Rossini in the Green Zone

July 25, 2008 | By Chris Hondros | Creative

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The Green Zone is an unlikely place for a performance of Rossini. After years now as a besieged fortress, the seat of American power in Iraq is all but a wasteland: four square miles of empty boulevards riven with internal checkpoints and imposing mazes of adhoc concrete walls. Crumbling buildings and shelling damage linger unrepaired, and blowing trash scrapes along the shell-cracked sidewalks like tumbleweeds.

In the middle of it all is the former Iraqi Convention Center, which under the Saddam government was simply that, host to all manner of mundane gatherings typical of any medium-sized country– business expos, government announcements, and art exhibitions. Those kinds of events of course ended once the Saddam government was toppled. The US Army used the building briefly as the seat of its media operations, but soon after the elections of 2005 the building was given over to host the Iraqi government’s new legislative assembly, and they’ve been holding parliament there ever since. Oddly, despite this new reality even members of the government still call the place the convention center.

So, during my recent trip to Iraq, when I saw a communiqué from the US embassy inviting the press to cover a performance of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in this convention center, I made my way over to the Green Zone to attend. Tales of endless security checks are cliché to anyone covering Iraq, but the security before the show was heavy even by Iraq’s standards–in addition to the three or four body checks just to get into the Green Zone at all, metal detectors and body-searches were set up outside (and then again inside) the convention center itself. Just before the performance, the hall was cleared and explosive-sniffing dogs were led around by trainers, methodically checking row-by-row for planted bombs.

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Finally, the crowd was allowed to enter and began to take their seats in the hall. The audience milling about and chatting was an invitation-only group: mostly Iraqi government members, American Green Zone bureaucrats, and a few uniformed US military officers. The auditorium was about half-full: a number of the members of the Iraqi Parliament from Islamic parties boycotted the performance on religious grounds.

I was backstage with the performers, as they warmed up. I’m a classical music enthusiast and have hung around many musicians before recitals, and can confidently report that the members of the Iraqi Symphony act like classical performers do anywhere before a concert: the usual mélange of hair primping, reed soaking, bow-tie adjustments and much laughter.

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Woodwinds players idly belted out their upcoming passages, booming tonic-and-dominant chords sounding spare out of context. Violinists warmed up with fragments of Bach, apparently universal around the world. The mood was light, and the men and women of the orchestra mixed and chatted with an ease that’s rare in the new, more Islamic Iraq since 2003 under American occupation. Indeed, a number of the musicians told me they have to carry their instruments around town in black garbage bags, lest Islamic militants, who usually consider music to be sacrilegious, discover their profession.

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Before the performance there was an endless round of speeches, politicians and bureaucrats extolling the importance of music and reminding the audience that afternoon was being held in celebration of something called “World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development” by the United Nations. The power went out during one of the addresses, plunging the hall into darkness. The speaker gamely continued, shouting out his words until the lights came back few minutes later. Finally the musicians entered the hall in two files and took to the stage.

Guest conducting was British maestro Oliver Gilmour, whose brother happens to work for the United Nations mission in Iraq, and flew in via military transport for the performance.

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With a twitch of his baton he started the orchestra in the first number of the afternoon, Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville. The opening chords resounded through the hall, and several toes tapped when the famous main melody came around. The orchestra was capable but (quite understandably) not well-rehearsed; the level of playing was perhaps similar to that a local community orchestra in the States.

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This held true through the other works on the program, the first movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto (with the orchestra’s usual Iraqi conductor playing solo cello) and the rousing Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky. Later the Iraqi conductor took up the baton to conduct some rhythmic works written by local composers. As the final notes died down the audience leapt to their feet with applause.

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The performance, it seemed to me, was more about Iraq’s past than about its future. In the orchestra’s tuxedoed men and uncovered women lies a tantalizing snapshot of the Iraq that was; an authoritarian state that nonetheless was secular and Western-looking. Indeed, the Iraqi National Symphony was once one of the best in the Middle East, and called the convention center’s auditorium their home for many years–before the US invasion. Now, the orchestra is homeless, and plays furtive gigs at secret locations around Baghdad lest they all get car-bombed in mid-performance by militants. It’s a melancholy reminder of how far the Iraqi tapestry has come unglued from its former self, and how different the society that eventually rises from these ashes is likely to be.

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