The Iraqi cellist who plays at a bombsite to remember the fallen

For 20 minutes, Iraqi maestro Karim Wasfi, on Tuesday 28th Arpil, welcomed the dawn of a new day in the capital Baghdad, as he played his cello at the bombsite where a blast the night before had claimed nine lives. 

Wasfi, who is the main conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, was determined to dedicate his piece: “Baghdad Melancholy,” which was originally “composed to the fallen souls and everyone who is facing terror,” when he shared his music with passersby at 14 Ramadan intersection, located in the western district of Mansour, which also happens to be his neighborhood. 

His music was not only dedicated to the “martyrs” and “innocent souls losing their [physical] body,” but he wanted to send a “strong message of peace” and most importantly to “create beauty, civilization and refinement.” “It is a proactive action to prioritize beauty and civilization, hopefully as powerful as ugliness and death,” 

Wasfi told Al Arabiya News on Wednesday in a phone interview, as he started a new day in Baghdad. He was resolute that it was a “strong peaceful message and not a weak one.” 

“People think music is about entertainment but I think music is way, way beyond that. I think it has to do with creation,” he said after his street performance that saw his music echo through Mansour - many of people on social media sharing pictures of him playing his cello amid the destruction at the intersection. 

But at the intersection where Wasfi was accustomed to visiting his neighborhood coffee shop before - and after - rehearsals, or get his favorite lemonade, “people were overwhelmed. They were very happy,” he said, speaking of when he shared his music with them. 

“They felt like spiritual beings hovering around, almost united with those who lost their lives. It was a weird mix of living souls and those who hovering souls after leaving their body in the area.” 

His cello music prompted people to “start cleaning the shattered glass and rubble,” at the site where “I think two families lost their lost their lives as they were visiting the bakery and the clothe shops.”

Educated in the U.S. and fluent in English, Wasfi chose to stay in Iraq to keep pursuing his ardent belief in “beauty” and “civilization.” 

And in spite of criticizing Iraqis for “surrendering to the daily routine of violence,” and of others being the country’s “worst enemy,” he said he would stay in the country, even if it comes at a high personal price. 

“My wife left me because I kept coming to Iraq, we will soon be divorced,” he said. The father of two children aged six and eight, said “we experienced two major explosions in Baghdad, then I had to take them out because I did not see it as a safe or logical option.” 

He did not feel ashamed that he took his children out of Iraq. “I can’t throw numbers, but too many politicians and people have done the same and taken their families out. I did not feel guilty anymore for giving them a chance to live abroad,” he said. 

But Wasfi still has ideas on how to pursue “beauty” in Iraq, where violence and terrorist attacks claimed 1,234 lives in March alone. The U.N. and the Iraqi health ministry said the figures were higher than those of February, and the second largest toll since the beginning of 2015. 

The “abandoned” husband said he would pursue a humanitarian project to help those traumatized. “I want to start a PTSD [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder] project to help people overcome their obstacles through music and creativity,” he said. 

But he lamented when he described himself as “having no resources, I have nothing, the only thing I can do is to talk to, and ask countries, the EU, and U.N. to support us. I can’t do this on my own, I only own my cello and that’s why I can only share with the populace and my baton when I conduct.” 

By Dina al-Shibeeb

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