ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now we bring you a story from Iraq that is not primarily about extremists, airstrikes or politics. Iraq was once a sophisticated center for learning and the arts. NPR's Alice Fordham spent time in Baghdad with musicians and artists who are trying to keep that tradition alive.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a hot night, and the national theater is packed with people coming to see the National Symphony Orchestra. They're fanning themselves with programs which picture the conductor, Karim Wasfi, playing a cello - a striking man with thick eyebrows and a pointed beard. Tonight he'll be conducting for the first time in more than a year. I meet him backstage to ask how the arts are doing here.
KARIM WASFI: Iraq was - and I do say was, and I do mean it - if not the most liberal, one of the most liberal and secular states in the Middle East.
FORDHAM: It's many centuries since Baghdad's golden age when it was known as the city of peace and famous poets regaled courtiers in marble palaces. But Wasfi says he remembers times when art had room to breathe.
WASFI: Freedom of moderate secular culture, secular approach towards the lifestyle - the lifestyle itself - the concept of civility - religion not necessarily being the major factor of how the country is necessarily run.
FORDHAM: The governments that came after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have been a mixed blessing for the arts crowd. They're paid more than under Saddam Hussein, but as Shiite Islamist parties dominate the political arena, there's more emphasis on religious music and less tolerance of concerts during the holy months of Ramadan and Muharram.
But it's because of the new threat of the Islamic State, stern extremists who conduct beheadings and forbid music, that he's returned to conducting. He wants to strike a blow for civilization.
(SOUNDBITE OF IRAQI NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA)
FORDHAM: The concert takes on Elgar and Liszt, and finishes with a flourish on Stravinsky's "Firebird." Wasfi turns to the audience.
WASFI: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: He says that if anyone from any sect bets against gatherings like this one, they'll lose the bet.
WASFI: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: But if you don't agree with me, don't cut my head off.
FORDHAM: The show will had more verve than polish, but the audience loved it. It wasn't publicized - a tactic to avoid being targeted by bombs. It's all word of mouth. It's a common strategy here.
Across town, I meet artist Qassim Sabti. He shows me his gallery.
QASSIM SABTI: This is the art during the suffering.
FORDHAM: Talking in his garden cafe where the sun fades green painted benches and sculptures, Sabti says he worries about security all the time. Like the orchestra, gallery events stay low-profile. He says the increasingly religious governments have been a nightmare, but if the Islamic State militants reach Baghdad, it would be much worse.
SABTI: We will turn back to the caves. There is no music, no art, no love.
FORDHAM: In fact, he has a surprising plan for the Iraqi artists union.
SABTI: We ask the government to give guns.
FORDHAM: You'll fight against them?
FORDHAM: A few days later, Sabti hosts one of these low-profile gathering and takes the opportunity to inform the artists.
SABTI: I can ask him now. (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: (Translating) My brothers, brothers - a real question. Who's ready to fight the Islamic State in Baghdad?
The artists union doesn't yet have any guns, but gathered here among the sculptures, some say this - the universities, the music, the galleries - is their fight against the brutality of today's Iraq. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad.
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