- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

BAGHDAD

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,” says Abdel Naser, 15, one of the school’s 200 students.

Thirteen-year-old Rulah Fellah says she fell in love with ballet at age 5, while watching it on television.

“When I dance, I forget everything that’s going on in my country. I’m in another world,” says Rulah, wearing pink dancing slippers and black tights as she practices a pas de deux in a mirror-paneled 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.

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 targeted at least five times by car bombers during the past three years.

In another room, a dozen girls and four boys from 8 to 13 practice their steps on a gray carpet under the watchful eye of ballet teacher Thikra Moneim, one of about 40 teachers in the school.

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

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,” the 46-year-old teacher says.

At the school, 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.

After the school was ransacked twice following the U.S.-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,” Mrs. Nayef says.

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

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

She, too, is aware of the dangers.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of ignorant people,” she says. “There was music and dancing as far back as at the time of the Abbasid caliphate (12 centuries ago). Why bring Islam into it?”

“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 tsudent 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 a neighboring classroom, a professor teaches classical music, pupils practice the piano, violin, bassoon, trumpet and clarinet.

“I’m not afraid of death. We see it every day. 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, age 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 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 tell him, otherwise I just make something up,” she says, laughing.

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