Students dance through bombs and intolerance

Budding artists at Baghdad’s School of Music and Ballet might dream of fame, but few would care to boast of their talents in violence-racked Iraq where religious extremists frown on music and condemn dancing.

”There’s nothing in Islam that says music is bad, but some people are narrow-minded. As for me, I both play the joza [a spiked fiddle played with a bow] and pray,” said Abdel Naser (15) one of the school’s 200 students.

Thirteen-year-old Rulah Fellah fell in love with the ballet at age five, while watching it on television.

”When I dance I forget everything that’s going on in my country, I’m in another world,” says the young girl, wearing pink dancing slippers and black tights, as she practises a ‘pas de deux’ in a mirror-panelled classroom.

”My mother always dreamed of being a pianist, but wasn’t able to,” she says, adding that two of her brothers study music at the school, the only one in the country teaching music and ballet.

”I want to be a doctor,” she says, but dancing is her main focus at present.

”My dream is to become a ballerina and when I leave school go abroad,” says 12-year-old Safaa Hamudi, another student.

The school, which was looted after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, is tucked away behind the main Iraqi army base in the capital, one that has been targetted at least five times by car bombers over the past three years.

In another room, a dozen girls and four boys aged between eight and 13 practise their steps on a grey carpet under the watchful eye of ballet teacher Thikra Moneim.

”Outside it’s hell, here it’s a haven of peace,” says this former student who went on to study ballet and choreography in Saint Petersburg and Moscow for six years before returning home.

But she is careful not to brag about her profession in a country where some extremists believe ballet is immoral and contrary to Islamic values.

”I’m afraid to tell people what my job is. I’ve got to trust them before I confess to my passion, and even then many are put off when they find out,” says the 46-year-old teacher.

At the school, where about 40 teachers are paid $120 a month, the morning is devoted to general studies and the afternoon to music or dancing.

”In the past we used to receive some 200 applications a year and we’d accept 40. But this year, because of the situation, we only got 40 applications and of those only accepted 15,” says school headmistress Najiha Nayef.

When the school was twice ransacked after the United States-led invasion, everything had to be refurbished because of the pillage.

”Our first gift was of two violins and a clarinet sent by an American woman who had been upset to hear about how the school had been looted,” says Nayef.

Norwegian churches and the Swiss embassy then stepped in, offering musical instruments and dancing shoes.

At the start of the school year, Nayef says she tells the pupils: ”This is a civilised place in the midst of violence, because to study music is to learn to live in peace and to respect others”.

But she too is aware of the dangers.

”Unfortunately there are a lot of ignorant people. There was music and dancing as far back as at the time of the Abbasid Caliphate [12 centuries ago], why bring Islam into it?” she says.

The music department teaches both oriental and classical music.

Hanin Imad, practises on the oud, a pear-shaped, short-necked mandolin, carefully plucking at the strings of the instrument.

”When there are explosions or shooting, I find peace in music and the sound of my instrument covers the sounds of death,” says the 17-year old who lives in the southern district of Dura, one of the most dangerous in the capital.

”My friends think I’m strange. Because in my district, I’m the only one to play an instrument and many think it’s not suitable for a young girl,” she adds.

In the neighbouring classroom where a professor teaches classical music, pupils practice the piano, violin, bassoon, trumpet and clarinet.

”I’m not afraid of death. We see it everyday. But I’d really like to grow up to be a famous pianist,” says 15-year old Zohal Sultan.

In a nearby building, the younger students, aged 10, sing out Silent Night under the direction of teacher Sawsan al-Karkhi while police sirens scream outside.

”I’ve doubled the number of lessons because they’re so far behind. Some can hardly read music,” says the teacher who studied the accordion in the former Soviet Union.

”I never tell just anyone what I do. When a taxi driver asks me what my job is, I look him over and if he looks OK I tell him, otherwise I just make something up,” she says laughing. – Sapa-AFP

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