The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] Saccharine-Infused Propaganda Leaves Bad Taste from All Sides

  The sweet sound of propaganda

    American bombs destroyed its Baghdad home, but this week the Iraqi
    National Symphony Orchestra jetted into Washington for a glittering
    public concert. Were George Bush and Colin Powell really there to
    appreciate the Arab folk songs? Andrew Buncombe reports

12 December 2003

Dreams can be realised in the most surprising of settings and in the
most unlikely circumstances.

For Mohammed Amin Ezzat, conductor and composer with the Iraqi National
Symphony Orchestra (INSO), the moment came on Tuesday night in
Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There, in front of
an audience that included President Bush and the First Lady, and
Secretary of State Colin Powell, Ezzat's orchestra made its first ever
performance in the United States and its first outside of Iraq for more
than a decade.

The performance, claimed Powell, the official host who introduced the
musicians to the great and good of Washington, testified "to the power
of the arts to keep hope alive even under the cruellest oppressor. For
the arts are the stuff of the human spirit, which no tyrant can crush".
With a dramatic flourish that suggested there may be something of the
performer about him, Powell then added: "President and Mrs Bush, ladies
and gentlemen, what you are about to hear is the music of hope, the
sweet, sweet sound of freedom."

For those who wanted to believe, it was powerful stuff. Here, after all,
were 60 or so members of the orchestra who had been flown to America,
the cost split between the State Department and the Kennedy Center, and
who were now performing before the Commander-in-Chief who had ousted
Saddam Hussein and declared an end to major hostilities just seven
months earlier. The department store chain Hechts had even provided
winter coats for each of the musicians.

"We're trying to find a way to use music to combat what was a tragic
circumstance no matter what side of the Iraqi argument you come down
on," said the National Symphony Orchestra's musical director, Leonard
Slatkin. (Members of the NSO played alongside the INSO at the concert,
that included both Western and Arab music.) He said that during the two
days of rehearsals, the musicians had talked about "nothing but music".

Bush was certainly one of those keen to promote this saccharine-infused
view of the visit. After meeting with some of the musicians in the
Roosevelt room at the White House, he declared: "Today I've had the
honour of welcoming members of the symphony here at the White House.
Maestro, you did a superb job. Thank you very much.

"It's very interesting that the Iraqi Symphony is made up of people who
are Shia and Sunni and Armenian and Kurdish. They work for one thing,
and that is a unified sound, a beautiful sound. And that's the country
that is now emerging in Iraq, a country that will work together and
recognise everybody's rights."

But Bush's comments and the performance of the INSO in Washington have
angered many opponents of the war who believe the event was the latest
in a series of stage-managed stunts designed to boost the president's
domestic ratings. They said the attendance not only of Bush and Powell,
but Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General
Richard Myers - the chief architects of the invasion that resulted in
the death of thousands of civilians - was at best insensitive and at
worst an insult to the Iraqi people.

Even the Washington Post, usually a reliable voice of the establishment
if not the current administration, smelled a rat. "You've heard of show
trials? Well, last night's appearance by the Iraqi National Symphony
Orchestra at the Kennedy Center was a show concert," said its review of
the concert. "The State Department flew 60 musicians the 6,200 miles
from Baghdad to Washington to play for less than an hour in tandem with
members of the NSO. As Winston Churchill might have put it, rarely have
so many traveled so far to do so little."

Some critics have pointed out that the members of the INSO placed
themselves in considerable danger by coming to perform in the US. Once
news of the visit was announced this autumn by the Arab media, the INSO
became a target. Its director, Hisham Sharaf, was shot at as he was
driving near his home in Baghdad. The bullet passed through his windscreen.

"I don't know who or why," Sharaf told the New York Times. "I think
maybe because of the concert. On [Arab news channel] Al Jazeera they say
they are surprised the orchestra goes to Washington at this time. We
don't have political reasons. Maybe the American side thinks about this
but we go to play music, to see the American people and show them we
have culture."

In addition to the attack on Sharaf, news of the concert led to attacks
being carried out on the orchestra's instruments, stored at the School
of Music and Ballet, where many of the INSO members teach.

Critics say the musicians have been used by the Bush administration in
an ongoing propaganda effort designed to convince the American public
that the invasion of Iraq has brought freedom to the Iraqi people and
that life there is being transformed. "You have a government agency
related to the military involved in the music scene which makes it very
political," said Wafaa Al-Natheema, a Iraqi who runs the non-profit
Institute for Near Eastern and African Studies in Massachusetts. She
added: "If the US government really wanted to help they could use a
non-governmental agency, a charitable institution like the institute or
the UN."

Robert Greenwald, an independent filmmaker and producer of the recently
released Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War which lists what
it calls "lies" that Bush told about the invasion of Iraq, said the
performance brought to mind the president's Thanksgiving Day visit to US
troops in Baghdad when he posed with a turkey set aside as a decoration.
"I hope it was a real orchestra rather than just people they put in the
costumes," he said. "I hope they will open up discussions with the Iraqi
artists and writers who are deeply concerned about their country and
what is going on."

Falih Abd al-Jabar, a senior Iraqi fellow at the United States Institute
for Peace, told Agence France Press that Americans were likely to
applaud the orchestra's performance but that many Iraqis were more
concerned about water and electricity supplies. "It is a symbolic
gesture really, a cultural exchange if you like," he said. "There are
grand promises, but what materialised on the ground is very little. The
hope is that this will be accelerated somehow or else delays would be

The INSO is one of the oldest orchestras in the Arab world. Formed in
1959, it once had a German conductor and an international membership.
During the Seventies and Eighties it toured countries including Russia,
Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan. Under sanctions the orchestra found it
terribly difficult to continue and many of its members left for Jordan
or Europe. In 1994 the salary of the musicians was around $1.50 a month.

For Ezzat, 42, the conductor who has dedicated his life to music and its
performance under the most challenging circumstances, the decade of
Western sanctions when his musicians struggled to find instruments and
spare parts, was the most difficult he had known. "We could not get the
musical instruments, we could not get the spare parts and there was a
problem with a place for [rehearsing]," he said.

Amid such conditions, in 2002 he received a commission he realised that
he could neither refuse nor complete. Aides of Saddam asked Ezzat to
compose a score for a stage adaptation of the Iraqi leader's most recent
novel, The Gate of the City. "I didn't say no, of course," he recalled.
"I accepted. Then I went to Germany. I was a refugee."

 From Germany Ezzat made his way to Sweden where he obtained asylum and
watched the invasion of his country earlier this year by American and
British troops. Then, this past Spring, with Saddam having been ousted
and the orchestra's home in the Rashid theatre destroyed by American
bombs, Ezzat returned to Baghdad and to his music - intending to pick up
where he left off. More than that, he dreamed of building and developing
the orchestra and showing the wider world what it was capable of achieving.

There is little doubt that the musicians who came to America - or at
least those permitted to speak to the press - were pleased to be here
and were not going to say anything that might suggest otherwise. At a
press conference, 72-year-old viola player Munther Jamil Hafidh, one of
the orchestra's founding musicians, announced: "We refuse to answer any
political questions." At a second meeting with four of the musicians on
Wednesday, I asked if any of them felt the presence of Bush, Rumsfeld
and Powell at their performance suggested they were being used for
propaganda purposes. Abdulla Sharaf, a violin player and composer,
replied: "When we saw the President, the Secretary of Defence and the
Secretary of State we thought it showed how interested they are in the

Khubat Abbas Abdul Razaq, a cellist and one of the orchestra's four
women members, said: "I just want to say this is an honour to come to
Washington and to play here."

Samir Yosif, a double-bass player, said: "We want to let the American
people know that we have a culture, that we have something to give them.
It's a great honour to be here and we thank the people who have helped
us here to play."

Whatever else they take with them, the Iraqi musicians will leave
Washington better equipped. In addition to their winter coats, a
charitable trust has ensured that each of the performers will receive a
new instrument. A separate organisation has established an archive of
more than 500 musical scores for the orchestra.

They also go with a new-found belief. Even if their visit to Washington
has served the man who ordered the invasion of their country, it has
also highlighted the plight of those struggling to produce art in Iraq.
Sharaf, the musical director who was shot at, said: "Before, if you were
not near the government and you did not talk badly about the government,
you were safe. Now we can talk freely, but we don't know who is the
enemy and who likes or doesn't like this music. But we hope - and I
think all the Iraqi people think - that the future is better."

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]