The Sound Of Resistance: Iraq

Learn about the history and traditions of musical resistance in:
  • Iran
  • Lebanon
  • Palestine

  • Iraq: Histories of Resistance

    Baghdad: The Fertile Crescent of Classical Maqam

    Renowned as a crucible for art music and scholarship in the Arab world, Baghdad was the historic crossroads for musical activity during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 AD). Vocalists and instrumentalists traveled to the Abbasid courts to study under preeminent masters and practice their arts in a cosmopolitan milieu that spawned the Baghdadi school of maqam. Contemporary Iraqi maqam is a cyclical song form that moves between fixed repertoire and improvised patterns of poetry and pitched sequences (maqamat) and incorporates instruments such Munir Bashiras santur, juza, and percussion (tabla, dunbuk, riq). Baghdad's historical legacy spread to Cairo and Damascus during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and influenced the work of influential composers such as Said Darwish. Today's top performers continue to express their debt to Iraqi luminaries such as the late Munir Bashir, whose legacy has been succeeded in part by his Cairo-based disciple, Naseer Shamma. One of Shamma's most widely circulated compositions,“Happened at al-Amiriyya,” is a piece composed in response to the U.S. bombing of Iraq's al-Amiriyya shelter in 1991, and is available on his Le Luth de Bagdad album.

    The political upheaval of the twentieth century severely impacted music making in Iraq. As an alternative to exclusively male coffeehouses in Baghdad, British occupying forces introduced cabarets and encouraged performances given by female singers for mixed audiences. The British occupation was denounced by regional praise songs such as the Bedouin "arda and aayla", or war poetry, which have again become popular as a tool of resistance against the U.S. occupation of Iraq (see Sabah al-Jenabi below). During King Faisal's reign from the 1930s to the 1958 anti-imperialist coup, external influences significantly altered the status of urban music in Iraq. Modern tarab compositions from Egypt and Syria influenced the work of renowned maqam vocalists Farida, Zakia George, Afifa Iskander, and Selima Murad. In contrast to these processes of modernization that pursued a pan-Arab nationalism through centralized radio and television, local singers of abuthiya gave voice to mawwal in Kurdish and other vernacular dialects.

    When Iraqi Jewish musicians Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti left for Israel in 1952, Baghdad suffered the loss of two of its major contributors to the arts. The al-Kuwaiti brothers not only established the official maqam ensemble of Baghdad Radio, they composed hundreds of popular tarab songs in collaboration with pan-Arab stars like Umm Kulthum and Mohammad Abd al-Wahhab and recorded regularly for cinema and radio. Contemporary cultural politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict continue to negotiate the work of these and other Iraqi Jewish artists in Baghdad in the extraordinarily fertile period of collaboration from the 1930s to the 1950s.

    Umm Kulthum
    Umm Kulthum

    Censorship and Coercion under the Baath Regime

    Following the Baath party's coup of 1968, state institutions were established to preserve and encourage Iraqi music through recordings, collections, and training in performance and luthier craftsmanship. Nevertheless, classical maqam continued to decline due to migration from rural areas to cities, the growth of urbanization and literacy, and the general redistribution of wealth. These processes also contributed to the failed integration of Iraq's disparate communities which led to, and merged with, the rise of Saddam Hussein. Ethnic minorities found it difficult to perform under these centralized efforts which cloaked the coercive policies by which the Ba'ath regime strategized Iraqi nationalism. The Baath party harassed, imprisoned, and tortured Sufi praise singers and Kurdish musicians, such as singer Newroz. Arrested in 1979 by the Baath party because of his incendiary lyrics laced with symbols of the Kurdish revolution, Newroz chose a life in exile and was eventually granted political asylum in Britain in 1989.

    The Baath regime's zero tolerance policy for dissent was enforced through the Hussein family's control of Iraqi state media and cultural affairs. Pop singer Nizar al-Khaled recounts his experiences with the capricious Uday Hussein, who owned the main daily newspaper, Babel, as well as the youth and entertainment channel Shebab: "Me and another singer, Haitham Yousef, were really popular with the girls, so Uday stopped us appearing on television. Then last year [2002] they produced a list of singers who had not sung for Saddam yet [on TV], so I had to do it – twice. Yousef fled the country after Uday had a group of girls beat him up at a concert. And there are other incidents, like one in which Uday urinated on a singer because he didn't like his looks."

    From Sanctions to Exile: Profiles of Contemporary Iraqi Artists

    Following the 1991 Gulf War, U.N.-sponsored economic sanctions severely constrained conditions of music production in Iraq. Musicians departed for Jordan, Cairo, and other major Arab cities, so many that the government paid salaries to the remaining performers in order to cut the rate of emigration. The sanctions also severed access to imported music markets such as jazz, rock, funk, and alternative music. Local heros emerged in the face of this economic and cultural isolation, charismatic individuals like Alan of Alan's Melody whose bootleg record shop in the Baghdadi neighborhood of A'arasat became a central hub for music lovers of all genres.

    Despite this recession, a new generation of pop music singers emerged in the 1990s, some of whom are now among the most popular stars in the Arab world (see Kazem al-Saher below). In addition to amplifying traditional vocal aesthetics with electronics such as the keyboard and bass, this generation has appropriated global hip-hop and rock samples into Iraqi popular music. Rising pop stars include vocal artists like Abdullah Abdul Wahid, Wael Adel, Jamal Abdul Nasser, and Hummam Abdul Razzak.

    Kazem al-Saher

    One of the largest-grossing artists in the Arab world, Kazem al-Saher's career began when he sold his bicycle for a guitar – an audacious gesture that has continued to characterize his career. His first major hit was censored by Iraqi authorities sensitive to the cultural politics of the Iran-Iraq war, an act which served only to increase the song's popularity on the black market. After choosing a life in exile in Cairo (after a brief two-year stint in Lebanon), politics again jumpstarted his career. In 1995, at a moment when international media began to cover the consequences of U.N. Sanctions on Iraq, he performed Yidrib al-Hob on Egyptian TV and voiced solidarity with his fellow brethren. Thus his creative arrangements of Iraqi classical music and poetry, Arab pop, and more recently, Western opera and Algerian rai, are delivered with a politically acute sense of timing that continually brings Iraq to the center of the Arab world. Today, al-Saher continues to speak out against the U.S. occupation of Iraq through his music, especially the 2007 release "Al-Rowaa wal Nar" (Barbarians and Fire) and the spotlight of international media.

    Iraq Today: The Violence of Virtue and Vice

    Life as a musician in Iraq today is more unstable and risky than at any other moment in the history of modern Iraq. According to the Iraqi Artist's Association (IAA), nearly 80 percent of the singers during Saddam's era fled the country and at least seventy-five singers have been killed since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Active singers face threats from religious extremists and avoid public performances because of the security situation. Casualties of regime change have not overlooked singers, particularly those who were active under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. In an extreme case, the head of the Musicians' Union, Dawoud al-Qaisi, was shot in May 2003 due to his affiliations with the Baath elite, an assassination that prompted many others to go into hiding. Other acts of violence include, for example, the bombing of music shops in the Summar district of Baghdad, students assaulted by armed members of al-Sadr's movement for listening to music while at a picnic in 2005, and gunfire riddling music stores in Baghdad earlier this year.

    While these acts of violence stem from complex and varied causes, many can be attributed to the religious authority of Islamic cleric Muqtada al-Sadr under which an Islamist interpretation of shari'a (Islamic law) is enforced on all practices of civilian life.

    The Mehdi army of al-Sadr maintains a coercive presence and strict surveillance of many neighborhoods in Baghdad, and frequently close concert halls, clubs, and music stores. Washington Post journalist Sudarsan Raghavan reported in September 2006 that young Mehdi foot soldiers posted religious edicts in north-central Baghdad that banned vices like "music-filled parties and all kinds of singing, celebratory gunfire at weddings, the gathering of young men in front of markets or girls' schools" and also suggested that men should cut their hair. The totalitarian presence by which these morals are enforced—literally the presence of al-Sadr's men at girls' school, at the market, and on main streets, as well as the feared home visit—produces an atmosphere of paranoia that immobilizes the human right of freedom of expression and has nearly destroyed local music industries in Baghdad.

    Agrassicauda, Baghdad's only heavy metal band

    The choice to leave Baghdad imposes a bare life condition of existence on refugees in Amman, Damascus, or Sulaimaniyah (Iraq). The documentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" chronicles the heavy metal band Acrassicauda from initial interviews in 2003 to the band's flight out of Baghdad to concrete bunkers outside of Damascus. As arguably Baghdad's only heavy metal band, Acrassicauda has gained attention for their subversive lyrics:

    "They wanna war for the rest of future
    They said you don't need it much longer
    They wanna war and you wanna peace
    And you know you got -- got kill the beast."

    Singers Resist the US-led Sound Invasion on Iraq

    In efforts to influence Iraqi popular sentiment through mass media, the US Army established radio and television stations that broadcast Western and Arab pop music. In response (and in violation of the ban against “any sort of public expression used in an institutionalized sense that would incite violence against the coalition or Iraqis"), Iraqi singers like Sabah al-Jenabi popularized praise songs that call for guerrilla war and extol the "men of Falluja for hard tasks" who will "fight the Americans like leaderless soldiers. We'll drag Bush’s corpse through the dirt." Sabah al-Jenabi's popularity has soared not only among jihadists but also among the general Iraqi public for whom the jihad music can "make them feel good." Other singers in this underground industry include Sayyed al-Hassooni and Abdul Rahman al-Refai.