Iraqi symphony makes return

Sunday, June 29, 2003

— Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra staged its first concert since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, performing a patriotic song that predates the former dictator and brought tears to the eyes of the audience.

Friday's show was a rare sign of normalcy in Baghdad, an occupied city that lacks basic services like water and electricity, and suffers from continued violence and deep-seated fear.

Saddam Hussein didn't like the song "My Nation," and it was rarely played during his brutal, 35-year rule. Many in the audience -- both men and women -- cried when it was played Friday.

The song is "a message to the world that we are still proud of our country and existence, which we will never sacrifice," orchestra conductor Abdel Razak Al-Azawi said after the concert at Baghdad's convention center.

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, stood up in respect at the start of the song. American soldiers, some sitting with their guns, watched and clapped.

"My nation ... My nation ... Am I going to see you safe, blessed, victorious and esteemed?" the Iraqi audience sang as the orchestra played.

Ghada Monther Al-Taei, a 38-year-old music and ballet teacher, felt a mixture of joy and sorrow. "We never felt freedom throughout our lives," she said.

Security was tight for the concert, with explosives-sniffing dogs, body searches and military checkpoints.

The 50-member Iraqi national symphony played for more than an hour.

The orchestra was founded in 1959. It now lacks spare parts for its instruments and doesn't have enough musical notebooks.

The last time it played was February.

"We don't care about circumstances, we have been through a lot of harsh circumstances at different times," Al-Azawi said. "Music is great at taking people away from their pain and suffering."