WASHINGTON – At a time when Americans' views of Iraq (search) are shaped by daily reports of combat and death, Saad Al-Dujaily wants to present another side of his country: a land of music and culture.
Al-Dujaily will be playing the flute as the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (search) performs Tuesday evening at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (search), together with the Washington National Symphony Orchestra (search).
"I think the importance of our presence here is for the Americans to learn about the capabilities and all the resources that are present in Iraq," al-Dujaily said.
Leonard Slatkin, the Washington Symphony's music director, will share the stage with Iraqi conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat in a concert co-sponsored by the State Department and rich in symbolism.
The Iraqi orchestra will play at Washington's premier performance center after years of suffering under war, Saddam Hussein's rule and international sanctions. Its concert halls had been bombed, burned and looted.
For the Bush administration, the concert offers an opportunity to bring home one example of how Iraqi lives have improved since Saddam was toppled. The orchestra's visit comes as the U.S. death toll rises in Iraq and the administration points to atrocities committed under Saddam to explain the need for war.
But before reporters could ask orchestra leaders whether the administration may be using them for public relations purposes, cellist Muntha Jamil Hafidh launched a pre-emptive strike.
"We refuse to answer any political questions," Hafidh, the orchestra's co-founder, announced at the start of a brief meeting Monday with a small group of reporters.
Instead, Hafidh and other members stressed the importance of presenting Iraqi music to an international audience.
"Our objective is not (just) to come here and play music, but to play music through our point of view and the way we understand it," he said, speaking through an interpreter.
The concert will include a work created by Ezzat and another by one of the orchestra's Kurdish musicians. Those pieces will feature traditional instruments.
But Al-Dujaily, the flutist, said the Iraqis want to show Americans that Iraqis can also be classical musicians. Al-Dujaily is also a biologist and had a fellowship 3 years ago at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. "The people were very surprised that someone from Iraq was able to play flute," he said.
Hafidh said the musicians also want "to learn about different musicians and different conductors and how they train and how they go about their work." That didn't happen while Iraq was under international sanctions following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Among the musicians performing Tuesday will be famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the concert's featured soloist.
The 63-member Iraqi orchestra now practices at the Baghdad Convention Center in a heavily protected zone guarded by U.S. troops. Since the war ended, it has received donated instruments and sheet music.