"It was the worst moment of my life", the soft-spoken poet and musician, trained at the Baghdad Conservatory, told Reuters in Washington. It was also the beginning of an odyssey that took Haj through nine years of exile in Jordan and Syria and ultimately landed him in Albuquerque, New Mexico, now home base for a growing number of performances around the country. He recently embarked on a tour through California.
Haj, 37, said he witnesses the power of his music and its effect on American listeners--many of whom are hearing Arabic music and the oud for the first time--at every concert. "I receive hundreds of emails after a concert," he said, noting that a New Mexico physician asked him recently to write the score for a documentary about people recovering from traumatic injuries. "Music joins people in their souls, and when this connection happens, peace, love and compassion can fill the hands of humanity", he wrote on his Web site, www.rahimalhaj.com, talking about "Iraqi Music in a Time of War", a live CD recorded in New York in April 2003, a month after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Ethnomusicologist Steve Feld initially recorded the concert as a souvenir for
Haj but created his Vox Lox label to market it publicly after other "world
music" publishers rejected it. "The music speaks very passionately and
very personally and very powerfully to what it means to be an Iraqi exile," Feld
said. Just five years ago, when Haj arrived in the southwest US as a political
refugee, he was destitute and his hosts arranged for him to work at a local
McDonald's to earn some money. Haj, who spoke virtually no English, explained
that back home, he was a renowned concert musician who normally did not perform
in restaurants. His hosts just shook their heads. Instead he landed a job
working nights as a security guard, where he was able to practice playing the
oud, often called the grandfather of all string instruments, and learn English
by studying a translation of a favorite Nietsche book. Back then, the
frustrated composer and musician longed to return to the Arab world and
despaired that he would eve be able to resume his musical career in the United
Things are looking much brighter now. He has two solo CDs out and several in the works; he has performed in dozens of US cities and the Smithsonian Institution is considering recording Haj playing traditional Iraqi maqams, improvised songs, for its Folkways label. Some of Haj's compositions bring the oud into dialogue with Western instruments, and he plans to release a new CD later this year pairing oud with a string quartet, as well as a third solo CD entitled: "Baghdad, New Mexico". "This is not a new direction, this is my mission", said Haj, who is also working on a separate collaborative CD with noted Indian musician and sitar player Amjad Ali Khan.
At the same time, Haj remains focused on preserving Iraqi musical traditions,
which he fears are at risk of dying out after more than two decades of war and
destruction. Haj grieves for the devastation that decades of conflict have
brought to his homeland, and in February 2004 he journeyed back for the first
time in 13 years to distribute nearly $15,000 collected during a series of
benefit concerts. ON the second anniversary of the US invasion, he finds
some hope in the results of the recent election. "After years of war and
dictatorship, the Iraqi people are yearning for safety, stability, and a
peaceful future", he said, calling the election "a very important step for the
Iraqi people to establish a structured government, elected by them, to lead to
democracy, freedom, and regaining their rights".