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Iraq's Oud Ambassador

Michael May

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Rahim Al-Haj
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The oud is a 5,000-year-old instrument with roots in what is now Iraq. If you've never seen one, it's pear-shaped and looks very much like a European lute. In fact, the Oud is a forerunner of the lute and most other stringed instruments, including the guitar.

This weekend, master oud player Rahim Al-haj is performing in Santa Fe, N.M. Back in the '80s, Saddam Hussein's regime banned Rahim's music and threw him in prison -- twice. In 1991, his mother helped him escape to Jordan. He eventually settled in New Mexico in 2000.

But before crossing into Jordan, Iraqi officials gave him a choice: His freedom or his oud.

Rahim Al-haj: I told myself there is no choice, you have one choice -- that is, to save your own life or to save your beloved things, the oud. I was back and forth crying between the bus and border. I came back to the officer, begging him if he could just give it to me. He refused. For more than five years I could not sleep without this instrument. I always have to sleep with it, I have to touch it and I have to cover it and talk to it and I get just ill in the same minute. How can I leave my oud? What will I do? Then I made a decision: I have to save my life and I have to cross the border and I did that without my instrument.

Desiree Cooper: You wrote a piece about that journey.

Al-haj: Yes, I wrote a piece. It's called "Missing," to portray my feelings to my city, Baghdad, my friends and family and my mom specifically.

Cooper: What does it feel like when you have the oud in your arms and you're playing it?

I feel I am with my mom. Just like a little boy, when I am in her lap and she hugs me, sitting in my mom's lap. The great thing about the oud is that when you play it, you have to hug it. You have to put your arm around it. The back of the oud will touch your chest and your stomach. It's exactly like you are hugging a person. When you play the oud it goes directly to your heart.

You went back to Iraq in 2004. Tell me what surprised you most about that trip.

When I went in 2004, I'd been away 30 years. I was dying to see my family, my friends and my country. And I was just thinking of going there and I can see my mom again. I was dreaming to see her just one time. She said "I have to see you before I will die." And I did a concert in my home where friends and neighbors and relatives were. A lot of people sitting literally, literally near my feet. There was no electricity in that time, still there is no electricity.

There is no electricity?

There is no electricity, and I remember playing and looking to my mom's face, when she just looked at me. She's very proud. She's very happy and it was so emotional and clear to me. So it was very nice.

Raheem, you're playing this weekend, you're touring. What do you hope audiences will take away?

I would love from the American audience, to understand that this instrument is called oud, is an ancient instrument and belongs to all of us. I want them to understand Iraq has a culture and has music. I need them to understand that all of us, we are human beings, we live on this globe and we need to accept each other. I need them to understand that Iraq, so rich a country, full of music, like any country in the world. So I have this responsibility to keep Iraqi tradition, Iraqi music alive.

Well, thank you for being with us, Raheem.

Thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you.

  • Music Bridge:
    Iraqi Lullaby
    Artist: Rahim Al-haj
    CD: Home Again


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Rafi Astaya

    From El Cajon, CA, 09/28/2013

    I love Rahim Alhaj.

    By andrew pola

    From waterford, MI, 07/17/2009

    ilove to listening to ur oud iwish ican take lesson for ply oud from u an iraqi oud lover iam learning

    By Kent Agne

    From Belleville, IL, 05/18/2008

    I (we) often fail to appreciate things exotic and/or foreign. This story nearly brought tears to my eyes and I'll look for Rahim to appear in my city.

    By James Morrow

    From Charlotte, NC, 05/17/2008

    I love the music of the Oud, I own one and will to play it.

    By Rachel Cornell


    I felt a real calm when listening to the music of the Oud. Thanks,

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