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Rahim AlHaj: A prophet with an oud



Rahim AlHaj has no intention of coming to William and Mary and merely dazzling audiences with his mastery of the oud. He intends to further a dialogue that both includes and transcends the political chaos in which he has found his life entwined.

AlHaj, a political refugee from Iraq, where he twice was imprisoned as a subversive under the Baath regime headed by Saddam Hussein, is recognized as a virtuoso on the 5,000-year-old Middle Eastern stringed instrument. Around the world, his concerts have earned him accolades both for the subtleties of his compositions and the power of his performances. But when he leaves the stage, it is the “conversation” for which he hopes to be remembered.

“The great, ultimate theme to my work is that with peace we will find safety, we will find comfort and we will find a lot of creativity,” he says. “That's always the message behind the notes I talk about. I am not entertaining people. I tell my audience, 'I need your heart, your ear, your thoughts and your communication. You have to be open to the story I'm telling that you have not heard, or open to the culture that is so far away from you. I will bring this to you through the notes that I play.'”

Engaging the war
Due to his background, many of thoughts he expresses can be perceived as politically charged. The titles of his two albums, The Second Baghdad and Iraqi Music in a Time of War, hint at the timeliness of his material. On another plane, however, his music and his self-proclaimed mission to help bridge East and West rise above the immediate conflict between America and Iraq. On both levels, his music and message resonate. Following his concerts, it is common for people to come up and ask, “What can I do to help?”


Listen to excerpts from AlHaj's CD:
Iraqi faces;

“I tell them, just do things wherever you feel comfortable,” he says. “For example, if there is this accident that is part of this world, and you are able to help, just go do it. Don't wait. Don't waste your energy by waiting. If you believe that the war is not the answer, go into the street and protest. Do whatever you believe in. Live for what you believe.”

Last year, AlHaj immersed himself in the Iraqi war in a manner that reflected both his love for America and his compassion for the people of his homeland. Having collected funds from a series of benefit performances, he returned to Iraq, where, along with visiting family members whom he had not seen since his departure 13 years earlier, he distributed relief to Iraqi children who were in danger of dying from illnesses stemming from economic sanctions and war.

“In essence, I handed them this message that American people are great and that they care about the people of Iraq,” he says. At first, the Iraqi people were skeptical. They tended to think that Americans hated them. “Some would ask, 'Why do the American people need to give money to our kids when they are fighting us, when they are killing our kids?'” he says. But many finally understood that just as Saddam Hussein cannot represent the Iraqi people, there are good people in America who cannot be represented by the government's actions.

AlHaj has taken a public position against the war. “War is never the answer,” he says. “There are 100,000 Iraqi people who have been killed in the past two years, and there are some 1,200 American soldiers. If you think about 100,000 casualties, you have to ask, who is dying there and why. The answer to the first question is kids, women and normal people.” Regardless, he admits that the Iraqi people are happy that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. His immediate concern is that an international-led coalition can go into the country and assist a recovery by helping provide medicines, build skills and re-establish safety.

“When you go deep into people, they need just basic things such as food and safety,” he says. “Now, kids in Iraq cannot go out, because their parents don't know if they will be killed or who will kill them: will it be American soldiers, Islamic fundamentalists or maybe just thieves. The structure in the country has collapsed, and the people live in chaos. When the safety is gone, there is nothing else as important in life. It's an excruciating thing to live in fear.”

Beyond the present conflict
AlHaj foresees a resolution to the current state of affairs in Iraq. As have many in the long line of musician-prophets, he expounds upon the need for understanding based on commonalities rather than differences.

“Basically what I'm doing is not just talking about peace but establishing the idea of peace, compassion and love together,” he says. As illustration, he refers to a forthcoming CD in which he performs on the oud backed by an 80-plus piece orchestra—the first time such a combination has been attempted. During rehearsals, AlHaj says, “it is a beautiful thing to see this oud and symphony talking together. It is a bridge. Musicians can talk because we share a common language. Sometimes it is difficult for those in the orchestra because an oud is a different thing; it produces a different scale. But in the end, we communicate, and we feel this beautiful harmony. It is like the world with different color, different language, different culture but still one planet.”

He believes that ultimately such a relationship will inform a world where populations do not rally around things that divide them. At present, he sees his role as one of “missionary-musician,” he explains. “As a musician, my mission is to bridge the East and West, to bring them together without fighting and without arguing.” For the future, he prays, the construction of such a bridge will not be necessary.

To explain, he returns to a musical metaphor. “There is nothing that is called Western music or Eastern music,” he says. “We made it all up; it is illusion. There is just music. Why do we call it Western music, or say this is jazz and this is classical music? It doesn't make sense. We only made up these categories to convince ourselves that we are knowledgeable about the world.”