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
TEXT SIZE - +

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

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. 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.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid