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

US Gives Malaysia Questionable Upgrade in Human Trafficking Ranks

Malaysia’s upgrade seen as removing barrier to country’s participation in the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Turkey, US Try to Establish Buffer Despite Differences

Coalition airstrikes in proposed zone would aim to drive out Islamic extremists, allowing targeted area to come under sway of anti-Assad rebels More

Video US: Millions Exploited by Vast Fortunes of Human Trafficking

State Department's annual report calls exploitation 'modern slavery,' brutalizing girls, women into prostitution and forcing men, women and children into low-wage jobs across the globe 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.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs