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Totalitarian pasts haunt new Iraqi, Afghan songs

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

Anthem politics have proven especially tricky in the two central fronts on the global war on terrorism: Iraq and Afghanistan.

Emerging from the long totalitarian rules of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban left both countries facing delicate and sometimes divisive choices regarding the selection of new national songs — as well as continuing confusion abroad.

When Iraq's national soccer team scored a stunning upset win in last month's Asian Cup championships, a post-tournament party in the United Arab Emirates was marred when the Dubai hosts played the old, discredited Saddam-era anthem whose second verse extolled the "pride of lions" of the dictator's Ba'athist Party.

Several players and members of the team delegation walked out in protest as the song played, aides to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said. UAE officials blamed the mix-up on a "technician" who was not informed that the new Iraqi government changed the anthem to "Mawtini," or "My Homeland," a popular Arab folk tune.

Indeed, Iraq's difficult 20th-century history can be traced through the various editions of its national anthem.

The monarchy that ruled Iraq after the end of British colonial rule adopted the "Royal Salute" as the country's anthem, even though it was composed by a British lieutenant. That anthem was jettisoned when the king was overthrown in 1959.

Six years later, in a period of intense pan-Arab solidarity, Iraq adopted Egypt's national anthem "Walla Zaman Ya Selahy," or "Oh, My Weapon," keeping the anthem even after Egypt discarded it in the late 1970s.

As Saddam consolidated his one-party rule, Iraq got its third anthem in a quarter-century — "Land of Two Rivers." It was this anthem, with a verse praising the Ba'ath Party, that was junked by the new U.S.-backed Iraqi government in 2004.

The struggle to fashion a national anthem for post-Taliban Afghanistan also required a delicate political, linguistic and ethnic balancing act, reflecting competing interests in the country at large.

Afghan officials were roundly critical of the de facto Taliban-era anthem, a musical celebration of the Islamist mujahideen who battled Soviet troops in the 1980s.

Seeking to head off the crippling factional and ethnic divisions of the past, the Afghan constitution that was adopted in January 2004 mandates the anthem be written in Pashto, the language of the Pashtun people; that it contain the phrase "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great"); and that it "mention the ethnic groups of Afghanistan."

Meant to be inclusive, the requirements produced new divisions.

Tajiks and other large non-Pashto speaking groups protested the language mandate. More secular Afghans — including the Washington-based writer who composed the verses — were unhappy with the explicit Islamic reference.

And the requirement to mention the country's ethnic groups set off a public debate over which of the country's dozens of ethnic communities, tribes and subgroups would make the cut. In the end, 14 ethnic groups made it into the text, which was finally adopted after nearly two years of debate.

But there was one last problem: a quarter-century of civil war and displacement left Afghanistan without enough competent musicians and engineers to record the anthem for its official debut in May 2006, according to a report by the Institute for Peace and War Reporting.

On its first airing in Kabul, the new Afghan national anthem was heard as a CD recording, performed by emigre Afghan musicians and singers who produced it in Germany.