, who co-founded Baghdad’s Music and Ballet School in 1968. She is married to Fikri Bashir, who used to be the General Director of the school. Agnes and Fikri brought together Jordan’s Princess Basma, the Arab Alliance of Women in Music (AAWM), the United Nations Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the US Embassy in Baghdad and private sponsors like MTC the Atheer Telecommunication Company Baghdad and Jordan Mobile Telephone Services; these donors allow the young artists to study harmonies in peace. A leading Arab Communication Company volunteered to document the event – an artistic film has been produced, elucidating an Iraqi triangle of students between the fine arts and dreadful bombs.

“Healing through music” is the theme of the Summer School. Agnes Bashir agrees and disagrees: “Music certainly is therapeutic and that is what Iraq’s children need these days; but our students are not only traumatized, they are also talented. Talent needs to be nurtured in a conducive environment. Talent needs practice to develop and guidance to reach higher standards”. Once, says Agnes Bashir, Baghdad’s Music and Ballet School was superior for classical music tuition in the Arab world, with top international teachers, particularly from Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Germany; with top graduates who are now established all over the world, in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe and Jordan. Once, the school was well taken care of, with a stock of quality instruments, a comprehensive library, and tuition was free of charge. Director Fikri, in the 1990s, was sent to Europe “with an open check” to purchase ballet shoes, instruments and books”. At the peak, 400 students were admitted. A quarter century ago, in July 1982, the first ballet – “Sindbad” with Agnes Bashir as the composer – was staged in Baghdad, accompanied by no less than the Iraqi National Symphony. These days, ballet shoes are a rare treasure.

The Iran-Iraq war raged between 1980 and 1988, but teachers and students kept playing their instruments like the orchestra on the Titanic. While Iraq sank little by little during the decade of more war, internal violence and sanctions, teachers and students kept dancing and playing music. In spring 2003, the Music and Ballet School was looted like so many other cultural institutions in the country. The library was vandalized, the musical instruments were destroyed. School life was brought to a halt. Classes were resumed against all odds after the German Government had donated 32 musical instruments.

“My parents guided me to play the violin”, says Fahad, “and they let me go to school each day. But it is dangerous because of the bombs.” His short pants reveal a scar on his leg; he was injured when a bomb scattered a building and the windows’ glasses pierced his leg. Not all parents let their children go to school. Not all teachers dare to go. “In a letter”, says Majid, the teacher for xx, “we were threatened to cease teaching the arts or we will be killed”. But some do not give in and do not give up. “I go to school each day”, says the Rula, the ballerina, “I study math in the morning and dance in the afternoon”. During the Summer School, they study their arts only - individual instrument lessons, solfege theory, music appreciation and ballet. As if studying from morning to the late afternoon, including Saturdays, was not enough, the students practice and study and improvise whenever they can, aiming at performing well for the Gran Finale of two concerts in Madaba and Amman.

“The children recovered from Iraq’s hardship within a few days of being here in Jordan”, says Agnes Bashir. It looks that way: Boys have bought themselves necklaces and wear short pants; “you get killed for that in Iraq”, they say and smile. Girls promenade on the Dead Sea’s shore in their brand new bathing suits; “you cannot go to a public pool in Baghdad any more”, they say and smile. They sleep well because “there are no bombs in Jordan”; they study well because “in our school in Baghdad it is so hot; we do not have electricity and no generator”; they enjoy each other’s companies which is also a rare delight as meeting at school is not a given, getting together after school is too dangerous and not all of them have mobile phones to at least chat with each other.

Today’s Iraq is maybe the most dangerous place on earth to be. Bombs target everyone, randomly, and aim at artists and academics deliberately – never minding the age group. It does not take much to heal some youngsters through music and empower them to keep on performing their art: It takes a woman like Agnes Bashir to bring together people with dedication for young people, for the arts and with some money.

Please contact UNESCO Iraq for the documentary on the Music and Ballet School Baghdad and the children attending the Summer School. This high quality documentary may be broadcast free of charge.

Mr. Philippe Delanghe, Programme Specialist for Culture, UNESCO Iraq Office,  p.delanghe@unesco.org.jo, Phone +962- (0) 6 – 551 6559

Monika Lengauer, Communications Consultant, UNESCO Iraq Office, m.lengauer@iraq.unesco.org, Phone +962 – (0)6 - 551 6559

Ms. Agnes Bashir, Composer, Pianist, AAWM President, agness@nol.com.jo