Archiving the sound history of Iraq

BEIRUT: In 1258 the Abbasid capital of Baghdad was besieged by Mongol forces. They sacked the House of Wisdom – the city’s grand library – and survivors claimed that the thousands of books the attackers tossed into the Tigris made the river run black with ink.

Founded in 1920, the Iraq National Library and Archive is the modern equivalent of the House of Wisdom. In 2003 it suffered a similar fate.

The library was looted and set ablaze on two occasions during the first months of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. According to Saad Eskander, the library’s director, an estimated 60 percent of the archive material and 25 percent of its books and documents were destroyed.

Iraqi musician Khyam Allami discovered firsthand how little of the country’s musical heritage has been preserved. While attempting to track down recordings of Iraqi oud players for analysis, he found that there were very few in existence. Those he did find were generally of extremely poor quality.

In 2010 Allami, who studied music at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, attended a seminar given by Eskander at the British Museum. The librarian outlined his plans for rebuilding and improving the INLA.

Allami asked if there were any plans to establish a sound archive, to replace the recordings that had been stolen and destroyed. Eskander, he says, replied in the negative then quickly moved on to the next question.

“I was really taken aback that he was so blasé about it,” Allami recalls, “and that nobody was thinking about this at all.”

After the seminar he approached Eskander and offered to take on the project himself. Together the two made plans for an archive that would make digital sound recordings – from music, to radio documentaries, to field recordings – available to the Iraqi public.

“The Sound of Iraq,” as Allami called the project, involves not only tracking down old recordings and digitally remastering them, but creating a comprehensive catalog and gathering background information about the recordings and the artists who made them.

It took a year to gather the funding, but Allami eventually succeeded in bringing two members of the INLA’s staff to London for training at the British Library sound archive.

“The training went on for three months,” he explains, “in which they learned everything – from what is sound and how is sound recorded to how to deal with digital audio files, how to clean tapes and how to deal with shellac records that were made in the 1930s – the whole spectrum.”

As the project evolved, however, Allami began to discover that much more was needed.

“It’s a process-based project, in the sense that while you’re dealing with certain things you start to realize what’s missing,” he says. “Especially because in the Arab world the concept of audio archiving doesn’t really exist.”

“Only in the last few years has it started happening on a small-scale, private-enterprise kind of level. On a national level there isn’t a single country in the Arab region that has a sound archive that is digital.”

One result of this, he explains, is that much of the terminology relating to sound archiving does not exist in Arabic, necessitating the creation of an English-Arabic glossary of terms. This would help people across the Arab world working in a range of fields, including radio and television.

Allami was in Beirut this week for the Modern Heritage Observatory’s regional networking meeting, during which he gave a talk at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace. He says he believes that collaboration across the region would benefit everyone.

During his time in Lebanon he met with the president of IRAB Association for Arabic Music, a Lebanese NGO that seeks to preserve and archive Arabic music from public and private collections.

They discussed forming “a kind of research focus group,” Allami confided, “where we could start to deal with some of the more academic and practice-based issues. Things like a glossary of terminology, a handbook on sound recording and what sound is, and the development of a structure for a catalog database that’s directly based on Middle Eastern or Arab music.”

Allami’s vision is to create a collective pan-Arab digital archive.

“Hopefully in the end what we can do is have a shared database where anybody can upload their catalog data,” he explains, “So if a researcher needs to find a recording they’ll be able to log on to our website, search the name of the recording and see where a copy is actually available and whether it’s available online in some format.”

What is needed, he continues, is standardization of the way audio material is archived and cataloged in the region. That way anyone who wishes to add to the collection can do so easily from anywhere.

The next step for “The Sound of Iraq” is to open two sound-archiving studios at the INLA, so that the staff can start digitizing what files they have, including a number of extremely rare reel-to-reel tapes that are currently at risk of being destroyed.

Unfortunately the project is currently on hold due to lack of funding.

“Music is always the very last thing that people think about,” Allami says. “It always really suffers, whether it be on a funding level, from a political cultural perspective or from this kind of archiving and documentation perspective. ... In the Middle East it’s such a part of the day-to-day life that people don’t think that you should need to do these kinds of things – it just doesn’t cross people’s minds.”

He stresses that preserving the music being played today is as crucial as digitizing old recordings.

“We have a concept that archiving is mostly about old stuff,” he explains. “This is totally false. Nobody’s taking into the account the fact that in 10 years’ time they’re not going to be able to hear the master recordings that they’re making of their own music. ... Digital files have a very short lifespan and they’re very easy to lose track of very quickly.

“It’s about documenting the past,” he continues, “while at the same time creating a framework which will ... allow you to preserve the present for the future.”

To find out more about The Sound of Iraq project please visit





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