Iraqi singers, actors and artists are fleeing the country after dozens have been killed by Islamic radicals determined to eradicate all culture associated with the West.
Cinemas, art galleries, theaters and concert halls are being destroyed in grenade and mortar attacks in Basra and Baghdad.
The Iraqi Artists’ Association says at least 115 singers and 65 actors have been killed since the US-led invasion, as well as 60 painters.
But the terror campaign has escalated in recent months as both Shiite and Sunni extremists grow ever bolder in enforcing religious restrictions on the citizens of Iraq.
Those remaining are in hiding as they make preparations to get themselves and their families to safety.
Haydar Labbeb, 35, a painter in Baghdad, said he had received five death threats and an attempt was made on his life as he drove his family home from a wedding. He is now trying to get to Amman in Jordan, where he hopes to continue painting.
“My art is seen by extremists as too modern and offensive to Islamic beliefs,” he said. “For them, every painting has to be based on Islamic culture. But I am a modern artist.”
“Life for artists in Iraq has turned into hell. We have been forced to stay in our homes and to stop working,” he said. “I don’t remember the last time I saw an exhibition, or a singer at a club, or an actor at a local theater. All of us have been prohibited from working as a result of the killings.”
Singer Muthana al-Jaffar, 37, from Baghdad, said: “The government is not giving us any protection. I witnessed two of my friends being killed for singing Western songs at weddings. The Shiite extremists who killed them shouted that that was the price they had to pay for singing ‘the devil’s words.’”
“There is no life for artists in Iraq anymore. We are unable to work. Our families are starving because we cannot feed them,” he said.
Al-Jaffar said he had sold his house, his car and his wife’s jewelry to raise enough money to get to Syria. The Shiite demanded 20 percent of his house proceeds to allow him to leave safely, he said.
“We are packing and next Monday I should be far from Iraq, a country that one day inspired my songs but today is just a disgrace,” he said.
People had stopped listening to music in public because of fears they would come to the attention of the extremists, he said. Pop music, in particular, was no longer being played.
“People are afraid to walk into a music store for fear that someone is watching them. Instead, they can only listen to songs on their mobile phones,” he said.
The Iraqi Ministry of Culture estimates that about 80 percent of singers and other artists have now fled the country.
In November Seif Yehia, 23, was beheaded for singing Western songs at weddings, and painter Ibraheem Sadoon was shot dead as he drove through Baghdad. In February Sunni fighters killed Waleed Dahi, 27, a young actor, while he rehearsed for a play due to open at the Jordanian National Theater this month.
Culture was encouraged during former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime, but no longer.
Abu Nur, an Islamic Army spokesman, said: “Acting, theater and television encourage bad behavior and irreligious attitudes. They promote customs that affect the morality of our traditional society.”