This Iraqi Cellist Is Fighting Terrorism With Music

Photo: Karim Kadim/AP Photo.
Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the esteemed Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, is used to performing in black tie in concert halls and theaters. But, for the last few weeks, he's been taking his music to less refined venues: the sites of suicide bombings.

Earlier this year, a car bomb detonated in the relatively upscale Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, killing and wounding 27. Wasfi, who lives nearby, took out his cello, sat down, and began to play — while police and emergency workers were still cleaning up.

A friend filmed the impromptu concert, and the video has been widely viewed in Iraq and around the world. Wasfi has since played at bombing sites around his city.

"This was an action respecting the souls and the spirits of the fallen ones due to terror around the world," Wasfi told NPR in a phone interview. "The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty, and compassion."

Unfortunately, the battle raging against the so-called Islamic State has left no shortage of sites for Wasfi to play: According to the U.N., 1,031 Iraqis were killed by acts of terrorism in May 2015 — with over 300 deaths in Baghdad alone. The United States has been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria for nine months, but it's not clear that progress has been made. Speaking in Germany Monday, President Obama said, "We don't yet have a complete strategy" for fighting the terror group.
In a tragic twist, Ammar al-Shahbander, the friend of Wasfi's who filmed the first performance, was himself killed in a car bombing shortly thereafter. Wasfi put on a suit, grabbed his cello, and went to the site of the attack to play.

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