Page last updated at 09:55 GMT, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 10:55 UK

Iraq's academy of peace and politeness

A young man kisses a girls' hand in a classroom
Old fashioned good manners are top of the curriculum at the academy

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baghdad

Like many buildings in Baghdad, the former Nigerian embassy is surrounded by blast walls and wrapped in barbed wire.

But unlike other places, here, no one talks about war or cares about the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, or Muslims and Christians.

The former embassy, abandoned by Nigerian diplomats shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is now home to the Academy of Peace through Art, a school created under the umbrella of Iraq's national Symphony Orchestra.

You have a choice in life. You can choose a weapon, a Kalashnikov, or you can try a musical instrument
Karim Wasfi

Its aim is not only to teach music but also to revive what founders of the school believe many young people lost during the last six years - good manners.

Every day, dozens of teenagers with different backgrounds learn that boys should open doors for girls and the art of dinner party conversation.

For many of them, the centre is an escape, a welcome break from the reality of living and surviving in Baghdad.

"We offer space, teachers, the instruments and a chance to be exposed to a bit of civilisation, something that everyone in Iraq deserves," says Karim Wasfi, the energetic director of the orchestra and founder of the centre.

"Straight away I tell students: you have a choice in life. You can choose a weapon, a Kalashnikov, or you can try a musical instrument," says Mr Wasfi.

Danger of music

But in Iraq, where radicalism is a powerful force and music is considered by some extremists to be un-Islamic, the choice of an instrument carries a risk.

Student at Academy of Peace through Art
Students say their lessons here are much better than regular school

At the height of the sectarian violence, Mr Wasfi was careful not to advertise the school. Both teachers and students here have been threatened in the past.

"There is a risk," says Youssef, who is learning how to play Spanish guitar. He has had his instrument smashed by a militia in the past, yet he keeps coming back. "I'll be taking this risk because I love music, and all of us love this school," he says.

The war in Iraq has led hundreds of musicians and artists to flee the country.

Ali, who is 17, says he too sees his future elsewhere. "I want to stay in Iraq, but if things don't improve, I will leave as well," he says.

And yet Mr Wasfi hopes that enough of his pupils will stay and that the school will help him to raise a new generation of Iraqi musicians.

Learning manners

While the focus is on music, Mr Wasfi says it's just as important to teach young people politeness.

"To some people it may seem irrelevant now, because there are so many problems - but we need people who care about beauty, and I am convinced that the day will come when everyone will realise it," Mr Wasfi says.

This is why classes in manners are a mandatory part of the curriculum he has created. They include a wide range of social skills including conversation and dining etiquette.

Karim Wasfi in the classroom
Karim Wasfi is an energetic and avuncular figure around the school

"It's so much fun," one of the students says as 20 of his classmates erupt in laughter.

The teacher has called on volunteers to come forward and they are about to demonstrate how a man should go about kissing a lady's hand.

"Don't grab too harshly," she instructs the boys, "don't bow too low."

In a society as conservative as Iraq's, kissing a woman's hand may seem like a relatively obscure skill, but students - especially girls - say they love it.

"It's great and its important," says Hind. "We learn how to interact with each other, how to make conversation and our teachers are really interesting people."

"I come here every day," a girl next to her adds. "It's much better than our regular school, I learn so much more."

Their next class is civil interaction, in other words, how to have a conversation without turning it into a confrontation.

After the girls rush off, Mr Wasfi offers to show me the classrooms upstairs.

The school orchestra has just performed its first public concert and, after days of intense rehearsals, most of the upstairs classrooms are empty.

But the sound of a saxophone and a piano echoes through the corridors as two teenage boys jam in one of the back rooms. "They are improvising," Mr Wasfi smiles. "But they should be in class."

In trouble for skipping the etiquette class, the boys offer to play for their headmaster. After an energetic five-minute performance, it's clear that the trick has worked.

"Not bad at all," the headmaster laughs. "If you play like this, you are even allowed to miss the etiquette class."

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