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Iraqi National Orchestra Takes Center Stage - 2003-12-10

The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra - after years of being subjected to war, Saddam Hussein's rule, its concert halls bombed, burned and looted - took center stage in Washington, D.C. Tuesday night in front of an audience which included President George W. Bush.

This is the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, a symbol of renewal for a war-ravaged country emerging from decades of repression. Its 63 members filled the Concert Hall of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with more than just their music. This group of musicians exuded a sense of extraordinary strength, having survived years of isolation and poverty.

"They have basically stayed alive and kept their music alive through very difficult times," says Pat Harrison, head of the State Department program Culture Connect. "And their affirmation is that they have survived Saddam Hussein."

Culture Connect invited the group to join the U.S. National Symphony Orchestra and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ms Harrison says the concert offers an opportunity for the Bush administration to show the American public one example of how Iraqi lives have improved since Saddam was toppled early this year.

In June, the symphony orchestra - which claims to be the Arab world's oldest classical group - gave its first concert in Baghdad since Saddam's ouster, playing patriotic songs that predated the former dictator. This is the first time they have played in the United States.

Before the war, the orchestra played at Baghdad's National Theater, which was looted and partially destroyed by fires during the war. Or, at the Rasheed Concert Hall, which was bombed.

Mohammed Amin Ezzat, the orchestra's conductor, said the Kennedy Center concert was the group's first professional trip abroad since 1992. He says the orchestra relishes being back in the spotlight after years under Saddam Hussein. "The former regime did not really care about the symphony orchestra or its members. So we were really working in complete isolation, especially during the period of embargo for 14 years," he says. 'We were completely isolated."

Not only is the orchestra no longer isolated - its performing conditions have greatly improved. Gone are the days of playing music in the sweltering heat of summer, often without electricity to power the air conditioning or lights.

And, thanks to donations, orchestra members no longer have to nurse their aging instruments because replacement parts are too expensive.

"For the last few years we have been receiving lots of instruments and lots of spare parts from lots of non-profit organizations and humanitarian organizations," says Mr. Ezzat. "This has helped us get through difficult times and survive. We are very happy about it."

And, it appears, the listeners are happy, too.