This is a combination of impressions from
Cameron & Kristina of their trip to Baghdad.
Baghdad is Burning. It is April 18, 2003.
"Ali Baba!" screams our driver and points at the mobs of looters, thick on
the streets and at their work as we wind into central Baghdad. We detour
around the edges of what the press called "the biggest anti-American
Imad, our driver, who has brought us all 500 miles of the way here from
Amman, slips at high speed through the smoke-filled intersections. No
electricity means no traffic lights. No government means no laws. Drivers
make up their own rules. Imad makes up for the loss of order by leaning on
Six or eight of the nearby high-rise buildings have flames leaping out of
their windows. No water means no putting out these fires. Who is torching
this city? Why?
Imad points to our hotel. It, and several other hotels and buildings, lie
behind a military blockade. The street is crowded and it is difficult to
find a place to park. We carry our packs, food and water a few blocks; we
are searched as we cross through the US Marine check point and land in the
Al Fonar hotel.
The hotel is seething with journalists, but we find the last unoccupied
room. Next door is the Palestine hotel: the one where, a week previously,
Journalists were killed in a blast from a US tank. It is hard to see the
damage from the outside. There is only a small hole where the projectile
entered. It exploded inside.
After 5 minutes in our room, we head out into the city, oud (middle-eastern
lute) in hand. Within 25 yards of the coils of US marine razor-wire, a
group of Iraqis point at my oud and ask for us to play. We begin playing an
Egyptian song made famous by Um Kolthoum...
"No, no!" they shout, "Saddam Hussein taught us not to like Um Kolthoum."
I pass the oud to one of them who plays a taqasim (improvisation) in the
style, it sounds like to me, of Farid al Atresh...
Then it's my turn again. I begin with a famous vocal and oud mawal
(introduction) written by an Iraqi composer and made more famous by Syrian
singer Sabah Fakri. This hits the perfect note, it seems, with the crowd;
eyes close, heads bob and shake with appreciation... Somebody lovingly
adjusts the hairs in my eyebrows while I sing.
Everyone wants to be in the pictures I am taking. In Egypt I had passed the
camera out to the crowd to take pictures. I had known that even if I had
lost sight of it, it would come back, which it did. Here I guard it a bit
closer. After seeing all the looting I am not so sure.
Doing these street performances is not easy. Dozens crowd closely around
us. They ask all kinds of questions: “Where are you from?”
“Welcome. We need to see people like you!”
One man wishes to emmigrate to the United States. "Will it be good for me
there?" he asks.
"Maybe yes, maybe no," I reply. I think of the many Arab friends we have in
the states and how life has changed for them since 9/11. Some have been
detained, some discriminated against in other ways. Others have had few
problems. He seems a little disappointed from my response.
It is a bit exhausting to be the center of such attention. These are very
friendly people. We play and sing for a while and then feel it is time to
move on down the street to another location. A few of the men follow us and
want to talk. We ask them how they are feeling. We tell them our hearts are
with the Iraqi people.
A conservative man in a tan galibiya (traditional Arab gown) approaches:
"Since you are Americans, I would like to send a message to Bush with you:
the Americans must leave! We will build a new government ourselves!
American government coming is from the outside... we will kill them!"
Meanwhile, a few feet away, two men are telling Kristina the opposite
message: “No, no! That man who just spoke is a bad man. Bush and Blair
good! USA good! Saddam was a very bad man! It is good the US has liberated
An excited young man approaches and introduces himself as the author of a
book about Arabic musical scales (maqamat from Iraq) and very
enthusiastically offers to take us to a music school to meet a great master
oud player whom he respects. He is apparently oblivious to the fact that
the city around us is in flames... We tell him that another time would be
better and give him our e-mail address to stay in touch.
We pass by the Tigris river thinking there might be a nice spot for more
singing there, but the Marines are using the park beside the river for a
Returning toward the main streets, we come to “Paradise Square” (Sahat al
Firdos) where the whole world watched on TV as Marines used a tank to help
Iraqis pull over a huge statue of Saddam.
A man driving by in his car spots the oud and inquires if we play it: "Yes,
we are Americans who love Arabic music and who play the oud and sing," I
tell him in Arabic. He parks his car and we begin singing for him and
others who randomly approach.
The pedestal with fragments of Saddam's demolished statue stands in the
background as we sing Abd el Halim's "Sawah," a song about a man who is
missing his lover as he walks for days and weeks like a stranger in a
As I sing, I scan the eyeballs in the crowd... they are so happy to see us
singing... we announce several times, as people inquire, that we are
Americans who love Arabic music. Some of the eyes are uncertain at first,
but not for long as people melt into the songs and join in the singing.
The man with the car says he plays the oud also and is anxious to take us
with him in his car to his house to play music. He, too, seems to find his
encounter with us more important than the fact that the city is in flames.
It takes 5 or 6 polite declinations from us to postpone this offer until
another time. I add his phone number to my list of musicians to contact in
Hundreds of international journalists throng the spaces around the
Palestine and Ishtar hotels, both nearby. They peer out from the rooftops
with the latest high tech portable video gear. Grim-faced and red-eyed,
they go about their story writing with cigarettes lit, adding to the
I just proved, to my own satisfaction at least, that America could have
invaded Iraq with battalions of our own citizens trained to play ouds and
sing just a few songs in Arabic.
I have come here with the intention of looking beyond the concepts of good
and evil or right and wrong. These are all people; they have all suffered
in some way. Many were imprisoned or have had family members killed by the
former Iraqi regime. They have all suffered during the bombing. Many
suffered from the effects of the sanctions. One man told me his child is
very sick, but he cannot take him to the hospital because the hospital has
In Amman we spoke with some of the Human Shields who had just returned from
Baghdad. All of them saw civilians dead on the streets or being piled in
the backs of trucks and carted away. What is clear is that these Iraqi
people have suffered beyond what most Americans can understand.
Many of the US soldiers, too, have suffered. I look at these young men.
They all look like they could be my sons. They are so young! Tears come to
my eyes when I think of how their young lives have been rudely awakened.
Many of them are trying very hard to be good to the Iraqi people and to do
their jobs with minimum violence. But some of them are tainted and see the
Iraqis as less than human. A few of them, we are told, have killed
civilians for target practice.
I don't think this will come as a surprise to those who have experienced
war first hand. The Vietnam vet, whom we met upon our arrival in Amman,
said he saw it in Vietnam, and now he has seen it in Baghdad. War is war.
Atrocities are committed on both sides, always.
What do we do now? What can we do? Cameron and I have our own little way.
We play popular Arabic songs with these people. They have never seen
Americans like us. They are overjoyed that we know their music. I feel that
at least we are showing these people that there are some Americans who
appreciate them and their culture. We get very enthusiastic responses. For
a while we all forget the pain and suffering and immerse ourselves in the
power of song. There is a power in this: the power of spirits joining
together in friendship, of moving beyond the idea of separation. Singing
together joins hearts and minds and spirits. I feel blessed that I can
share this immediate connection with these people.