Karim Wasfi's 'Spontaneous Compositions' Aid Stability In Iraq Renowned Iraqi conductor and cellist Karim Wasfi tells NPR's Scott Simon about his music, the challenges of his work and his commitment to his country.

Karim Wasfi's 'Spontaneous Compositions' Aid Stability In Iraq

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We're listening to Karim Wasfi. The renowned cellist was conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony. He became famous around the world because of misfortune. He played cello at the scenes of suicide attacks in Baghdad. He was the man who made beautiful music among the wreckage of a great city.

Slowly, signs of stability are showing in Iraq. The wall around the Green Zone - that fortified district set up after the U.S. invasion in 2003 - is beginning to be dismantled. ISIS has been forced out of the cities, including its former declared capital of Mosul. And that city is where Karim Wasfi is focusing his energy.

He's visiting Washington, D.C. And Karim Wasfi and his cello join us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

KARIM WASFI: Thank you, sir.

SIMON: Why have you stayed in Iraq? I'm just going to guess you've probably had many opportunities to leave the country over the past 15 years.

WASFI: I was an adviser - culture and political adviser in 2008. 2007, I had also been contracted briefly by the Ministry of Culture to be the director of the symphony. That time, I'd witnessed the peak of instability in Baghdad. And in some cases, in some areas of Baghdad that were very vibrant and very cultural-oriented, very intellectual were hit by terror and the ethnic cleansing that was undergoing.

One very particular experience - I was conducting a rehearsal - of course, a rehearsal was a big deal because, in some cases, half of the orchestra doesn't show up because of random checkpoints, fake checkpoints, clandestine death squads. So two-thirds of the orchestras were there at this spot in Baghdad called Al-Adel Sha'ab (ph), the people's houses. This hole is also across from the Medical City, the morgue. In many cases, there would be no power, no services. During that rehearsal, we were invaded by the smell of dead bodies from the morgue - people who were randomly killed because of a name or an affiliation by death squads.

This was a very strange, surreal, sad experience to realize, also, that there are dead bodies in that building, and no one can even identify, in some cases. People would be walking miles to try and get to the morgue and see if they can find, you know, part of the body of their family member.

Anyway, there was that smell and that - the smell of death and the impact of the gruesome, grotesque, cowardly acts of terror that were - excuse me if I say raping the society, raping civility. And I thought we really have to stay there and fight back.

SIMON: Do you see music as a form of resistance to terror?

WASFI: Absolutely - not limited to increasing dopamine in the brain. But it creates an energy field that recognizes connectivity, that recognizes self. And it empowers knowledge, empowers logic, freedom of thought, choice and would definitely be an empowering, driving force behind resisting radicalization and intimidation and terror.

We don't know. Maybe there are terrorists who listen to Gershwin or Bach or Brahms or Faulkner or Mozart or Beethoven or whoever. When it comes to religion, it is a very - it's a lost cause. This is what I usually face terrorists with because enforcing their ideologies by the use of force is a lost cause. It's a short-term impact because there will always be a stronger entity that would jeopardize that.

Yes, so it is a form of resistance. Other than being a conductor and vocal activist against intimidation, I have adopted the continuous impromptus of performing after car bombs. I believe that it is an empowering element of solidarity and compassion and sorrow and condolences for those whom we're missing due to terror, but also to empower - it empowers life and commitment to life.

SIMON: You believe in and practice something called spontaneous composition.


SIMON: Which is?

WASFI: It is a direct approach to words empowering the brain function. And that, I have used in connecting people as well. So I've had 50 or 60 young performers in Iraq who were part of my peaceful arts approach in Baghdad. And some of them didn't even play a couple of notes on their instruments. But when they have performed their one or two notes without a score, they were reaching towards harmonious connectivity with others. They were reaching naturally. It empowers decision-making. It empowers even leadership, critical thinking, creativity.

I wanted to harness and nurture such experiences in the most unexpected areas in a very emotional experience. I've been to Mosul before Mosul was liberated. And we managed to get into West Mosul. I did have an impromptu next to Surshana (ph) next to the main street of West Mosul, which was totally demolished. And a very, very touching experience was a relative of one of the students who was in Baghdad, actually - she just ran towards me and gave me a hug. And then I said - greeted her, and I said, what was the hug about? And she said, thank you for sharing civilization with us. That thank you that I remember - it was a very encouraging driving force behind - to maintain what we're doing.

SIMON: What's Mosul like nowadays?

WASFI: Mosul is coming back to life. I don't think Mosul agreed with Daesh, or ISIS - maybe some people did. We can't justify that, but there's enough understanding for why people could not necessarily resist when this had occurred back in June 2014.

Mosul is back to life again. There's a whole - I've experienced this through being there since June, giving workshops, public concerts, scientific innovation ideas. We discuss things like artificial intelligence, robotics, economic growth.


WASFI: Yeah. In a city that was just hit by three years of total annihilation of civility. So it's coming back to life. People are committed to being resilient against radicalization to the extent of not accepting this to happen again.

SIMON: May we ask you to play something?

WASFI: Absolutely.

(Playing cello).

SIMON: That's just beautiful.

WASFI: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: One of your spontaneous compositions?

WASFI: Yes, spontaneously composed, dedicated to all of you and to our listeners.

(Playing cello).

SIMON: Maestro, thank you very much for being with us.

WASFI: Mr. Simon, sir, thank you.

(Playing cello).

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

WASFI: (Playing cello).

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