The Cellist of Baghdad

May 12, 2015

In the midst of violence and hatred, the world needs more beauty and love. Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, understands this well. After a bomb ripped through part of Baghdad near his home, he grabbed his cello and a chair and went to the site. He sat down and started playing music.

It's a haunting but beautiful moment as he plays that majestic instrument while surrounding by blackened debris.

The following week, he did it again at another new bomb site. He playlist included the Iraqi National Anthem and one of his own compositions: "Baghdad Mourning Melancholy."

Bringing beauty to sites of destruction, he offers hope to people who desperately need it. He recognizes the need for people to not just survive deadly blasts, but to actually live life. Music helps us with that, especially music from a cello (I'm partial to cellos as that's one of two instruments I learned).

 

"It was an action to try to equalise things, to reach the equilibrium between ugliness, insanity and grotesque, indecent acts of terror - to equalise it, or to overcome it, by acts of beauty, creativity and refinement," Wasfi told Al Jazeera. "At this stage, [music and culture] is needed as much as food, as much as oxygen, as much as water."

When considering what he might do if people aren't willing to accept his high-culture music (though that doesn't appear to be the case as he's gone viral), he added, "if this is not accepted, if it's demonised, and their ears can only recognise the bombastic, loud noise of bombs, then I can imitate the noise of bombs with my cello, or through the orchestra, without killing anyone. They can listen to that."

Wasfi embodies what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls "prophetic imagination." Brueggemann calls the prophets poets and artists trying to shake up the people by saying the unsayable, thinking the unthinkable, imagining the unimaginable. Such imaginative prophets publicly grieve as they challenge the dominant system, but they also offer the people hope and an alternative vision of the world. Wasfi does all that with his prophetic music, just as the cellist of Sarajevo did more than two decades ago by playing in the midst of war in Bosnia.

"I'm worried that people are losing hope and surrender to the situation,” Wasfi told the Telegraph. "The message was that this was a new day - a day not for death, but for hope."

"I play to show life is worth living," he added. "I can't beat the bombs with my cello, but I can bring respect for the dead."

He might be too modest. Perhaps his cello can defeat terror one block, one ear, one heart at a time. We need more prophets like the cellist of Baghdad.

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