Where: Baghdad, Iraq, in the midst of the ruins When: No specific time, whenever bombs drop Duration: 1.5 hours Invitees: An open invitation to every passerby and every soul that was claimed by explosions Cause: To salute the absent souls and sanctify those present Instrumentalist: Kareem Wasfi, lead cellist and maestro of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra
Despite the darkness from soot that draped the area after the explosion of a fully loaded vehicle near Hai Al Mansoor in Baghdad, a melody manifested to challenge death. In this scene, there he sat with such elegance in the heart of the ruins, wearing his formal maestro attire. He played an impromptu piece on his cello, serenading the souls that were caught in the fire with his tune.
Kareem Wasfi, the head of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, chose the street as his stage to console witnesses of warfare using performance, with the sole belief that music will help people overcome the aftermath of explosions. The accomplished musician told HuffPost Arabi, “With the ongoing bombings and rubble and state of fear that surrounds us, I feel it’s my responsibility to do something about the matter. As head of the orchestra and an instrumentalist, I cannot ignore what is happening around me and continue to hold performances at the opera as if everything is OK.”
The grueling streets of Baghdad -- where vehicles explode and suicide bombers go off between the crowds -- motivated Wasfi to play his music there, in an effort to reconstruct a scene of beauty from the rubble. He believes that “every aspect of your daily life has hope, and it should not be limited due to these explosions. It is our responsibility to do our best to stay positive and rid ourselves of the negativity it brings upon us.”
“I for one refuse to start my day in fear of explosions, and when it does happen I express my refusal through my music,” he added.
The Iraqi people -- who have grown accustomed to bombings as part of daily life -- are not just surprised by the musical performances, but also by the dapper appearance of the musician playing for them. At the scene of the wreckage, Wasfi wears the same formal attire he dons for his opera performances. The Iraqi cellist has performed 13 times on the streets of Baghdad so far, each time dressed in his best.
“I need to maintain a personal connection when using this sophisticated art form. In order to do so I must treat it exactly as I would if I was delivering on stage,” he said. “Life is an open stage for anyone who desires to offer their work in a positive manner, and I choose to debut on the stage of life in the same formality I would on any other stage.”
Wasfi says his kinship with the stage dates back to when he was in the womb, as his mother was a pianist and was surrounded by music throughout her pregnancy and during his upbringing. Wasfi explained that his mother had a tremendous role in how he perceives death, bombings and warfare. On one hand, he said, she would ease the tension of what was happening, and on the other, she taught him how to face the inevitable. “She was stronger than war and bombs,” he said.
“Ode to Suffrage,” “Ode to Baghdad” and “Ode to the World,” among others, are just a few of the titles Wasfi has performed, each usually lasting 90 minutes. “I allocate these pieces to all those we have lost around the world, and in spite of those who kill others in the name of politics,” he said
The musician is not limited to playing pieces he has already composed; there are times he is inspired to compose an impromptu piece.
During one May performance, merely seven hours had passed between a bombing and Wasfi’s appearance on the scene. This time, however, Wasfi was wearing his white suite, not his black. This time was different. This time, he was serenading the soul of his dearest friend, Ammar Al-Shahbandir, whose last words to Wasfi were, “All you compose is beautiful, but I wish your elegiac musical compositions played a positive tune.”
Wasfi told HuffPost Arabi, “That day, I played for four hours at the scene of the wreckage to sanctify the soul of my friend who had turned to ashes. There were candles lit everywhere, and I felt a positive spiritual energy. I made sure that I put forth positive energy that day, which is why I chose to wear my white suit.”
Wasfi said he decided to stay in his homeland due to the death of his wife. He didn't think twice about staying to fulfill his obligation as an artist, especially, he added, since "weapons aren’t the only means used to terrorize. Music is a powerful tool utilized to help face intellectual terrorism.”
“Light” and “spirit”: These were the two words the maestro used to describe his cello, the instrument that accompanied him and serenaded the audience on the street. It aided them in their anguish. All of them were moved by his melody: young and old, rich and poor, even those holding opposing political views.
According to Wasfi, “Even the cleaning crew stopped picking up the remains and the debris to join the audience. Everyone felt a positive energy in lieu of death. I created a stage that mimicked that of the opera as I captivated them with music.”
He added, “My presence in the street was not tied to the tragedy of the attack, but it was what brought me to play at the scene. My means are scarce; I went forward with my performance unprotected and unaccompanied by bulletproof cars.”
This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Arabi and has been translated from Arabic.