28 Apr 2017

Interview: Rahim AlHaj - Letters From Iraq

From Access All Areas, 2:00 pm on 28 April 2017

Grammy-nominated Iraqi musician and composer Rahim AlHaj regards himself as a peace activist who accompanies his message with an oud, one of civilisation's most ancient stringed instruments.

Rahim Alhaj

Rahim Alhaj Photo: Michael G. Stewart

Grammy-nominated Iraqi musician and composer Rahim AlHaj regards himself as a peace activist who accompanies his message with an Oud, one of civilisation's most ancient stringed instruments.

AlHaj – born in Baghdad, was once imprisoned for his activism under the realm of Saddam Hussein. He's now an American citizen living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

His new album Letters from Iraq: Oud and String Quintet draws from stories and experiences recounted to him by people in his native country after the US invasion.

Rahim, these days you live in Albuquerque, in New Mexico. Your life story as a refugee must have meant searching for somewhere to call home. Is it now home, or is it a home away from home, Albuquerque?

Actually, it's very home ... New Mexico is a phenomenal home for me. Home is about feeling, it's not about the birthplace. Every human being has to be birthed in one place. It doesn't matter really where, right?

But the connection has to happen very deeply and profoundly inside of you, to discover that, "Oh, wow, this is what I call it, home." Since 2004 ... I left Iraq in 1991. My story is just a horrible story, like any Iraqi, like any human being who fought for social justice around the world.

I remembered so vividly when I went back in 2004 after the invasion, and I hadn't seen my family for years. [I remembered being] with my mom, beautiful. She is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met in my life.

I'm chatting with her, and I was sitting in her lap, and she playing with my hair, and [the next minute] I remembered … Albuquerque and my heart just really squeezed. I said, "Oh my God, I miss this home. I miss it so much."

Since then, I consider Albuquerque, New Mexico as home. Just because of a lot of reasons. If I can just really think about it … what does it mean really to have a home? [It] means that you have a place [to] do your work, you make a difference, people [to] love you and adore you, support you.

The amount of support and love I get from my home in New Mexico, it's absolutely inconceivable. I started my career over again. It's not easy, of course. But I think you find in a home when you think your soul is settled.

Talking about your oud, can I ask you when you first realized that music was calling you? When did the oud first resonate for you?

Well, actually, when I was in second grade, in elementary school. The first time … I saw it, the instrument [was] on TV, but I never saw it in life. My teacher … he loved to bring his oud and play for us. I was fascinated by the sound, by the colour, and in fact I was courageous enough to ask him if I could just touch it, right?

In Middle East, it's like the teacher is like a god. You cannot face him. You cannot look him in the eye. You cannot touch him, you know?

He said, "You want to touch it?" I said, "Yeah." I reached my hand, and I put my hand on this soft wood. It was gorgeous, and there's electricity inside all my body. In fact, I remember it so vividly that I couldn't sleep.

I was so happy. It was so beautiful. Later, I saw him and I said, "Can I touch it again?" because the feeling was so incredible!

So he said, "Do you want to hold it?" I said, "Oh, yeah." I was second grade. The Iraqi oud, the big one, it's bigger than me, actually. So I imitate him, actually. I put my right hand on the string, and I put my left hand on the fingerboard, and he strummed something.

I don't know what the hell I did. I was so nervous, and he freaked out. He said, "Oh my God. You are a musician!" Take it!

He said, "Take it." He started teaching me the oud, and I was like, "He's giving me more lessons!" Next day, I was doing something way behind his ability. He said, "Rahim, I am not a music teacher, but you are brilliant. I think you need a real teacher."

I think being a musician, I don't think [it’s] a choice.

The Iran-Iraq war raged in Iraq from 1980 to 1988, so you run into trouble, into Saddam Hussein, for criticizing the war. You were actually imprisoned twice. Are you able to tell us about that experience?

Yes, in fact, I was talking about that to somebody, he's from Iran. I said, "My story is not really different from hundreds, even thousands, millions of people, the same." You know, when you're living under dictatorship, that's what you're going to get. Now, being in prison, it's not a big deal actually. Making change that's a big deal.

There's a lot of friends who were killed front of my eyes, and I was fortunate to survive. But a lot of them [were] killed in front of my eyes, and they died, and nobody even remembers their names.

When you live in a small country like Iraq within ... a very brutal dictatorship, of course [speaking out] can affect your career. But … I said, "I don't care. I need to bring justice to this war." I was criticized [during] the Iraq-Iran war all the time. I composed some songs that became like slogans at that time, to criticize the Iran-Iraq war.

Now, if you ask me right now, I’d say, "I'm doing it still this minute." It's incredible. It's like 30 years ago, I was protesting war, and I still protest in war. It's incredible to me. I cannot imagine, I still protest for the same principles I almost died for.

So in my new home, I protest the same principle. We see ISIS, right?

We see Hitler, we see Saddam, we see Trump, we see everything. We see racist people everywhere, and at the same time, we have Mother Teresa, and we have Noam Chomsky, and we have great people on this planet. All we need [is] to recognize that we [live] in one planet, and we need to raise awareness of this planet, and we have to take care of it.

Can you, Rahim, tell us a little bit about how your mother assisted you to escape from Iraq, because she obviously feared for your life. Tell us a bit about that part of your life journey.

This is actually one of the most ... excruciating moments in my life, when I escaped Iraq. Actually, not just escaped Iraq, but when they confiscated my instrument in the Jordanian border between Iraq and Jordan.

My mom bribed a guy in Iraq – gave him a lot of money. She sold all her belongings, including her clothes to raise this money, to give me this false travel document, to get me out of Iraq.

This moment sometimes makes me sad when I think about it, just because it's so profound. [There were only] three people who knew I was leaving: my mom, my brother, and [one of my] friends. The only three people who knew. Not my father, not anyone else.

When I took my oud and some books, and that's it, that's all I had ... I took that and I went. My father was sitting in the living room, and I said, "Just don't look. Just don't look back. Just go. Just keep going. Just keep going." I reached the gate and I opened the gate, and I never looked into my father's face. I never saw him since then.

Your new album, Letters from Iraq is a beautiful, beautiful album. It's the Smithsonian Folkways label, which is a very respectable label. You were inspired by some of the letters and stories that were told to you about people from Iraq. Can you tell us about some of those letters?

By accident, I found these letters written to the United States by Iraqi women and children [during the US-imposed sanctions between 1990 and 2003]. I said, "Whoa! This is incredible! This is incredible!"

Rahim Alhaj - Letters From Iraq cover image

Rahim Alhaj - Letters From Iraq cover image Photo: supplied

These were historical documents. They had to be heard … to be shared. So I started composing the music for these letters. It's actual letters written by Iraqi women and children to the United States during the sanction, during that period of the occupation of Iraq.

Now, if you ask me, I felt I obligated to bring these voices to life. Right? You and me, I think, we are responsible to our planet. That's it. We are responsible to bring social justice to this world.

We should condemn racism, we should condemn poorness, we should condemn bad things in this world. That's what we should do. That's how we recognize ourselves as good human beings.

The song ‘Running Boy’ is about letters written by my nephew, actually, Fuad. He is responsible for me discovering the other letters ... when I was in Baghdad, he said, “I wrote a letter to the United States." I said, "What do you mean, letter? You wrote a letter to the United States?" I said, "You mailed it, in English?" He said, "No, in Arabic, but I wrote it." Huh.

He went [and] brought his notebook, and he showed it to me. I was in tears, I was in tears. I read it and I said, "Oh my God." He's telling his story, it's making me emotional when I talk about it. This is a little boy, teenager, who is disabled.

[Once when he went to get a haircut], while he's waiting for his turn … there's a car bomb [close] to the building … and everybody runs. Everybody’s screaming. There's … all this glass is broken, and all this noise, and people crying, people screaming, and people running for their safety.

This is a little teenager. He cannot run like [everybody] else. He can't. He tried to run, but he can't, because he's disabled.

In his letter, said that "I [see] death so close to me. So close, I can touch it." Not from gunfire, but from the hurt … around him … Blood and people screaming, and he's trying to find one corner to sit there and breathe.

He reached this corner and he touched his legs, which couldn't move him two, three steps, and he said, "That's when the ‘movies’ start coming into my head. My mom, my brothers, my sisters, my neighbours, my friends." That's what we do when we are that close to death, right? We remember the people closest to us.

He described that in his letters. Like I said, every time I go and read these letters, I cry. I cry. That's one of the stories in these letters. It's real, it's raw, and it's happened, and it's [still] happening [now]. It's happening every single minute in Iraq right now, in Syria, in Yemen, and everywhere.

I believe you once received a letter from President Obama. He wrote to you, and he said, "I hope you take pride in the ways your accomplishments are now imprinted on the landscape of American art." That's ...

That's beautiful, right? 

So beautiful, yeah. I can't actually imagine the new President writing such a letter to you.

I received this beautiful letter because I received the National Heritage Award, which is the highest honour for artists in the United States.

Which is why President Obama wrote me these beautiful letters. Then two months later [when Trump came into power], I'm not welcome here. They banned people. How can you explain that? Two months later, I am not welcome here? Because I am an Iraqi immigrant … Quite frankly, it's against [human] dignity. 

It’s very important [for] people to understand [that] nobody, nobody, nobody needs to leave his home. Nobody needs to leave his friends and his family and his neighbours and his history. If he's not forced to, why?

Nobody on this planet needs to leave his home. I say it over and over. These are people – wonderful workers from Mexico [who] crossed the desert, walking for months and months … and they die in the desert to come to this country to make beautiful, beautiful things for us, right? Not to break into my house, not to steal my food. No. To work hard to send some dollars to their families, to their kids, to make livings.

Who said that people they need to leave their country? Why? Why are they to leave my country if I'm not forced to leave it?

Rahim AlHaj will perform at the 2018 WOMAD festival on Saturday, March 17 and Sunday, March 18.

Check out the rest of RNZ Music's WOMAD coverage.

Music details

Artist: Rahim AlHaj
Song: Letter 6. Unspoken Word – Laila
Composer: Rahim AlHaj
Album: Letters from Iraq: Oud and String Quintet
Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Artist: Rahim AlHaj
Song: 07 Letter 7. Fly Home – Fatima
Composer: Rahim AlHaj
Album: Letters from Iraq: Oud and String Quintet
Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Artist: Rahim AlHaj
Song: 01 Letter 1. Eastern Love – Sinan
Composer: Rahim AlHaj
Album: Letters from Iraq: Oud and String Quintet
Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Artist: Rahim AlHaj
Song: 04 Letter 4. The Last Time We Will Fly birds
Composer: Rahim AlHaj
Album: Letters from Iraq: Oud and String Quintet
Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Artist: Rahim AlHaj
Song: 03 Letter 3. Running Boy – Fuad
Composer: Rahim AlHaj
Album: Letters from Iraq: Oud and String Quintet
Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Artist: Rahim AlHaj
Song: 08 Letter 8. Voices to Remember – Zainab 

Composer: Rahim AlHaj
Album: Letters from Iraq: Oud and String Quintet
Label: Smithsonian Folkways