War kept him away from his beloved homeland for decades. Now, virtuoso oud player Naseer Shamma hopes to help rebuild conflict-scarred Iraq through a series of concerts and other projects to support culture and education.
The audience at the Iraqi National Theater were on their feet, overcome with emotion as Shamma played a night of classics from the Iraqi songbook and modern compositions.
“We will work on lighting the stage, to get out of the darkness into the light,” he told the crowd, before kicking off the evening with, “Sabah El Kheir Ya Baghdad,” or, “Good Morning Baghdad.” Behind him, an orchestra, including young women musicians, played traditional instruments.
The 59-year-old Shamma is considered a modern-day master of the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument similar to a lute whose deep tones and swift-changing chords are central to Arabic music.
Born in the southern city of Kut and raised in a conservative family, he received his first oud lesson at the age of 11 and later graduated from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987.
He fled Iraq in 1993 during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and gained international fame, performing around the world and receiving dozens of awards. In Cairo, he founded the House of the Oud, a school dedicated to teaching the instrument to new generations.
Shamma, who currently lives in Berlin, returned to Iraq for the first time in 2012 to perform in a concert hosted by the Arab League. He said he was shocked and overwhelmed with sadness to see what had become of his country, which had fallen into non-ending cycles of war and sectarian blood-letting after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam.
“I found concrete T-walls surrounding Baghdad, I felt like I was walking inside a can, not a city,” Shamma told The Associated Press in an interview, referring to the blast walls that line many streets in Baghdad.
He returned several times since, most recently in 2017, when Iraq was torn apart in its battle with ISIS who had captured much of the north.
This was Shamma’s first time back to an Iraq relatively at peace, though wracked by economic crisis. The mood, he noted, had changed, the city is more relaxed and the audience more responsive.
“The audience’s artistic taste had changed as a result of wars, but last night it was similar to the audiences of the ‘80s. I felt as if it was in an international concert like one in Berlin,” Shamma said Friday after the first of four concerts he is holding in Baghdad this month.
The concert series, held under the slogan “Education First,” aims to highlight Iraq’s decaying education system, which has suffered under years of conflict, government negligence and corruption.
According to the World Bank, education levels in Iraq, once among the highest in the region, are now among the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa. Ticket sales will go toward renovating the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad.
“In Iraq there are still schools made of mud, and students don’t have desks, they sit on the floor,” Shamma said. “Education is the solution and answer for the future of Iraq.”
Shamma is known for using his fame to support humanitarian causes, Iraqi children and art. A few years ago, he led an initiative that rebuilt the destroyed infrastructure of 21 main squares in Baghdad. He is also a UNESCO peace ambassador.
Shamma said he hopes he can return to Iraq for good in the near future and fired off a list of projects he has in mind to support reconstruction.
He expressed his opposition to religious parties who try to silence art and political opponents and praised Iraqi youth who paid a high price for revolting against their corruption.
“The Iraqi people and Iraqi youth will not accept the hegemony of so-called religious parties. This is an open country where culture plays a very big role,” he said, advocating for separation of politics from religion.
Fatima Mohammed, a 55-year-old Iraqi woman, shivering from the cold as she emerged from the concert on an uncharacteristically icy January evening, said the event was a message to everyone that Baghdad will never die.
“I felt as I witnessed the women playing that Baghdad is fine and will return despite all the pain that we carry with us,” she said.
“I will come tomorrow also to listen to music, it gives me hope in life.”