Iraq’s top musicians play on despite unpaid wages

Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat leads musicians during a rehearsal at Baghdad's School of Music and Ballet. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2018
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Iraq’s top musicians play on despite unpaid wages

In a dusty Baghdad dance studio, conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat tries to fire up the musicians of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra, whose enthusiasm has been dampened by eight months without pay.
An aging air conditioner fights to beat back the summer heat in the cramped space at the capital’s School of Music and Ballet as the 57-year-old maestro leads the group through a rehearsal of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The shaggy-haired Ezzat and the 40 musicians surrounding him are gearing up to perform at Baghdad’s National Theater on Saturday, but the group’s morale is at an all-time low.
The ensemble has lost more than half its members since the start of the year, when the government issued a directive barring state employees with two jobs from receiving two salaries.
The anti-corruption measure was suggested by the World Bank and should affect only about a third of the orchestra’s musicians, but because of delays in carrying out the reform wages have been withheld from the entire group.
“The orchestra is in great danger,” Ezzat said. “Some don’t have enough money to come, and others are disappointed by the impact of politics on the orchestra.”
Officially created in 1970 after several unsuccessful attempts, Iraq’s national orchestra has survived decades of upheaval.
It has survived wars, an invasion, a 12-year international embargo and a devastating three-year battle against Daesh militants, which came to an end last year.
But this may be the last straw for the outfit, a collateral victim of Iraq’s “war on corruption.”
“Not being paid for eight months has had a terrible psychological effect on the musicians, but we’ll continue to resist peacefully with our music,” said Ezzat, who became the orchestra’s first Iraqi conductor in 1989.
“We’re on the precipice but sure that we won’t jump.”
When all its salaries are tallied up — including the maestro’s $1,200 a month, peanuts for a major conductor — the orchestra costs the state about $85,000 (€73,000) a year.
The sum is a pittance compared to the exorbitant figures siphoned off by ministers and high officials who have either fled or been arrested.
The conductor, his daughter Noor, a timpanist, and his sons Hossam and Islam, who play the cello and viola respectively, have all been without a salary since January.
But according to Raed Allawi, the head of administrative affairs at Iraq’s Culture Ministry, there is no reason to panic — the wages will soon be paid.
“The Finance Ministry has asked for a regularization of contracts. Verification measures are underway and this explains the late payment of wages,” Allawi said.
“The orchestra is one of the country’s cultural showcases (and the ministry) respects its artists and their talent.”
For the symphony’s musicians, however, these are empty words they have heard already.
Saad Al-Dujaily, a professor of medicine and a flutist, thinks the measure is regressive. “I’ve been an obstetrician and a flute player since I was very young,” he said.
Because of the directive, the 57-year-old practitioner — who teaches at Baghdad’s Al-Nahrain University and plays in the national orchestra — is now entitled to only one salary.
“In Iraq, we’re proud to have more than one job, to have more than one love, to practice two professions with the same love and passion,” said Dujaily, who plans to continue with the orchestra to help preserve its quality.
Further along into the rehearsal, the studio’s electricity cuts, a common occurrence in a country plagued by power outages.
The orchestra cannot afford the diesel to fuel the building’s generator.
But the musicians play on in the windowless room, using their cell phones to illuminate the sheet music. “There have been crises in the past, but this is the worst,” said Doaa Majid Al-Azzawi, an oboe player.
“Especially since my father and I are musicians. We don’t know what will happen, but if the orchestra has to stop, it’s culture in Iraq that will be dealt a deadly blow,” the 25-year-old said.
When the studio’s lights eventually make a flickering return, so too does the players’ enthusiasm, and the music swells.
“As long as we live, music will live. It’s our culture,” said Noor, the conductor’s daughter.


Rake news: Social media ablaze on Trump’s forest remarks for Finland

Updated 19 November 2018
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Rake news: Social media ablaze on Trump’s forest remarks for Finland

  • US President Donald Trump claimed the forest-covered nation prevents wildfires by raking its forest floors
  • Raking-related terms were among the most popular Twitter hashtags and Google searches in the Nordic nation

HELSINKI: Social media in Finland was ablaze with bemused comments on Monday after US President Donald Trump claimed the forest-covered nation prevents wildfires by raking its forest floors.
Speaking to reporters during the weekend while in California to see the impact of devastating forest fires, the US president again blamed forest management, but said Finland had the answer.
Trump cited the Finnish president as telling him Finns “spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things (in the forest), and they don’t have any problem.”
However the Nordic country’s president, Sauli Niinisto, told the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper on Sunday that he had no recollection of raking being mentioned when the pair met in Paris a week ago.
“I told him that Finland is a country covered in forests, but we also have a good warning system and network,” the president said.
Finnish social media users were quick to pile in, describing Trump’s comments as “rake news” and posting pictures of themselves brandishing the garden implement.
By late Sunday, raking-related terms were among the most popular Twitter hashtags and Google searches in the Nordic nation which is 72 percent covered by forests, predominantly of pine, birch and fir.
Meanwhile Yrjo Niskanen, head of emergency preparedness at Finland’s national forest center, said the US president may have been referring to the practice of removing branches and loose material left in the forest after logging.
But he pointed out that this is not done with a rake — and the wood is collected for energy production.
“I’ve never thought before that it could be removed because of the fire risk, that’s not mentioned in any forestry manuals. It’s taken away purely for business reasons,” Niskanen told the Iltalehti newspaper.