BAGHDAD — The cellist set down his chair on the Baghdad sidewalk, leaned his instrument on his knee, closed his eyes and began to play. The music rose above the buzz of the busy shopping street, where just a day earlier another devastating car bomb had exploded.
A crowd drew in: policemen, passersby, friends of those killed by the blast. As the musician played the national anthem, the voices of the crowd rose with him.
Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, had decided to play amid the wreckage to drive home a message.
Iraqis needed to experience beauty, not just endure one bomb after another.
“It’s about reaching out to people exactly where someone had experienced something so grotesque and ugly earlier,” Wasfi said in an interview. “The spot where people lost their lives, the spot where people were still trying to stay alive, trying to function.”
He wanted, he said, to reach out to residents “at a higher level.”
The bomb site in the central Baghdad district of Karrada is the second where Wasfi has given an impromptu performance in recent days. A video of him playing at the site of an explosion near his home was posted on YouTube last week and has been viewed more than 47,000 times.
His performances have resonated in a city where bombings have been part of life for more than a decade. More often than not, the broken glass is swept aside after the blasts, shop fronts are quickly mended and people resume their routines, although the explosions inevitably leave a deep impact on the psyche of this city.
Late last year, the frequency of bombings declined, and a nighttime curfew was lifted after more than a decade, breathing a new vibrancy into the Iraqi capital. But in recent months, as Islamic State militants come under pressure elsewhere in the country, the explosions have come back.
Last month, 319 civilians were killed in terrorism, violence and conflict in Baghdad province, according to the United Nations, the highest toll for any province.
The first time Wasfi played at a bomb site last week, he did it on an impulse. An evening explosion that had rocked the upscale district of Mansour was a spit from his home. The next day, he went to the site to play.
“My house is just behind that main street, so it was very symbolic for me to wake up, grab my cello and walk to that spot, get my cello out of my case, sit by the rubble and the shrapnel and the whole scene of death and the scene of fire and the scene of human beings turning to ashes, and play,” he said. He performed one of his own compositions: “Baghdad Mourning Melancholy.”
Many of those who gathered had witnessed the horror of the bombing, which killed 10 people.
“What happened was extraordinary,” he said. “Everybody — soldiers, officers, street cleaners, the workers who were fixing the shop — they all left what they were doing and gathered around and they were listening to this tune.” Drivers stopped their cars, snarling traffic, he said. “They were kind enough to understand the importance of civility and beauty.”
He returned later that evening to play again as mourners lighted candles and laid flowers.
Wasfi worries that with constant conflict, Iraqis focus only on existing, while art and culture become sidelined.
“You see the impending doom of uncertainty hitting again, and people are only reacting by functioning,” he said.
News quickly spread of Wasfi’s first impromptu concert.One of those who shared the striking image of the maestro playing his cello in front of the scorched shop fronts was his friend Ammar al-Shahbander, 41, the Iraq director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
A few days later, Wasfi was playing at another bomb site. Shahbander had just been killed there, along with about 16 other people, when a parked car detonated.
Wasfi and Shahbander were part of a group of Iraqi intellectuals who had returned to their country after the 2003 U.S. invasion, with hopes of developing Iraq’s media and artistic communities.
“Ammar could have left” the country again, like many others seeking lucrative careers or peaceful lives, Wasfi said. “Why do we keep on doing this? Because we appreciate beauty and we want to build, not to destroy.”
The cellist’s performances come more than two decades after another musician, Vedran Smajlovic, became a symbol of artistic opposition to war’s destruction, by playing in battle-scarred Bosnia. He was dubbed the Cellist of Sarajevo.
In Iraq, a country fraught with division, Wasfi’s actions have also drawn criticism. Some online commentators have accused him of self-promotion, while others have pointed out that the conductor has only played in relatively well-to-do neighborhoods. The cellist said he tried to play in Hayy al-Amal, a Shiite neighborhood struck in recent days by a bombing.
“I was warned not to go by some people I know,” he said. “I can’t be everywhere at once.”
But his actions have largely been met with support.
Mohammed Twaij, a visiting British-Iraqi pediatrician, was in Karrada when the bomb went off and later brought candles and black ribbons to hand out at the site. With his son, he put up cardboard signs on a nearby tree and encouraged people to draw and write messages.
Seeing Wasfi’s performance earlier in the week had inspired him, he said.
“It was something new and was one of the things on my mind when we decided to come to do this,” said the 62-year-old doctor. “It’s become sort of normal in this city, another explosion, another person being killed, but it’s an absolute tragedy.”
Later, Wasfi arrived unannounced to play, sitting among flickering candles that had been lighted by passersby.
“It was beautiful, even though it was painful,” said Hussein Mohammed, a 21-year-old engineering student who stopped to watch. “I don’t think any country could bear to go through what we have gone through, but despite everything, we are trying to live. This is evidence that we have the will to live.”