Latest News

Arts school in Baghdad slowly recovering from disastrous looting

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Thieves looted the Baghdad School of Folk Music and Ballet right after the war, ripping open cello cases and prying keys from pianos for their ivory. Torn tulle costumes lay crumpled on the dressing room floor.

"They took everything they could carry," said Samir Peter, a concert pianist and teacher at the small private school. "They stole 40 violins. They broke everything: cellos, wind instruments, pianos. They stole the best and they broke the rest."

Two months after Baghdad fell, many cultural institutions in the sprawling city of more than 5 million are trying to recover. The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra is struggling to pay musicians' salaries. The lobby of the al Rashid Theater and Cinemas is charred from fires, its front windows still missing. But performers are showing up for rehearsals of a modern-dance version of Shakespeare's "Othello."

"We must stay open," said Sami Kaftain, an actor and director at the theater. "The aim is to keep the candle burning."

That's also happening at the School of Folk Music and Ballet, founded in 1968 and known for its commitment to academics, music and dance for nearly 300 students in grades one through 12. It's the kind of school where alumni stay involved and are proud to return as teachers.

There is no electricity or running water at the school for now. Few families can afford instruments, so the school's lost inventory silenced its music classes.

"We cried when we first saw the school after the war," said Peter, who lived for years in Italy and Hungary and loves Louis Armstrong. "It took 35 years to build up this school, and only one or two days of looting to destroy it. There is no place in Iraq to buy new instruments. We will have to repair the ones that we can one by one."

Peter suspects that deeply religious Muslims who consider music a sin were behind the looting, but nobody really knows. The U.S. Army came one day and fixed the broken windows, but there's much more work to be done.

Rahid Arawi, mother of Belsam, 7, loves the school so much—and is so wary of Baghdad's lawlessness—that she escorts her daughter to school every day. She waits there until classes are over, then escorts Belsam home. Many other mothers do, too.

"There is no security for the school except for the parents who volunteer to stay," Arawi said.

Despite such challenges, music filled the school's corridors one recent weekend. A piano in the well-worn dance hall had proved playable. Proud parents crowded into the room to watch their daughters practice "Swan Lake."

Many dancers lacked ballet shoes; they practiced their pirouettes in extra pairs of socks. The floor desperately needed sanding.

"We need everything. There are no lights," Rula Shuber, 8, said as she bounced on her toes. "Our school was closed for two months, and I am happy that it is open now. We can practice our talents here. It is my school, and I love my school very much."

Thikra Monem, the children's well-loved ballet teacher, presided. When the girls were sloppy or less than graceful, she imitated them, and the room erupted into giggles.

"At least the school was not burned," Monem said. "It could have been worse. We try to be optimistic."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+BALLET