Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:04 pm (KSA) 09:04 am (GMT)

Iraqi students fight violence with music

Students play at the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad. (file)
Students play at the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad. (file)

The children of Iraq's Music and Ballet School brave many hardships – from gunmen threatening to kill their relatives, roadside bombs that make journeys to school hazardous to religious hardliners that persecute them – to find their own antidote to war: music.

"When I play my oud, I defy violence in society," said Haneen Imad, 17, referring to her traditional Arabic lute, as she played an old folk song on its strings. "When I hear the sound of a helicopter droning over my head, I play louder."

Baghdad's only musical academy for school-aged students has been in decline since the early 1990s, when United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait wrecked the economy and left many families destitute. But things got a lot worse after U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.

"After 2003, religious movements started to gain influence on Iraqi life. This has had a negative impact on us," headmistress Najiha Hamadi told Reuters. "People fear for the safety of their children."

The rise of Islamism was an unintended consequence of the U.S.-led war to remove Saddam, whose secular Baath party had ruthlessly suppressed religious movements.

While most Islamists reject the idea of enforcing their views at gunpoint, attacks by a militant minority have surged.

Shiite militants in Basra have lobbed grenades at music shops. Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda has planted bombs in women's beauty salons and cut off people's fingers for smoking.

Daily violence in Baghdad has endangered many a child's journey to the classroom, but pupils and teachers at this school in an up-market Baghdad suburb fear the added threat of being attacked by religious militants for their love of music.

The emergence of a new breed of militants, who target people practicing arts they consider "un-Islamic", has led several worried parents to take their children out of the school.

The 200 students who attended in 2006 have dwindled to just 140, Hamadi said.

The school has been targeted twice -- in 2003, when a mob looted it and in 2004, when arsonists burned down half of it.

Hamadi said it was never clear who was behind either attack. "The whole school was unusable for a while after (it was burned), then we had to repair it," she said.

In a huge hall hung with mirrors, ballet teacher Zina Akram played the piano while six-year-olds practiced their ballet steps, the girls in pink leotards, the boys wearing black shorts and white T-shirts.

The Music and Ballet school was founded in 1968. It is state-funded, has pupils from the Sunni and Shiite sects and teachers say the only criterion for entry is musical talent.

Students also take ordinary academic subjects. It used to put on performances of ballet and classical music, but teachers say poor security has ended that.

Foreign teachers, mostly Russian, once flocked to the school to work but they have all now fled.

Despite hardships, the school provides all instruments, ballet costumes and musical scores -- and offers a cherished escape from daily life for pupils like Husam al-Deen, a 17-year-old cellist.

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