News / Middle East

Iraqi Exile Hopes Music Can Help Rebuild Homeland

Naseer Shamma, performing at the Iraqi embassy in Cairo, Egypt, demonstrates a one-handed technique he developed for a friend wounded in the Iran-Iraq war
Naseer Shamma, performing at the Iraqi embassy in Cairo, Egypt, demonstrates a one-handed technique he developed for a friend wounded in the Iran-Iraq war

Multimedia

Audio

With Iraq suffering from sectarian violence, lack of a new government and such basic services as electricity, the arts would seem far down the list of national priorities.   But one Iraqi, in self-imposed exile in Egypt, believes music is just as important in making the battered country whole again.

Naseer Shamma delivers his unlikely message from the narrow alleys in the Hussein district of Cairo.  It's not easy to find his House of Oud - a lute-like instrument - in the maze that makes up this ancient quarter.   But the sight of a young man, a distinctive case slung over his shoulder, proves a guide.  It's Saturday night, and he's on his way to take part in the revival of one of the Arab world's oldest forms of music.

The student joins his fellows in the courtyard of the House of Oud, where a dozen or so masters work on an especially difficult passage.  In a room nearby, beginners tackle simpler pieces.  Tucked into an adjacent hallway, a trio strum idly as they rest and talk.  They are young and old, men and women, students from Syria and Lebanon, Europe and Japan, even an American from Malaysia.

Shamma says this is his dream.  "This is the best bridge between us," he adds. "The best way [is] if we have different ways to meet each other."

Sitting in his office high up in the old house, Shamma is trim, youthful and exudes a serenity and joy that belies his past.  At 47,  he is of the generation thrown onto the frontlines of the horrific 1980's war between Iraq and Iran.  He spent 170 days in prison for allegedly slandering former leader Saddam Hussein.  

But, he says, nothing has hurt the social and cultural fabric of his country more than the last seven years of the U.S.-led war.

He concedes that Saddam's rule was a dictatorship, and that danger was rife.  But nobody, he says, would ask about religion, everybody lived together, with good relations.  "Now, this is after the occupation," he says, "everything, it's destroyed."

Shamma says he believes that the strength of the Iraqi people will prevail, to rediscover what he calls the nation's "cultural vigor."   But he refuses to return to his homeland until American forces leave.

He makes vicarious visits via the Iraqi Embassy in Cairo, where officials seem to share his belief in the power of culture.  Despite the pressing problem of no government back in Baghdad, the ambassador makes time to inaugurate a series of cultural salons, luring Iraqi and Egyptian intellectuals on a recent evening with a performance by Shamma.


In the garden of a former royal palace, Shamma leads a small orchestra, or takht, in playing both traditional pieces and those of his own composition.  At one point during the concert, he plays the oud with a single hand.  It's a method he perfected to help a friend who lost his hand in the Iran-Iraq war and can be used by anyone with such a disability.

It's but a small part of Shamma's efforts to help others.  His concerts raise money for U.N. refugee programs and to sponsor Iraqi children getting medical help abroad.   And in keeping with his overriding belief in music as a way to bring people together, he has established music schools across North Africa, in the Palestinian territories and Sudan.  He hopes that by next year, there will be Houses of Oud in Iraq.

He is also always on the lookout for new talent.   During a break from rehearsal, Oud player Youssef Abbas explains how, on a television show in his native Iraq, he boastfully challenged Shamma.  The master rose to the occasion and invited him to study in Cairo.  At 14, Youssef is one of the younger musicians at the House of Oud.

Syrian buzuq-player Jwan al-Farhan showed his eagerness more dramatically, defying orders from his commander in the Syrian army, to sneak out of his barrack to hear Shamma play.   His devotion landed him in prison, and later, an invitation to Cairo.

These are the stories that make Shamma convinced he made the right decision 13 years ago, when he chose Cairo over London as his new home base.  He was convinced by supporters in Egypt that Arab music should be based in the Arab world, while welcoming all others who want to come and learn and share.  

"There is a very great tradition in Arab houses in general," he says. "They enjoy so much the people coming to the house."   His idea is to make the House of Oud open for everybody.   With a laugh surprisingly free of bitterness, he adds, but only if they come as a friend, not an occupier.

You May Like

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land In French Port

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching 'Fortress Europe' More

Video Westgate Mall Attack Survivors Confront Painful Memories

On anniversary of terror attack, survivors discuss how they have coped with trauma they experienced that day More

New Hints That Dark Matter Exists

New evidence from International Space Station hints at existence of dark matter and dark energy More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calaisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 19, 2014 5:04 PM
The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video CERN Accelerator Back in Business

The long upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider is over. The scientific instrument responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson -- the so-called "God particle" -- is being brought up to speed in time for this month's 60th anniversary of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN. Physicists hope the accelerator will help them uncover more secrets about the origins of the universe. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid