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In Baghdad, this oasis of grace struggles to keep culture alive

The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet instills in its charges a love of music and dance in the midst of war. Most ballet students drop out when they're 12 or 13, afraid of Muslim extremists. The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet instills in its charges a love of music and dance in the midst of war. Most ballet students drop out when they're 12 or 13, afraid of Muslim extremists. (ALEXANDRA ZAVIS/LOS ANGELES TIMES)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alexandra Zavis
Los Angeles Times / April 13, 2008

BAGHDAD - In an airy studio lined with mirrors, little girls in pink leotards and boys in black shorts and white T-shirts pull themselves up as straight as they can and push their toes out into first position.

Their teacher, Ghada Taiyi, walks among them, straightening a pair of knobby knees and adjusting the curve of an arm. She switches on a cassette player, and the strains of a grand piano fill the room. "You wouldn't think we are in Iraq," she says with a smile.

In a city full of bloodshed, the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet is an oasis, instilling in its young charges a love of music and dance in the midst of war.

"I feel happy when I come here," 11-year-old Lisam says as she catches her breath between leaps and twirls in another of the school's studios.

Through the worst of the violence, Iraq's only performing arts school never stopped putting on shows and sending teachers and students on cultural exchanges abroad.

But the school, one of the few places left in Baghdad where children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds learn together, cannot shield students from the horrors beyond its heavily guarded gates. Bomb blasts and rocket barrages shook the capital in the few hours that the students were practicing demi-pliés and port de bras.

"Sometimes, we see people killed and kidnapped," says Lisam, who doesn't give her last name for safety reasons. "Sometimes we even worry about our parents, when they bring us here and pick us up."

Most of the ballet students drop out when they're 12 or 13, Taiyi says, afraid of the Muslim extremists who consider music sacrilegious and who kill for much less than dancing in public in a form-revealing tutu. Each time a student stops showing up for class, staff members call the parents to ask why.

The school, which offers primary and secondary education, hasn't graduated a ballet-major class since the mid-1990s, when Saddam Hussein began courting conservative tribal and religious leaders to shore up his rule.

Even if the students did complete their training, there are no opportunities for ballet dancers in Iraq. The only professional performances most of the children see are on the videos and DVDs in the school library.

The challenges are just as great for the music students. Most leave their violins and flutes at school to avoid attracting the attention of religious militias by carrying instrument cases in the street. That cuts into their practice time, making it difficult to progress, says Ahmed Saleem, who as the school's technical director oversees music and dance education and the 42 arts teachers.

Saleem has moved six times to escape death threats, and he is not the only staff member to receive them. To avoid drawing attention, the school took down its sign two years ago.

Admission is by audition, and instruments and tuition are provided free. Academic lessons are held in the morning, and the afternoons are devoted to art.

The number of students has dropped to about 150 from a peak of more than 400. Just 15 of them study ballet, and the department has had to fend off attempts by the Culture Ministry, which is controlled by Islamists, to shut it down altogether.

Nadja Hamadi, who has served as school principal for 20 years, insists these are temporary setbacks.

"Iraq is the cradle of culture. The first letters were written here. The first farming took place here. And the first law was drafted here," she says. "These wars are only temporary things. We have to preserve our culture and start anew."

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