It could be argued across lifetimes what the most effective response to war and violence is. What follows the expected emotional reactions of sadness and furor might be a public mobilization for a protest; running for a government position; fundraising for a charity or nonprofit; or ongoing conversation surrounding the politics that led to the violence in the first place. However in the Middle East, these responses are not always realistic, as even a public protest could cost further lives. So in a city such as Baghdad, where violence is no stranger, daily routines simply resume around rubble and destruction—an effort to maintain a semblance of normalcy despite the abnormality of war. But what about music and art? What about something beautiful to defy horror and cruelty?
The day after three car bombs struck the city of Baghdad in April of 2015, cellist and conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, Karim Wasfi responded to the violence in the most effective way he knew how: by playing his cello. In his home district of Mansour, where the deadliest of the attacks killed at least 10 people and injured 27, Wasfi set up a chair amongst the rubble, sat down with his cello, and played.
“…when things are insane and abnormal like that, I have the obligation of inspiring people, sharing hope, perseverance, dedication, and preserving the momentum of life.”(1)
Amid regular scenes of shattered glass, broken buildings, and dead bodies, it’s easy to continue living just to survive. Life functioning solely as a means for survival leads to a disregard for art and music, because one might assume those things are luxuries to be cast aside in favor of basic needs like food and water. To contradict this argument, Wasfi claims art is just as necessary “because it inspires people. Because it develops better brains…. Because it has a positive impact on the psychology of mankind…. And, before all that, it’s an international language of mutual understanding. It’s everything.”(1)
Wasfi runs an academy for music called the Center for Creativity – Peace Through Arts, which he founded in 2007 to gather and educate young Iraqi talents. Along with being an academy for music, the Baghdad-based venue is also a space for concerts, lectures, exhibitions, film screenings, and theater performances. Through this academy, five to seven groups perform music around the streets of Baghdad continually to counteract feelings of fear and the scenes of destruction left from explosions.
“I wanted to flood the scene with culture and beauty, against intimidation and against fear,” Wasfi said of the performances, (2) which have been met with positive responses.
“The performances I am prioritizing toward social cohesion and sustained peace were well received, generally, and with much appreciation and positivity,” Wasfi told me.
Two years before opening the Center for Creativity, Wasfi started the Peace Through Arts Ensemble, made up of 43 emerging musicians. The repertoire of music the ensemble plays and performs includes classical, world, classical Arabic, traditional Iraqi, and improvisational music.
Wasfi and the Peace Through Arts Ensemble recently visited Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, for their first performance there. As the former capital of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Mosul is a city still recovering from its years under ISIS rule and the nearly year-long battle that led to its liberation. As music was banned under ISIS, the sound of it echoing openly through the streets is likely to be quite a stark contrast to what the city has experienced since 2014 when it fell to the terror group.
Using music to contrast death and destruction is only one element of its influence, and I would argue that it is even more critical for affecting individuals before they turn to terror. Music and the arts are not only a band-aid, a solace from what has already been destroyed, but an antidote (among many antidotes) for radicalization. Music touches our most innate selves—a place within all humans that craves to be soothed by something beautiful. Is music from a symphony, or even a single cello, not one of the loveliest ways of quelling violence? And is it not one of the most effective ways of appealing to our humanity?
Below is a brief Q&A with Karim Wasfi (very minimally edited for readability—Wasfi and I have different native languages, of course!):
Do you have hope that the Center for Creativity could be a model for other music and art initiatives around the Middle East?
I do hope so and really want so, as we convey and manifest a good path of solutions that did work and will always do, as the approach is based upon a deep understanding of the state of function and has had tangible results since 2008. Indeed, in the Middle East as well, this is not a localized approach, as we all know radicalization is a global concern and can be defeated by beauty. This is a reality, not a wish.
Here in the “West,” we mostly only hear negative stories in the news regarding Iraq. Do you think this leads to common misconceptions about Iraq and its people? What would you tell people otherwise?
I would tell people that through music we create interdependence and connectivity that functions as a unifying power to help all for better choices. Through such a resonant path we transcend.
What makes art so important to a culture and society—particularly when there is a war happening?
The above is applied to war times, against grief and intimidation. It is a freedom that is a solace as well as a strengthening empowerment through civility.
Please feel free to share and discuss Wasfi’s story along with Peace Through Art. Wasfi said, quite accurately, that “the globalization of our networking is imperative against radicals and terrors.”
1- Quote taken from 2015 interview with Al Jazeera
2- Quote taken from Peace News Network
Featured image from CNN.com