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A precarious future for an Iraqi music ensemble

Can the Basra Folk Arts group coexist with extremist Islamic elements?

May 21, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — Even in music, Saddam Hussein called the tune.

The Basra Folk Arts Ensemble was a favorite of the Hussein regime in this southern Iraqi city, whirled out for national holidays, festivals and visiting dignitaries. But its real raison d'etre was private and more serious: singing and dancing for the spirit world.

The family that founded the ensemble is known here for communicating with the souls of the dead, healing the sick and exorcising evil spirits. The Hussein regime tolerated the group's practices: In fact, said performer Razeqeia Hashem, 50, the wives of high Baath party officials often came seeking her help for sicknesses.

Under a regime that was ruinous to the lives and traditions of many cultures in Iraq, Hashem's family was able to cling to its roots because it posed no political threat. But having survived a dictatorial regime for decades, the family fears it won't be so easy to coexist and compromise with some of the extremist Islamic elements that appear to be on the rise in southern Iraq.

"It could become like it was in Afghanistan," said Hashem's sister, Thawra Yaagob, referring to the repression of the Taliban regime before it was overthrown. "If there's no music, it hurts everyone, Muslims, Christians, everyone."

Even without the specter of political repression, the Basra Folk Arts Ensemble is one of the many institutions suddenly left in limbo by the toppling of the Hussein regime. There are no tour bookings for the ensemble, no government that can summon them for official functions and no theaters left to perform in. And the troupe's stage equipment was looted in the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion.

"We don't have a single light left," Yaaqob said.

In the past, part of the group's bread-and-butter came from playing at weddings, but there are fewer weddings than usual now because of the poor security situation, and those which are being held are modest, hurried affairs.

The hunger of souls and spirits for music has not abated, however, say Hashem and Yaaqob. They plan to resume their performances for the spirit world and spiritual healing in the near future.

Hashem began dancing at age 24 but from childhood felt she had spiritual powers like those of her closest aunt, powers she says go back to her roots in Africa, some 12 generations earlier.

The traditional music and dance of southern Iraq came here and to the Persian Gulf area centuries ago from Africa, with the trade in slaves. The dancers sing, moving in a big circle to the beat of dufuf, or drums, in a dance known as zar.

"With Arabic influence, it developed and changed. This kind of African traditional music was associated with talking to spirits and exorcising evil. If someone was sick they originally used music to release him from his illness," Yaaqob said. She is writing a university doctorate on zar -- doing so, she said, only after asking and receiving permission from the spirits.

The sisters refer to the spirits as their masters, and say these masters are passed on from generation to generation. Yaaqob said she inherited a host of angels from her mother, while Hashem inherited her aunt's gift for communicating with spirits.

"It comes from dreams. Sometimes the masters come in dreams and tell you to give medicine to a person," Hashem said.

In a worrying sign of rising Shia fundamentalism, many of the Shia political groups that emerged in recent weeks have seized control of the looted theaters and many halls in Basra. Artists like Yaaqob are fearful of a rise in radical Islamic groups and what it could mean for their work.

"It's a message for the future. Anyone can understand it," she said. "They're taking the places which were performance venues to send a message that artists are outside religion and there should be no performers any more. Soon they won't allow artistic activities and there'll be no theaters and no artists."

The guestroom in their modest dwelling is sweetly perfumed with the incense they use to invite good spirits to visit. Yaaqob brings the incense to each guest, so that the floral smoke wafts over each person in turn.

Then she fetches a tall brass flask filled with rose water and sprinkles it on each guest's clothes and hands so that they can revel in the delicious lingering scent for hours afterward. She serves strong tea in small glasses with half an inch of sticky sugar at the bottom of the glass.

These smells are food for the spirits, according to Yaaqob, whose roots are in Kenya. The spirits are also hungry for music and dance.

She says some spirits are blind, some are old, some are children.

"They like to eat sweets and desserts," Yaaqob explained. "We always buy lots of sweets so that when the souls of children visit us we give them a lot of chocolate and candies. Some of them like loomi [dried lime] and sometimes one piece is not enough for them. They need more."

They feed the spirits by feeding the patient being treated for a spiritual sickness.

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