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.


Golden Globe Race seek to rescue injured Indian sailor

The Australian Joint Rescue Co-ordination Center is working hard to assess and coordinate all possible options to rescue Abhilas Tomy. (goldengloberace)
Updated 23 September 2018
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Golden Globe Race seek to rescue injured Indian sailor

  • The Australian Joint Rescue Co-ordination Center is working hard to assess and coordinate all possible options to rescue Abhilas Tomy

PARIS: The organizers of the round-the-world Golden Globe Race said Saturday they were scrambling to rescue missing Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy, but admitted he was “as far from help as you can possibly be.”
Tomy’s yacht Thuriya had its mast broken off when it was rolled in a storm on Friday and the yachtsman suffered what he called “a severe back injury.”
The organizers described him as “incapacitated on his bunk inside his boat” and his yacht is 2,000 miles (3,704 kilometers) off the coast of Perth, Western Australia.
On Saturday, he managed to send a message saying: “Extremely difficult to walk, Might need stretcher, can’t walk, thanks safe inside the boat... Sat phone down.”
The organizers said on the race website: “The Australian Joint Rescue Co-ordination Center is working hard to assess and coordinate all possible options to rescue Abhilas Tomy who is as far from help as you can possibly be.”
Tomy, a 39-year-old commander in the Indian navy, is able to communicate using a YB3 texting unit but his primary satellite phone is damaged.
He has a second satellite phone and a handheld VHF radio packed in an emergency bag, but organizers said he was unable to reach it for the moment.
The organizers said they had urged him to try to get to the bag because it could be crucial in making contact with a plane from Australia and an Indian air force plane which might be able to fly over the area.
Given the distance from land, the planes will not be able to spend long in the area, the organizers added.
A French fishing boat was also heading to the scene “but may not arrive for a few days.”
The Golden Globe Race involves a gruelling 30,000-mile solo circumnavigation of the globe in yachts similar to those used in the first race 50 years ago, with no modern technology allowed except the communication equipment.
Tomy’s own yacht is a replica of Robin Knox-Johnston’s Suhail, winner of the first Golden Globe Race.