RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The roar of a car bomb has been the prelude to Karim Wasfi's performances of late. The renowned conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra has been appearing at the sites of explosions across Baghdad. Just hours after attacks, Wasfi can be seen seated amid ash and rubble in a black suit jacket, long hair combed back, playing his cello. For him, this music in this place has become a form of resistance - something he told us when we reached him at his home in Baghdad.
KARIM WASFI: This was an action respecting the souls and the spirits of the fallen ones due to terror around the world and, of course, Baghdad because we're living the reality over here. So it was choosing to act the same way as the other side is acting. The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty and compassion.
MONTAGNE: Karim Wasfi resides in a well-to-do neighborhood of Baghdad called Mansour. It was once an enclave of diplomats and private clubs. The specific event that prompted him to take his cello to the street was a deadly attack in Mansour a few weeks ago - an explosion Wasfi narrowly missed.
WASFI: It sounds very, very like fiction. But this is really reality (laughter). I would change my route, or I would stop somewhere, and then where I'm aiming to go, something would happen. And that Mansour explosion was exactly that. I would start my day sometimes in the morning by grabbing my scores and getting my coffee and just sit and trying to experience normalcy as we can. And that day, I was late to come back to that spot, and then the incident happened. This spot had nothing to do with any military insulation, any target or nothing. So it was obvious that there's a whole wave of intimidation. And that made me decide to perform whenever and whatever to help people overcome that event.
MONTAGNE: Well, on that first performance in your neighborhood, I gather that you performed one of your own compositions, "Baghdad...
WASFI: Yes, "Baghdad Mourning Melancholy." Yes.
MONTAGNE: And mourning spelled as M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G...
MONTAGNE: ...In "Mourning Melancholy." I know you have your cello with you. Could you play a little of that for us?
WASFI: Sure. I'll grab my instrument. (Playing cello).
MONTAGNE: Footage of Wasfi playing his cello this first time was posted online by his close friend, Ammar al-Shahbander. People are seen gathering around this cellist of Baghdad. One man in a wheelchair rolls slowly right up next to Wasfi, taking in the unusual moment of transcendence after a dreaded episode of terror.
WASFI: (Playing cello).
MONTAGNE: One, then, would picture you sitting on a stool, amid wreckage of a bomb attack. How did people react?
WASFI: I think they were elevated somehow. Some soldiers were in tears. Some shop owners were in tears. Some people were confused because I was connecting everything - death, spirits, bodies, life. People were supportive. They were appreciating the fact that someone can still at least lead their emotions and spirits towards something beautiful to rise above the intimidation of improvised death.
MONTAGNE: The video that sort of went viral - I mean, lots and lots of people saw you. A friend of yours took that video. And...
MONTAGNE: ...And just horribly was then killed, himself, in another attack.
WASFI: I don't want to get into that. It was very surreal. Ammar - bless his soul - we were supposed to meet the day after. And he had mentioned on Facebook - he wrote something saying that I'm waiting for the positive tunes of Karim Wasfi, playing his cello with my poetry. He was waiting for a positive tune. And I was trying to call him, asking him to wait for me so we can be in Karrada together and can have our intellectual meetings and talk about theater and arts and our hopes and our dreams and all that.
That night, I couldn't make it on time. And Ammar was gone. Ammar Shahbander lost his life that night in a car bomb. What I did the next morning, only six hours after the incident - I grabbed my cello and full white suit - not in black. I sat exactly where he had lost his life and paid tribute by performing some semi-positive tune for Ammar. Unlike what people would think, we have a choice of fighting back. We can't just surrender to the impending doom of uncertainty by not functioning. But I think it's an awakening for everybody to make a choice and to choose how they want to live, not how they want to die.
MONTAGNE: That is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, cellist Karim Wasfi. He has been speaking to us from his home in Baghdad. Thank you very much for joining us.
WASFI: Thank you very much, Renee, and thank you for your interest.
MONTAGNE: And here again, we're hearing the cellist of Baghdad playing for us the music he has played at the sites of Baghdad's deadly attacks.
WASFI: (Playing cello).
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