Love and loss. Home and hope. Eight true stories from a nation torn apart by war come to vivid, emotional life on Letters from Iraq. Composed by oud player Rahim AlHaj, a man with firsthand knowledge of oppression under Saddam Hussein’s regime and a deep love for the people of his native Iraq, each piece tells a specific tale. Those are detailed in the painstaking liner notes, which make clear one crucial common thread between each track: the impact of war on everyday life. Over the course of Letters from Iraq, war rips teenage lovers from each other’s lives, kills mothers in the marketplace, and makes small moments of normalcy a rare gift.
The album opens with “Eastern Love”, a Romeo-and-Juliet story that becomes something far more tragic than simple forbidden love when unrest, bombings, and gunfire force the girl’s family to flee Baghdad. Pain is palpable in the chamber music that begins to build the atmosphere of the track, which the string quintet involved does well, with great respect for AlHaj’s narratives. AlHaj’s oud always has a distinct voice, and David Felberg’s violin joins it for expressive exchanges on tracks like “Forbidden Attraction”, where two characters play speaking roles.
At no point does AlHaj throw in a mediocre song. Each track is thorough, a reverent retelling of whatever story he wants us to hear. After all, these are pieces based off of real people. AlHaj pulls us wholly into their lives. “Unspoken Word” begins with a sweet Iraqi lullaby, evoking the feeling of a mother and child going about their day-to-day business when an explosion kills the mother, leaving her son to search for her, alone and without understanding that he is too late. “Running Boy” hits close to home for AlHaj: it tells the story of his nephew, whose underdeveloped legs nearly doom him to a premature end when violence—here represented by the cajón—rages through the street where he is having his hair cut.
At the very end, AlHaj pulls us out of the past and reminds us of Iraq’s present. On “Fly Home”, his oud treads lightly, and rhythms grow faster and faster as Iraqi citizens tell stories of what they have seen since Hussein’s downfall, of car bombs, soldiers in the streets, and civilian casualties. Before that, the tremolos of “Going Home” describe AlHaj’s culture shock as he struggles to comprehend the many changes in his native land. The album ends with “Voices to Remember”, a dim and seemingly far-off hope for the future—but hope, nonetheless, underscored by a wistful melody that puts AlHaj’s oud in the forefront one last time.
Enriching though they are, it doesn’t take 40 pages of liner notes to understand Letters from Iraq. There are so many layers to the music itself that each composition is a full story. To listen is to experience the reality of a nation, to feel heartbreak, loss, and the day-to-day journeys of so many Iraqi citizens. An inspired and loving tribute to people in dire conditions, but who still press forward.
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