Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—In a recent video posted on the Internet, Karim Wasfi, an Iraqi musician and the former conductor of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra, walks into a car bomb site in Baghdad with his cello and starts playing a sad, haunting melody he had especially composed for the purpose—appropriately titled Baghdad Melancholy. Right in the middle of the rubble and debris from the explosion, the melody rings out bold and true, a gentle act of defiance in the face of rapacious, senseless violence. People quickly began to gather around to listen to the performance. Soon, the video went viral, with media outlets such as the BBC picking up on it and interviewing Wasfi.
But it seems Wasfi is not alone. Wissam Al-Farati has come up with another unusual response to the wars, terror and turmoil that have befallen his country during the last decade. He trawls the sites of bomb attacks and other places in his home city of Baghdad for bullets, bomb debris and military paraphernalia, and out of these “instruments of war”, as he describes them, he fashions musical instruments.
“I thought a great deal about how to fight the enemies of peace,” Farati tells Asharq Al-Awsat. “So I decided to create out of the instruments of death and war, instruments of peace and love.”
Farati’s first raw materials consisted of a soldier’s helmet he had found and a pickaxe used by troops to dig battle trenches. But he still did not know what “instruments of peace and love” he could produce out of these military tools.
“I spent many nights thinking of how to transform these instruments of war into messages and instruments of love and peace—until, finally, inspiration struck: I built out of them an oud [a traditional Arab lute] which I named ‘Tigris’ and another I named ‘Euphrates.’ Now, using Tigris and Euphrates, I could drown out the sound of bullets by way of beautiful melodies that come out of the heart of the very instruments of bullets and death themselves,” Farati explains.
Soon Farati’s faithful friends Tigris and Euphrates began to spawn siblings, and this unusual art-form started to attract attention. Critics and cultural commentators in Iraq began to describe his work as representing a philosophy that everyone should embrace, that Farati, this trickster–artist, so haunted by the sound of bullets and screams, was turning the instruments of war against war itself. After this critical acclaim came even greater accolades: Iraq’s Ministry of Culture was so impressed by his work that they awarded him a prize.
But it is clear what Farati’s greatest love is: not the acclaim or the prizes, but his passion for the transformative power of art. He tells Asharq Al-Awsat how during his early days as an artist he walked the streets of his “beloved Baghdad” with his paintings under his arms, holding impromptu street galleries and spontaneously covering the city’s walls with his paints.
“I have always tried to create out of sadness a springboard for hope and happiness through art,” he says.
Maybe one day Karim Wasfi can take Tigris and Euphrates to a site where death lingers and let another melody ring out in defiance of death and in celebration of life.