Old Baghdad comes alive in Beirut

Sahar Taha performs with a band at the Iraqi cultural center in Verdun, Friday, July 12, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: When Sahar Taha was growing up, she and the children of her Baghdad neighborhood would go house to house during Ramadan, singing songs and collecting sweets. She remembers it as a time of joy, when the community renewed its bonds through collective fasting and late-night visits. “I think today children have different interests and modes of expression,” said Taha, resplendent in a turquoise abaya. “They don’t even play in the street anymore.

“Today we are living in the era of globalization, which has also come to Iraq, so the habits of children have changed with the computer and the Internet. A lot of things disappeared in terms of customs and traditions.”

Ramadan, like Iraq, may have changed in the years since Taha left, but she was happy to resurrect the spirit of old Baghdad for one night at the newly inaugurated Iraqi Cultural Center in Verdun, the first such center in the Arab world.

As Taha took to the stage Friday evening with Ashtarout, her seven-woman band, she wasted no time in addressing the specter of violence that seemed to hang over the audience, comprised mainly of Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians. It was one day after 44 people were killed in attacks across Iraq and less than a week since a massive car bomb wounding dozens in the Beirut suburb of Bir al-Abed.

“Hopefully next Ramadan will be calmer and more hopeful,” she said. “Tonight, although there are many great Iraqi songs for sadness, we have chosen joyful tunes because we must always hope for a better future.”

For the next hour and a half, Taha kept her word, transporting the audience with lighthearted tunes from the 1950s and ’60s, as well as newer compositions based on the works of contemporary Iraqi poets.

The opening strains of such favorites as “Shlonak Aini, Shlonak” (How are you, my love, how are you) and “Mali Shughl bil Souk,” (I have no business at the market) drew cries of recognition bordering on relief, while the classic “Marou Alayi al-Helween,” (The pretty ones pass by), made famous by the legendary Iraqi vocalist Nazem al-Ghazali, provoked cheers and spontaneous shouts of “Allah!”

Although the songs were ostensibly playful, the undertone of loss was unmistakable.

“Every song has its flavor, its significance and meaning, but they all talk about Iraq and love for one’s homeland,” said Taha, speaking to The Daily Star following the performance. “For us expatriates, nostalgia is a disease, and the longer we are away, the more the nostalgia comes flooding back.

“Music is the vehicle through which we express our longing and nostalgia, and release the pressure and the love,” she continued. “Music is what brings people together. Politics divides us, but music brings us together.”

Ever mindful of the historical and social contexts behind the traditions that influence her as an artist, Taha is as much a musicologist as a musician. She has written extensively as both a music critic and researcher, and even credits music with helping her beat cancer three times.

Her latest album “Ashaqouka Enta” (I Adore You) is a collection of songs based on the works of female Sufi poets from the 8th to the 21st centuries.

“Sahar is a committed artist, and a spiritual one at the same time,” said the novelist Latifa al-Hajj Kodeih, who was in the audience Friday evening. “Especially during Ramadan, one feels that this type of art brings you closer to spirituality and turns you toward the heavens and the spaces that you need, especially in light of the crisis in the Arab world.”

The center, which falls under the aegis of Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, only opened last month. The concert last week was the first of four cultural evenings to be hosted by the center every Friday throughout Ramadan.

Ali Aweid al-Abadi, the center’s director, said Beirut was a natural location choice. “There is a cultural depth and vividness in Beirut,” he said, “and a deep relationship between the Iraqi and Lebanese cultures.”

Abadi went on to say he hoped the center would play a central role in fomenting creative and intellectual exchange between Lebanon and Iraq with lectures, readings, concerts and other events.

Speaking as an Iraqi artist, particularly one who has been living outside her country for many years, Taha said founding a cultural center was a “necessary step” and expressed her readiness to help “in any way” she could.

“This center is a point of communication, a meeting point between Iraq and the outside, and between creative forces from all over the Arab world,” she said. “Culture is much more important than politics.”

For more information about upcoming events, call the Iraqi Cultural Center on 01-786-650.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 16, 2013, on page 16.




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