Iraq virtuoso to return to troubled homeland

Updated 13 January 2013
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Iraq virtuoso to return to troubled homeland

A former Iraqi soldier and prisoner who brought one of the world’s oldest stringed instruments back into the spotlight is set to end his exile and take his haunting songs back home.
Naseer Shamma is something of a global ambassador for the oud — a pear-shaped, six-stringed wood instrument hailing from ancient Mesopotamia — but has not reaped the fruits of fame in his turmoil-hit homeland.
Ten years since the fall of Saddam, however, Shamma has decided to return and end an exile borne out of oppression.
“We need to help, to do something important for Iraqi people and Iraqi culture,” the 49-year-old native of Kut told AFP while on a visit to the Philippines for a concert. Shamma first became entranced with the lute-like instrument when he was a child, later studying with oud master Munir Bashir and at the Baghdad Academy of Music in the late 1980s.
He went on to gain fame across the Arab world as both musician and composer, shocking purists by daring to go beyond tradition to make the instrument — the oldest recorded depiction of which is 5,000 years old — more contemporary, combining it with classical or jazz influences.
Ouds from Baghdad were once renowned for their quality and were exported all over the region, but war and unrest have taken their toll on both musicians and oud-makers.
Conscripted into the army under Saddam’s regime, Shamma served as a soldier during the first US-led war on Iraq in 1991, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
He left Iraq and moved to Tunisia for five years where he taught music, and then to Egypt, establishing schools called the Arab Oud House to teach people how to play what he calls the “grandfather” of stringed instruments.
His expertise extended to following an ancient manuscript to build his own version of a 9th century eight-stringed oud.
He also devised a one-handed method of playing the instrument, inspired by soldiers who lost limbs during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
“At first, it was impossible. But after three or four months of working, it finally happened,” he said. “If you have an open mind, you can do what you want.”
Even after the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Iraqi musician refused to go home and did not return to his native land until last year when he performed three concerts.
“Life has changed completely, the people have changed too.”
He said he feared cultural values were being eroded. “There is a new kind of people. They have power, they have money and life is confused,” he said.
“I felt this is not my country, this is not my people.”
Almost since the moment the last US troops withdrew in December 2011, the country has been locked in a wave of disputes between political, ethnic and religious factions, with no significant laws passed since polls in March 2010.


Though levels of violence are down from their peak from 2005 to 2008, attacks remain common, particularly with Sunni militants targeting officials, security forces and Shiite Muslims in a bid to destabilize the government and push the country back toward sectarian war.
But Shamma said he aimed to counter such emerging extremism with culture and art, spurred on by the fact that the The Arab League has designated Baghdad as the “Arab Capital of Culture” in 2013.
“There are thousands (of potential students) in Iraq. They contact me by Facebook and on the Internet. They ask me when I will be in Baghdad because they need to learn.
“At my last concert in Baghdad, I had very nice feeling with the audience,” he said. “Now, I can say... there are good moments coming.”


My Ramadan with Safi Enayat: Experiencing the Holy Month in Copenhagen

Updated 21 May 2018
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My Ramadan with Safi Enayat: Experiencing the Holy Month in Copenhagen

  • Safi Enayat came to Copenhagen as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2001
  • This Ramadan, he’s hosting a pop-up iftar with chefs from Baker & Spice Dubai

COPENHAGEN: Safi Enayat came to Copenhagen as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2001 and found a job washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen before working his way up to become head chef and a restaurant owner in his own right. His cooking is a reflection of the diverse cultural influences that have characterized his life, from the traditional Afghan dishes with a modern twist he cooks for friends to the Indian-inspired cuisine served in his restaurant chain dhaba.dk, as well as the international fare he has encountered in Europe. This Ramadan, he’s hosting a pop-up iftar with chefs from Baker & Spice Dubai which aims to attract a mixed crowd of Muslims and non-Muslims to break bread over delicious Arabic food.

Read on to experience Ramadan in the European city in his own words...

Everyday life goes on as normal during Ramadan in Copenhagen because the Muslim community here is not that big. In general, people congregate at the city’s larger mosques to pray and break the fast together. There are a few larger events that I look forward to, such as Iftar på Rådhuspladsen, when everyone gathers in City Hall Square and brings a dish to share with their family and friends. It’s an amazing feeling, sitting on the floor in front of this beautiful venue with people from all cultures — Danish, Afghan, Arabs… usually several hundred people attend. Here, you have the right to enjoy your religion as you want and while Danes might be curious to know why we fast, they are very accepting. Last year one of my Danish friends called during Ramadan to say he was fasting for the day to understand it better. I was touched. I think it showed a lot of respect for my religion, which is something I often find here.

Since coming here, I feel like Ramadan has become more visible, people are more aware of what is going on and more interested in why Muslims are fasting and why they do it for so long. It’s a friendly interest. With the long days at this time of the year, many Muslims in Denmark choose to take some of their summer holidays during Ramadan so they have less work and can enjoy the Holy Month.

We’ll be hosting a pop-up iftar called The Opposite Kitchen with Baker & Spice from June 2 to June 8, which is something new to the city. We’ll invite everyone from all cultures and religions to come and learn about the meaning of Ramadan. For me, the beautiful message behind Ramadan is that when you fast, you can see what it’s like for someone who is starving on the other side of the world and can’t put food on the table, and I think it’s important to understand that. I also think that food is an important way of bringing people together. It’s something we all share and enjoy. I found my way into the Danish community through food, it was an easy way to become a citizen of the city and a part of life here. I’ve been here for so many years that this is home for me now.