News / Middle East

Iraqi, Iranian Musicians Collaborate at Olympics

Iraqi musician Rahim Al Haj and Amir Koushkani of Iran join to play together as part of the Cultural Olympiad music program
Iraqi musician Rahim Al Haj and Amir Koushkani of Iran join to play together as part of the Cultural Olympiad music program

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David Byrd

They come from two nations - Iraq and Iran - that have been enemies for years.  But at the Vancouver Games, Rahim Al Haj of Iraq and Amir Koushkani of Iran will join to play together as part of the Cultural Olympiad music program.  Both artists believe that music is a language that supersedes national, political, and ethnic boundaries.

Rahim al Haj's story begins in Baghdad, where he began playing the oud - regarded as the patriarch of many string instruments such as the lute and guitar - at age nine. He loved music so much, he used to sleep with his instrument and even speak to it.

Eventually, Rahim's love of music led him to study with Munir Bashir - considered by many to be the greatest oud player ever - and Salim Abdul Kareem, at the Institute of Music in Baghdad, Iraq. But under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, al Haj was imprisoned for nearly 18 months for not supporting the Baathist party.

Rahim was forced to flee his homeland, and escaped to Jordan. But the price of his freedom was his oud - to leave Iraq he had to leave his beloved instrument behind. Eventually he came to the United States, replaced his instrument and now lives and teaches in New Mexico.

Rahim says his painful journey informs his playing.  The musician told VOA that he feels a special responsibility to use his talent to communicate for people who suffer and for those who have no voice of their own.

"This is the message I think that musicians have to know. It's not entertainment," said Rahim. "Not to go to a bar and play some music and make people happy while they are having a beer, this is not my thing. My thing is to educate people what's going on right now in the world.  My mission in life in music is three things: peace and love and compassion. How can we give these people a voice, the voiceless people?"

As part of his mission, the Grammy-nominated Al Haj plans to donate the proceeds from his latest album, which features a stellar cast of international musicians, to Doctors without Borders to help Iraqi relief.

Amir Koushkani began his musical training in Iran and specialized in Persian classical music.  His instrument is the tar - a longer-necked instrument than Rahim Al Haj's oud. Koushkani immigrated to Canada in 1991, and has composed several works in which he seeks to blend classical Persian and Western styles.  

In his apartment in Vancouver, Koushkani told VOA that playing with Rahim Al Haj will be a bridge of understanding - because they share a love for music and they can communicate their musical passion to the world. "Politics and relations between countries, it's not similar to our approach together. So I will communicate with him with passion, with love, and everything I have in my heart for music in general," he said.

Rahim Al Haj says having the forum of the Olympic Games allows him to communicate with people from all over the world, and he feels a special responsibility to reach those in Vancouver.

"I believe that any struggle in this world is our responsibility. If you don't talk about it, you are responsible.  If your government is doing something bad, you are responsible to say 'you are doing something bad.' Otherwise you are a coward and you do not deserve to live in this world, because you are selfish and you don't care about the world," he said.

Amir Koushkani says that he hopes the passion he and Rahim Al Haj share for their art will touch their audience in Vancouver. "Actually I am going to create my music on the stage, in relation to people so it's not a preset music.  So I can't wait myself to see people's eyes and to play for them," he said.

Both Amir Koushkani and Rahim Al Haj say that the Olympic Games offer a unique forum. Both men want fans to experience the uniqueness of their musical traditions and the music's ability transcend ethnic, political, and national boundaries to communicate with the world.

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