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Exiled Iraqi musician builds bridge to the West with his music

Daily Star, LEBANON
Reuters Andrea Shalal-Esa

For Rahim Alhaj, noted Iraqi oud player, it was an impossible choice: abandon a beloved instrument that had been his "best friend" since the age of 9, or risk another arrest by the Iraqi authorities. 

Some 14 years ago, Haj stood at the Iraqi-Jordanian border for what seemed like an eternity before he realized there was no going back. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, he had already been imprisoned and tortured twice for political activism and his mother had sold nearly everything to raise $20,000 for a false passport and safe passage to Jordan. Still, his eyes grow moist as he recalls that fateful moment in 1991, just a month after the first US war in Iraq. He did not have permission to take his oud--an ancient Arabic string instrument--out of the country and did not want to reveal his true identity as a musician to seek it.

"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 States.

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".