Dhia Jabbar hides his oud in a sack when he walks down the street in his Baghdad neighborhood.
He used to teach students in the back room of a photo shop, where the sound could not be heard. But last week, militia gunmen invaded the store, destroying his instrument and ordering him to stop teaching. He had dreamed of a performing career, but now he has lost hope.
“Iraq is dead,” he says.
Seven thousand miles away, Rahim Alhaj, who fled Iraq in 1991, carries his oud without a second thought through the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he now lives. In New York, Washington and other cities, he plays for audiences of hundreds. An album he recorded was recently nominated for a Grammy Award.
The two musicians are bound by their passion for the oud, a pear-shaped instrument whose roots run deep in Iraq’s history. Some say that in its music lies the country’s soul.
Both men trained at the same prestigious conservatory in Baghdad. Both have a deep love for traditional Iraqi melodies.
But Jabbar, 29, and Alhaj, 40, are also tied together by having watched — one from close up, one from far away — their country’s descent into sectarian violence.
Alhaj worries constantly about his mother and brother, who still live in Baghdad’s dangerous Sadr City neighborhood, in a house without electricity or running water. When there is fighting between Mahdi Army militia members and US and Iraqi forces there, as has been the case virtually every day in recent weeks, he calls his family frantically.
“It’s hard because I’m so far away from them and so far from their struggle, and I feel helpless,” he said.
The violence he reads about in the newspaper stirs troubled dreams: images of being tortured, as he was in the 1980s under Saddam Hussein’s government, or of seeing people being executed.
In 2004, he returned to Baghdad to give a concert at his family’s house. The friends he grew up with, he said, wore beards and felt uncomfortable listening to him play; secular music was considered haram, forbidden. An oud maker he knew was forced to build his instruments secretly in a tiny workshop on his roof.
One morning, Alhaj awoke in his family’s home to hear his niece singing a famous Iraqi love song. But the lyrics had been changed; the words no longer spoke of romantic love, but only of God, of heaven and damnation.
“What happened?” Alhaj asked. “What happened?”
Jabbar watched the transformation of Baghdad in real time. He saw religious fervor engulf the street outside his family’s house in the Shaab neighborhood, where he used to sit outside and play for passers-by. Salons and casual concerts — once common — became rare and clandestine. The teaching and performing jobs that used to await talented oud players when they finished training disappeared.
“I have lost 10 years of my life,” he said, “the years that I worked to be able to play for people.”
Iraq was once famous for its oud players. The instrument was a common sight in Iraqi households, much like the guitar in the US. According to one legend described in Grove Music Online, a standard reference, the oud was invented by Lamak, a descendant of the biblical Cain. When his son died, Lamak is said to have hung his remains in a tree and seen in the skeleton the bowled body and elegant neck.
A ninth-century jurist in Baghdad extolled the oud’s healing powers, as did Muhammad Shihab al-Din, a 19th-century writer. “It places the temperament in equilibrium,” he wrote. “It calms and revives hearts.”