Rahim Alhaj: Letters From Iraq Review

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Rahim Alhaj: <i>Letters From Iraq</i> Review

Letters From Iraq, the new album from Iraqi oud master Rahim Alhaj, is his most political statement yet, but it also feels like his most personal. Drawing from his memories of life in Iraq under Saddam’s rule, and from the stories and experiences recounted to him by people in his native country following the U.S. invasion, Alhaj has created a series of compositions based on a fusion of Arabic and Western classical music, mixing his oud playing with a string quartet drawn primarily from the New Mexico Philharmonic.

The album is quite elegant and strikingly beautiful at times, built as it is on a series of instrumental tone poems. But the true stories behind these compositions are chilling. They paint pictures of ordinary people whose lives are damaged by constant warfare. Opening tracks “Eastern Love-Sinan” and “Forbidden Attraction-Tiama” focus on two lovers—one a Shiite Muslim, the other a Sunni—torn apart by sectarian violence, unable even to meet in person. There’s no attempt here at sensationalism. Alhaj focuses as much on the small things torn from people during war, as on the larger moments of impending death that scar the psyche.

“The Last Time We Will Fly Birds-Riyadh” tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, young teens, who would meet on a neighboring rooftop: her using the excuse of folding laundry’ him claiming that he was caring for his pigeons (a common hobby for Iraqi men). As a car bomb destroys the building, they both rush to the scene, struck by the loss of their oasis of solitude. The pigeons wheel overhead, lost now that their home has been destroyed as well. It’s a beautifully tragic moment, evoked perfectly by oud and violin lines and made more powerful for its ordinary humanity in the face of great violence.

One of the most powerful compositions, “Running Boy,” tells the story of Alhaj’s nephew, born prematurely with underdeveloped legs. While having a haircut in a barbershop, a massive car bomb exploded outside. Amidst the chaos of fire and destruction, with automatic rifles pumping bullets through the air, the nephew tried to run and found he couldn’t. The piece itself starts with a mournful opening elegy, somewhat disconnected from melody and rhythm, perhaps a sad young man relaxing in a barbershop chair and staring into space. As the bomb goes off, the piece adopts a staggering, loping meter, with percussionist Issa Malluf’s cajon beats clashing aggressively against the string and oud arrangements. The frustration and difficulty of movement is palpable, an example of the real-life story bleeding through the music and profoundly influencing the listening experience.

Special note should be made of the packaging of the album. Smithsonian Folkways usually delivers luxuriously-bound albums filled with deep liner notes. Here, they incorporate the powerful and moving paintings of Iraqi visual artist Riyadh Neama. His paintings use splashes of color over grey portraits to show the movement of emotion across static faces. It’s a masterful stroke that ties the physical product to the music and the stories.