Musicians feel safe yet isolated




The letter that arrived at Zubair Al Awadi's home in Baghdad came from the same men who had killed his father.

"They wrote that they were going to cut my fingers off if I continued to play my music," said Al Awadi, who plays the oud, a traditional Arabic stringed instrument that's similar to a lute.

The men who sent the letter consider music haram, or forbidden by Islamic law.As a Muslim, Al Awadi, 34, believes music is a gift from God.

"There are some people in Iraq now who deface the image of Islam and Christianity, and they live by provoking clashes between the religions there," Al Awadi said. "They pretend to be religious. They are wearing the mask of religion, but they are terrorists."Al Awadi fled Iraq with his oud, music scores and recordings. He is one of more than 1,300 Iraqi refugees who've resettled in the Houston area since 2007.

Now, Al Awadi and his friend, Ahmed Al Yaqot, a pianist who also faced death threats in Iraq, strive to keep their art alive in America, where dreams of transplanted music careers have collided with the bleak reality of life as refugees: reduced expectations, menial jobs and loneliness.

Al-Qaida assassins gunned down Al Awadi's father, a police colonel, in 2004, the oud player said. The attackers denounced his father as a traitor. They shot him more than 50 times.Four months later, when the threatening letter came for Al Awadi, his mother begged him to leave Iraq."She said, `I lost my husband and I don't want to lose you,'?" Al Awadi recalled.

For the next few years, Al Awadi drifted across the Middle East, from Egypt to Lebanon to Iran, studying and teaching music.He arrived in Houston seven months ago and took a job in a factory to pay the bills. His 6. a.m.- to- 6 p.m. shift leaves him little time for music.

"One of my friends said something that terrifies me," Al Awadi said. "He said, `You will abandon your oud in America.' Until this moment, I have been trying to prove my friend wrong. But I am seeing that what he said is true."

Al Awadi wants to make a living as a musician, as he did in the Middle East, but the artistic reputation he built there means little here, and he's not yet fluent enough in English to ask directions with confidence, much less navigate a job interview. So he practices and composes on the weekends and ponders the puzzle of his new life in America, where he has the freedom to play his music but no time or outlet to do so.

Perhaps he could visit schools to demonstrate Iraqi music to American students, Al Awadi said, or collaborate with American musicians on some kind of hybrid Eastern-style blues. "My place is in your theaters, not your factories," he said.

One bright spot for Al Awadi was the arrival of fellow musician Al Yaqot in Houston five months ago. When Al Yaqot called to tell him he'd arrived in the U.S., "at first I didn't know whether to cry or laugh or dance," said Al Awadi, who had befriended Al Yaqot at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

Al Yaqot, 36, is a soft-spoken pianist who used to perform with the Iraqi symphony. He left Iraq in 2002 to pursue his music career in Jordan.

When the war started in 2003, he wanted to come home, but his father insisted he stay in Jordan, where it was safe.Al Yaqot focused on his music, playing in festivals and composing jingles and soundtracks. He also performed on satellite TV channels that aired in Iraq.

But Al Yaqot's success as a musician soon became a liability. A group of masked men came to his father's house in Iraq and threatened to kill the pianist.To protect himself and the rest of the family, Al Yaqot's father told the men he'd disowned his eldest son and intended to kill him if he ever saw him again.

The family moved to another part of Baghdad. Al Yaqot's father even changed his name from Abu Ahmed, a traditional moniker that means father of Ahmed, to Abu Hussain, the name of another son.Al Yaqot knew he could never return to Iraq. But he couldn't stay in Jordan, where his temporary visa didn't permit work. He lived in fear of being arrested and deported.

Eventually, the United Nations granted Al Yaqot refugee status and cleared him for immigration to the United States, but he could only take only 100 pounds of luggage on the plane. He left behind most of his belongings and a woman he described as "the other half of my soul."

When he spoke of her, he wept.

"It seems this is the nature of my life, to go to a place and get acquainted with it and start to get to know people and then you have to leave again," Al Yaqot said. "I keep telling myself, `I started from zero before, I can do it again.' But until now, I haven't even been able to reach zero to start again."

In Houston, the pianist attends English classes between shifts for his own factory job, but he's far from fluent, increasing his sense of isolation.Al Yaqot and Al Awadi meet as often as they can to play together. On a recent night, Al Awadi propped open his door and strummed his oud as Al Yaqot listened a few feet away, his fingers briefly motionless on the keyboard.

A Palestinian refugee in a tan headscarf watched Al Awadi play from a balcony across the courtyard. Her children lined up against the railing to hear, their faces pressed against the iron bars."Everyone's homeland is in their heart, but my music is my home, my country," Al Awadi said. "My music is where I feel safe."

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com/
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