Creating more reasons
to respect life
Karim Wasfi had actually cancelled this meeting at very short notice, apologizing several times. He was in Geneva for just a brief stay: a press conference, a performance at the UN, invitation to a concert, agenda booked out.
As I walk in to the terrace of Maison de la Paix, towards the cafeteria, to get my morning coffee, I saw a thatch of wild hair, opposite the bridge. It seems somehow familiar, I thought unconsciously. Until it clicks. Obviously that must be Karim Wasfi! Just few seconds later, I am with him.
He is smiling, relaxed and in a good mood.
"I expected snow in Geneva!"
It is just the beginning of the September. He is on his way to a meeting in the same building where I work. I jump on this unexpected chance and suggest a coffee.
"Sure, I have 30 min. "
Sounds like a businessman. More like a Swiss businessman than an Iraqi musician.
After two minutes, when I come running with the equipment, he is already there at the table on the sun-drenched terrace.
"I like how you run... You run in an interesting rhythm, hmm, something between three-four time and four-four time, funny".
Karim Wasfi is a cellist, composer and, since 2007, conductor of the Iraqi State Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad. In the same city, he also founded the Center for Creativity - Peace Through Arts. He was born in Cairo in 1972, the son of an Egyptian mother and an Iraqi father, and grew up in a musically versatile family. His two children live with their mother in the US. Karim Wasfi continues to live and and work in Baghdad.
Both of us laughed and the ice was broken. Although I had prepared myself for a gloomy conversation. About war and destruction, injustice and loss.
Karim Wasfi makes music against terror.
He takes out his cello and starts playing it at places where terrorist attacks recently took place. And every time it’s a new composition. A new sound in places of speechlessness, new movements at a place of temporary standstill, a sign of non-violence in place of violence, an act of creation at asite of destruction, because Karim always improvises. And in his performance, the grief for the deceased melds with a joy for the survivors.
I want to find out who is there behind such a performance, which can at any point end fatally and which at the same time cannot be done more peacefully. I want to understand whether music has the power to provide an answer to violence and has the power to do more in conflicting situations than only be pleasant entertainment.
And now he is sitting right in front of me. Relaxed, as if he has not come to visit me, but I have come to visit him on the terrace of his house. He is in the country for the first time, a country which he only knows through the Geneva Convention.
The contrast might not get bigger than this, that he just played in front of the bombed houses and now we are sitting together in front of this modern building of Maison de la Paix, symbolizing the future and peace.
It soon becomes evident that we are not quite in agreement with the terminology. What was our conversation generally about?
It is not a hobby, and simply to talk about work is also imprecise. Even as a campaign, it is difficult to describe. When one speaks about “initiative”, he defends himself vehemently and the word “project” he doesn’t want to hear. Somehow it is political in nature, yet no politics. But likewise it is also inadequate to describe the project as a cultural activity. (video)
"Beat terror through beauty, refinement and civilization."
Karim Wasfi wants to increase respect for life through music. Or, as he puts it a bit later in the conversation, to give people reasons to focus on how they want to live and not how they want to die.
Karim is not the first and not the only person to react to war with music. Among other well-known personalities is the "Cellist of Sarajevo" Vedran Smajlovic, the musician from Bosnia and Herzegovina who played the cello on the street during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992.
A lot of attention - though in a completely different setting - was given to the performance of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at the Berlin Wall in 1989. He expressed through music something for which no words had yet been found - the reunification of Germany.
Since 2015, the German street musician David Martello plays the piano in places of terror attacks and violence in Paris, Istanbul, Donetsk and Kiev with the aim to call for more humanity with songs like "Imagine".
The historic and cultural context, as well as motivation, performance and effect are very different in these examples.
In the case of Iraq the musical act takes place in a region which has been suffering for decades from diverse forms of violence. A country where a whole generation of people has never experienced peace and where today terrorist attacks are being carried out on a regular basis.
Can music make a difference in such an environment? Can it succeed in a place where politics and diplomacy have largely failed? Is there hope for peace? Are there moments of peace and, if so, what do they sound like?
I follow the sound of Karim Wasfi’s cello taking me back to July 2016, to a shopping center in Baghdad, where several hundred people have just lost their lives in a bomb explosion. (Audio)
"Create more reasons to respect life."
While preparing myself for the conversation with Karim Wasfi, I had a question which was constantly bothering me. If a person has undergone so many things, has experienced lot of destruction, has serious losses behind him and is repeatedly exposed to such mental sufferings, wouldn’t it be natural to react with violence and hatred?
Why doesn’t he hate?
Of course, we all are amicable in a peaceful environment, but who knows, how would we behave, if those things happen to us, which are part of the everyday life in regions of war.
Why do some people, in the same situation, grab a weapon and others a musical instrument?
How can a person with such a story manage not to get carried away with the spiral of violence? Where does this resilience come from and can one learn it?
But Karim Wasfi doesn’t want to disclose too much about himself. Not even after rephrasing the question several times. He keeps reassuring that he has always been non-violent, that there was no specific experience which made him follow this pacifist approach, no moral conduct, no knowledge. But he does share his thoughts on how resilience against violence can be universally increased: (Video)
And Karim Wasfi is challenging this destructive force with a constructive force. He confronts the self-destruction through violence – be it in you or others – with the self-creation of music.
He wants to take the responsibility to share and exemplify the good and the beautiful with as many people as possible, and to make people experience the positive effect of the constructive (in the sense of creation and construction). So that, the violence suddenly becomes unattractive, even superfluous.
With this belief, he established the Centre for Creativity-Peace through Arts in 2008. It brings together young people with different ethnic and social backgrounds, and encourages exchange and coming together by making music together.
The exchange he provides? Weapons against music education.
The orchestra performs all kinds of styles: From Mozart, traditional Iraqi music and jazz to far-east compositions.
"The aim of the center is to create and sustain peace through music and education.”
"I wanted to flood the scene with culture and beauty ."
That sounds great.
"When you perform you exist."
But one can also say, when you shoot you exist. When you kill, you survive the other. So, where exactly is the connection between the action of playing music and personal existence? And what exactly is so constructive in music?
It’s quite simple for Karim. In order to fully display the potential of music he puts a lot of effort into improvisation. It’s only then that the music creation itself can stand out in the center. First of all a note, then series of notes and then finally the whole score. The feeling that you have created something. All alone, from nothing. And from this realisation it’s no longer far, to apply this creativity in our own lives. Keyword: self-empowerment. I have my life in my hands, irrespective of the fact of who I am today. I can become everything. (Video)
"From nothingness to who I am"
"From nothingness to who I am"
I would like to know from Karim Wasfi whether his music activities could make a change in Baghdad’s everyday life.
He's downright lyrical. “Lots of things are going on in Baghdad, so much life, lots of desire to do something, to tackle something.”
"The main achievement is, that people are not scared anymore to do things". Music as an effective means against intimidation.
Then comes the invitation. I must come to Baghdad. He begins with the list, those I need to meet unconditionally and all he wants to show me even if "one can’t describe that, you have to see it with your own eyes!"
He seems to read my reasoning in my less than convinced facial expressions. “The biggest danger is, that when you will come back, you will be twice your size, as everyone is going to invite you to some another place and our cuisine is just fabulous! He laughs. His typical, short burst of laughter full of joy, somewhat mischievous, which disappears as fast as it arrives, even before it gets passed on to someone.
In the end I ask him, which experience was the most impressive one?
"Every moment in life is impressive".
And anything in specific? After all, Karim Wasfi is not leading a usual life.
"Oh, yeah, yes, there was one."
It sounds so casual, as if he is just telling a story about his favourite dishes. No, even though he is gaining international popularity, he is still not a showman. He must simply do what he is doing. And international attention is not the eventual objective, but it’s the means.(Video)
"They didn't see any reason
anymore to be violent....."
Now, it’s time to say goodbye. And I am glad that today I can go back home on my bike and not on a flight to Baghdad.
Would he never consider to stay in a safer country?
"You mean, and bring all the musicians with me? No, Baghdad needs music. Now more than ever.
Later when I communicated with him via email, he was not well and replied back from hospital.
"my health deteriorated badly, i guess iraq is not offering good vibes sometimes"