Surviving dictatorship, destitution, and war, the Iraqi symphony travels to Washington for a joint concert - and lunch with Bush.
Last May 1, Hisham Sharaf marked President Bush's declaration of the end of major hostilities in Iraq by setting out on his own mission. The director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) began driving around Baghdad to the houses of every member of the beleaguered orchestra to tell them it was time to get back to making music.
"I told them we must return, we must put culture and art back in Iraqi peoples' lives. We must show the world we are a cultured and peaceful people," says Mr. Sharaf. The streets were still not safe, and all three of the orchestra's performing venues had been bombed or looted and burned. But no musicians refused. The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) was reborn.
More than seven months later, the clarinetist and music teacher was in the White House Wednesday, discussing over lunch the symphony and the future of Iraq with the man who toppled Saddam Hussein. "It was unbelievable," says Sharaf, smiling. "I had never seen any president before, not even Saddam," who had disregarded the Iraqi orchestra and its classical strains. "But there I was," he adds, "talking about music and Iraq with the president of the United States."
For many of the 63 members of the INSO who visited Washington this week, finding themselves performing in America - or simply explaining a traditional Iraqi instrument to wide-eyed schoolchildren - was one of those experiences that renewed their faith in the unexpected turns of life.
Take Luay Habeeb Yousif. The young violinist had to close his eyes and open them again Tuesday night to reassure himself that he was indeed sitting on the concert hall stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with world-renowned musicians like cellist Yo-Yo Ma.