Rahim Alhaj: Iraqi Music in a Time of War
“ Music can connect and speak a universal truth that everyone can understand above and beyond language and logic and has the ability to transcend culture. ”
For a period of five centuries (750 - 1253), Baghdad was the music capital of the world. A music of elaborate ornamentations and modal rhythms that were rich, poetic and culturally beautiful. A music derived from the depths of ancient philosophies. There is even a belief that this is where melody was born, but now it lies in ruins with its culture and future in question.
From out of that culture is one of Iraq's greatest oud masters and composers, Rahim Alhaj who as a political refugee, now resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was sent to prison twice by Saddam Hussein for playing traditional Iraqi music; intimidated and tortured, his spirit far too strong and unwilling to bend. Amazingly, he remains a humanitarian, an ambassador of the Iraqi people and culture, speaking through a common language of hope and compassion.
But there is another language that confronts Rahim and the people and culture of Iraq, and it is the language of fear; the fear from the perception that Middle Eastern and Arabic men are religious fanatics and cannot be trusted. It is a language and perception that Rahim knows all too well. Yet when most would find difficulty in sustaining their faith, he continues to believe in the goodness of his fellow man, and in the heart and soul of the human spirit.
Lloyd Peterson: I believe you were placed in prison. Do you mind talking about it?
Rahim Alhaj: I was imprisoned twice by Saddam Hussein and it was because of my political and artistic protests, which were against the Iran and Iraq war that began in 1980 and continued until 1988. There were high death rates and terrible consequences for both countries. I was a well known performer in Baghdad and used my music to explore and express the reality of my opposition to the government. Under this dictatorship, like any other, music and art was used by the regime to increase its political credibility and many artists had to choose between writing music to support the war and the regime, or refuse and have dire consequences. Subsequently, I was imprisoned and tortured by the government and treated badly like my fellow prisoners. As is similar throughout the world, the torture included fear, pain and dehumanizing tactics to force people to submit to the power of the regime in order to enforce control. I was not able to play my concerts and was put on a black list as far as musical activities related to my career.
LP: So obviously, freedom of expression was not allowed.
RA: Freedom of expression and criticizing or interpreting life is always difficult when you live under a dictator. Saddam took advantage of all art scenes in Iraq in an extreme way for propaganda purposes to support his rule and war. For example, there were hundreds of beautiful songs and poetry written for his cause (Iran/Iraq War, Baathist rule, etc). The artists had no choice but to follow the model of glorifying his policies or face severe consequences. Some left the country and refused to comply; others chose to stay and survive. In the end, a lot of outstanding art was created and supported, but under fallacious circumstances. Saddam also undermined the value and continuance of some traditional Iraqi music and culture, especially in the Shia south (marsh areas).
LP: In the US, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black musicians that played free improvisational music were investigated because it was thought that this form of music elevated the consciousness of the individual. Traditional instrumental music is not always welcomed in parts of the Middle East. Is there a similar parallel?
RA: Any kind of serious music is dangerous for dictatorial regimes and any music that you create without control, that doesn't flow or go with the agenda of a dictatorship, will be investigated whether it's direct critique or not. When I composed music in Iraq during the Saddam regime, they wondered how to interpret it, what my music was saying and what it meant. These were fearful questions for the government. So in Iraq during the 1980s and on, there were certain artists who were blacklisted by the regime and forbidden to be played or distributed in Iraq. Once I left, I became one of these and was happy to see when I went back in 2004 that they were once again circulating my music in the country and now watch me on television.
LP: Many people globally receive mixed messages with regard to Iraq. We know that the dictatorship and suppression that Saddam imposed on the Iraqi people was not acceptable but the messages are mixed on whether the U.S. led U.N. conflict has been beneficial for the people and future of Iraq. What is the feeling of those within the arts and other various segments of Iraq and Arabic societies?