FORT WORTH, Texas: Iraq is back in the news, making headlines for the horrific attack on a Baghdad Catholic church that left 58 dead. It is yet another event that has widened the gap in American-Iraqi understanding and one that, for me, only reinforces the need for more opportunities for exchange and interaction between our two countries.
In the summer of 2005, when the sounds of shrapnel whistling and glass shattering reverberated across Iraq, I took the guitars down off the wall of my Charlottesville, Virginia home and sold them so I could make a CD about healing. When that money ran out, I used most of my retirement savings and my stimulus check from the George W. Bush Administration to complete the CD, which was released in the fall of 2008.
As the war dragged on into 2005, I was becoming despondent about our country’s direction in the Middle East. That’s when I decided to make my own statement, and I wanted it to be a positive one.
That statement was “A Call to Heal,” a CD I recorded with Grammy-nominated Iraqi musician, Rahim AlHaj, and a collection of A-list musicians from Charlottesville. The group became known as The Baghdad Rain Project and, to date, hundreds of copies of our CD have been donated to non-governmental organizations and non-profits working in and with the Middle East.
The CD was our way of saying ”thank you” to those working for peace in the region, but we also wanted to provide them with a tangible example of an American and an Iraqi bridging the cultural divide and working together in a positive and constructive manner.
Although I wanted to work with as many Iraqi musicians as possible, I quickly realized there were only a few in the United States. Then I read a story in my local paper about an Iraqi master oud (guitar-like instrument) player, AlHaj. I wrote to him about a possible collaboration and a few weeks later we met in a small recording studio and have been friends ever since.
Like so many exiles, AlHaj has an amazing story: he was a musical prodigy who studied at the Institute of Music in Baghdad under the legendary musician, Munir Bashir. AlHaj was also a political prisoner during the Saddam Hussein regime. He fled Iraq during the first Gulf War but Iraqi guards forced him to leave his beloved oud at the border to Jordan.
AlHaj was eventually granted asylum in the United States and settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico because it reminded him of his homeland. AlHaj returned to Iraq in 2004 to check on his family and friends, and was disheartened to witness increasing sectarian violence and unrepaired damage to his country’s infrastructure.
Of most concern to AlHaj were the Iraqi children. As he toured the country, he asked the young people he met about their dreams for the future and was told again and again that they no longer had dreams. This idea of a country where children have no dreams made me think more deeply about the psychological impact of war, which inspired two of the most important songs on the CD: “When I Leave This Place” and “The War In My Head.”
Those civilians and soldiers experiencing war have to live with the associated images and emotions for the rest of their lives. They can never truly leave that place, not even after the fighting stops.
Since making the CD, I have taken my interest in the Middle East to the world of academics. I am an International Advisor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas and am in the midst of conducting graduate research in Middle Eastern History. Despite the ongoing violence in Baghdad, I am scheduled to make my first visit to Iraq in the summer of 2011.
Going to Iraq will complete this journey for me. I started on this path five years ago, hoping to build a bridge between Americans and Iraqis. Now it’s time for me to cross that bridge.
James English is International Advisor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. For more information, visit www.BaghdadRain.com and www.RahimAlhaj.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).