BAGHDAD—As the music video begins, the images play in the grainy, flickering manner of an old movie. A group of men carries a child on a bloody stretcher. A man in a black kaffiyeh calls out as he carries an unconscious boy over a war-torn street.
And, as a heartsick girl in a white dress cries out in front of an ugly column of black smoke, Iraqi singer and international superstar Kazem al-Sahir intones the opening line of “Baghdad Tata la elami”—“Baghdad Don’t Hurt”—one of the most-played songs these days in his home country:
The hurting children of Baghdad are asking, for what reason are they being killed?
The song joins a chorus of new anti-war songs, sung by Iraqis, popularized in the Arab world and spread on the Internet. The tunes and music videos are performed on Middle East concert stages and at studios in Baghdad homes, supported by expatriate music communities in Amman, Jordan, and Damascus, Syria, and hungrily absorbed by Iraqis at home.
The songs take on the blood and violence in ways not seen in Western media, reaching deeper into the war’s anguish than most Western protest music. As depicted by these Iraqis, the war is more graphic, heart-rending and frustrating. The videos are more likely to show wounded children, for example, or to describe neighbors settling scores by informing on each other for money.
Songs by al-Sahir and Iraqi crooner Abed Falak appeal to emotion and Iraqi nationalism, depicting a demolished landscape in which Iraqis are struggling to regain their feet. One popular Baghdad singer, Akhlad Raouf, has even found voice through humor because, as the young man notes, “the worst problems are the ones we can only laugh at.”
But more than anything else, the Iraqi singers’ anti-war songs express the pain of four years of war, with little hope that things will improve.
“As artists, we have to express the suffering of our people,” said Falak, one of Baghdad’s best-known balladeers, now in exile after armed groups in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood forced him to flee, first to a hotel across town and then out of Iraq to Damascus. His family remains in Baghdad.
He is desperate to get back, and still more desperate for things to improve in Iraq.
“This (Iraq) is where I was born, where I lived all my life,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is a terrible thing when you feel like a stranger in your own country.”
This generation of Iraqi singers came of age in war. Falak penned odes to the beauty of Iraq and endurance of its people under Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Though Raouf splits his time now between Lebanon and Iraq, he grew up in Baghdad, where his songs since 2002 have been deeply influenced by the plight of young people in war.
The most famous is al-Sahir, who grew up in Nineveh and was in his 20s during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. His songs about love had sharpened during the 1980s to include tales of living with fear during the long war with Iran. In the 1990s he left the country rather than change some of his more controversial lyrics at the behest of the government under Saddam. And he was one of the first to sing about the current war, teaming with American performer Lenny Kravitz on the song “We Want Peace” in 2003.
Al-Sahir remains one of the best-selling artists in the Arab world—popular enough that his 2006 song “Baghdad Don’t Hurt” has been sung by fellow Arab singers and found wide play on Iraqi radio stations, other Arab-language broadcasts and online.
The refrain is a haunting lament, heard everywhere in the Iraqi capital.
“Baghdad don’t, don’t, don’t hurt. Baghdad you are, you are, you are in my blood.”
The verses are delivered with a graceful melody and thoughtful images rebuking combatants of any nationality.
Shame on this civilized age, what a shame!
Has scaring nations become a slogan for glory and victory?
Has killing innocents become a sign of honor and pride?
The approach varies among the anti-war singers.
Falak is popular in the easy-listening way of an Engelbert Humperdinck or Barry Manilow—specializing in sentimental tunes that are highly singable. Since Iraq’s latest war began, he has been prolific, his songs tracing the arc of hope and growing despair.
Before he left Baghdad this spring, he wrote “Most Beautiful Country,” “We Have Won Our Country” and “Iraq, It Will Be Easy.” He has written but not yet recorded a fourth—“Be Patient Iraq”—with a theme that seems almost wistful:
When will you stand on your feet?
Then our beautiful nights will come back.
Protect every group of you.
“Songs are one of the ways to reach people,” Falak said. “I hope this would have some effect.”
The most recent to join the mix is Raouf, 27, who says the approach need not always be serious.
In recordings designed to amuse his friends, he has sung about power outages, fuel shortages and paying bribes. He comes up with the ideas in the living room of his house on Palestine Street in central Baghdad and records them on his computer, often to the music of Western pop performers.
“My last one is about the whole situation,” he said. “I thought maybe I’ll do this song about Iraq and I’ll do it in a funny way.”
Thanks to the Internet, the song—called “The Situation”—has become widely circulated among Iraqis online.
Over the opening trumpet solo of “Hips Don’t Lie,” the hit single recorded by the Colombian pop diva Shakira, someone shouts “No water!” In a bouncing voice, Raouf sings as the music bangs along.
Today while I’m sitting at home
I hear the sounds of explosions every minute
A car bomb, a mortar launch
Perhaps it will land in your house!
In a stroke of wit, one of his cronies sings out the words “Dangerous! Dangerous!” (Khaltheera! Khaltheera!), which happen to fit perfectly where the Haitian-born American rapper Wyclef Jean sings Shakira’s name in the real “Hips Don’t Lie” song.
“There’s a famous saying: `Bad things make people laugh,’” Raouf said. “I try to do things in a funny way. That way people won’t feel so sad.”