The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet Fights for Its Life

My heart broke last Thursday to read the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet — the only remaining music and dance school in Iraq — is in danger of closing due to a lack of funding. The rising tide of conservatism, the ramifications of war and equipment budget cuts posed increasing challenges to its existence through the years, and now dozens of fluttering arms and oud-wielding hands hang in the balance at this merit-based gem of an institution.

The fine arts and other positive escapes are an integral part of the psychosocial development of war-affected children, which makes the notion of the school’s uprooting all the more tragic. Music allows children to zero in on positive emotions hidden under the everyday stressors in Iraq, not to mention the prolonged trauma of war. As the last artistic vestige of a more peaceful, secular time for thecountry, the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet’s closing threatens to produce, “a whole generation that’s less accepting, less open minded,” said instructor Leezan Salam. With the continued support of private donors, embassies and cultural institutions abroad, might there still be hope that the school receive the $45,000 per year necessary to remain open?

There is a void in the literature where the stories of devastated Iraqi children should be, and a lack of prolonged studies means we will never understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychosocial disorders’ impact on the country’s residents. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate 40 percent of children suffer mostly in silence due to an absence of psychiatric care in theregion. What is documented is the powerful role programs like the Baghdad Music and Ballet School play in the lives of its students, providing a healthy outlet for the profoundly difficult loss and sights experienced during war. This year, the school received its greatest number of applications to date. “When I play my oud, I defy violence in society,” student Haneen Imad told Reuters in 2008.

Indeed, music therapy is well-known in the treatment of PTSD. But there is no music therapy in Iraq. And while Musicians without Borders, a 501(c)3 organization, has a modest presence in the country, state-funded music programs are long gone. The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet is like a living museum, simultaneously thriving from and empowering its art. Music and dance allow war-torn children in Iraq to assume the role of expert, if only for an afternoon, in a world of powerlessness and hardship. The school’s existence should not be an option of the state, but a mandate. For now, funding from private donors and cultural institutions is the first step.

Around the world, countless success stories involving children of conflict showcase music and community programs inspiring relief, a positive outlook and a peaceful spirit. Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, is one such example; it gives young Arabs and Israelisthe chance to escape their pain and share a common purpose through music with extraordinary results.

The positive opportunities this program and the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet offer students embody the type of trauma recovery mechanisms encouraged by professionals. An issue in thejournal of the International Review of Psychiatry and the NIH maintain the importance of children ofarmed conflict finding positive roles at school and other institutions to give life meaning.

“I’m lucky because I have music. With music, I can overcome my difficulties — the dangers of roads, explosions, fearing for relatives,” said Zuhel Sultan, a student of the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet. Outside of the school’s walls, the solutions for channeling trauma are bleaker. In a Guardian article published in 2007, one mother states of her children,

That day they came home and they were changed because of the things they’d seen … Abdul-Muhammad has started bullying and ordering everyone to play his fighting games. I know things are not normal with them. My fear is one day they will get hold of real guns. But in these times, where is the help?