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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 16:21 GMT
Iraqi orchestra soldiers on
Iraqi national symphony orchestra
Playing on despite sanctions and shortages

They play from photocopied music sheet, they have lost many of their players, but members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra say that, even with the threat of renewed conflict, the show must go on.

"Sanctions have affected us all in many ways," says 39-year-old cellist, Omar al-Sheikh, who works as an engineer by day.

"There are problems with the availability of instruments and of spare parts. One of my strings broke and I couldn't find a replacement."

But the conductor, Abdel Razzak Al-Azzawi, makes light of these "minor" inconveniences, insisting that "life has to continue."

Escape from tragedy

Al-Azzawi, who studied at the Royal Military School of Music in Britain, has found solace in music from both personal tragedy and Iraq's political crises.

He performed a major concert a week after he lost his two young children in an Iranian missile attack in 1995.

"The biggest problem for the orchestra is that we lost some good performers who left for Syria or Jordan or other places to find a better life and better opportunities," he says.

"That can affect the balance of the whole orchestra."

The 45-member Iraqi National Orchestra now has only one oboist left, but it still rehearses three times a week and is currently performing Mozart, Haydn and one of Al-Azzawi's own compositions in central Baghdad.

We must continue working, rehearsing and giving concerts. We mustn't stop

Abdel Razzak Al-Azzawi

Dressed in immaculate black tie, they play to an auditorium only half full, although the tickets cost the equivalent of just 50 cents.

Playing on

Al-Azzawi says the 50-year-old orchestra has only stopped playing once - for two months during the Gulf war of 1991.

But it has not performed abroad since a concert in Jordan in the early 1990s.

"Invite me to England," says Al-Azzawi. "We're ready to go whenever we're asked."

Annie Mankonian, a 20-year old violinist who plays with an instrument her father gave her when she was six, can just remember the Iraqi musical scene before sanctions were imposed.

"Teachers came from England, France, and Russia," she says. "Conductors came from abroad to help us. Now that's rare."

But Al-Azzawi dismisses the difficulties, and concerns about the possibility of a new war.

"It's hard for everyone," he says. "But we must continue working, rehearsing and giving concerts. We mustn't stop."

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22 Jun 01 | Middle East
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