ONCE, THE MUSIC WENT ON NIGHT AFTER NIGHT. Salima Murad Pasha, Iraq's favorite female singer, was Jewish. Nazem al-Ghazali, the country's greatest male vocalist, was Muslim. Many cheered when they were married. Meanwhile, the flying fingers of Munir Bashir, son of an Assyrian Christian father and a Kurdish mom, were conquering the Oud, the Middle Eastern lute. Jewish brothers Salih and Dawoud al-Kuwaiti were leading songwriters.
That's the picture of Baghdad during the 1930s and the 1940s painted by Joseph Braude in a book published on March 25, The New Iraq. But dictators came, and for a quarter-century singer-songwriters have been pressured to produce doggerel designed to cement Saddam Hussein's regime. "You Are Our Beloved" is the title of one love song to Saddam that received big radio play, probably because of these evocative lyrics: "You are our candle.... You are our homeland's hope."
Motivational music is now big in Baghdad, according to Mr. Braude. One oft-played song describes how "at the front line, my machine gun starts to chant." Opponents of Saddam may be treated with songs like "Aish Jabak Aish Dallak ya 'bn Fayna?" ("Who brought you and who showed you the way, you son of a whore?"). Another song, "Hayyak Abu Hala" ("You're Welcome, Father of Halah"), stayed atop the charts for a long time; will it come as a surprise to you that Halah's dad is a fellow named Saddam?
Boredom rules. Baghdad residents used to joke (quietly) about how a man who could no longer stand Saddam went to his doctor and asked to be placed in suspended animation until the dictator fell from power. The last thing the man heard was "Hayyak Abu Hala" on the radio. Fifty years later a doctor revived him. Yearning to know whether Saddam was gone, the man turned on the radio, only to shriek when he heard the new pop hit, "You're Welcome, Son of Halah." It turned out that Saddam's grandson was now in power.
I thought about Iraq's music monolith while watching war news and contemplating the many letters that have come in from WORLD readers about Andree Seu's defense of the movie Chicago. Some argued that Christians should stay away from such films, and from most popular music as well.
I disagree. Last month in Austin we had our South by Southwest music festival, with 1,000 bands playing in 50 venues. The diversity was enormous, with music ranging from hard rock to honky-tonk to one singer offering non-sarcastically the old Velvet Underground lyrics, "Jesus, help me find my proper place, help me in my weakness, 'cos I'm falling out of grace, Jesus, Jesus."
Some singers were plaintive and self-absorbed. One weary drummer wore a "Coke Is It" T-shirt that probably referred to something other than a cola. But Susan and I heard some good sounds as well and learned a few things about what makes Austin the "live music capital of the world." We also thanked God more vigorously for the privilege to live in a country that offers freedom of speech and freedom of music.
Is our liberty sometimes twisted into license? Sure. But we often forget that music is a reflection of minds at work, and that it's more important to come to grips with anti-Christian ideas than to growl about their means of expression. The Pharisees in Christ's time paid attention to the outside of the cup rather than the dirty inside. Certainly, some musical filth (such as celebrations of rape or cop-killing) needs stringent cleansing. But our default position should always favor freedom of expression, in the United States or in Iraq.
I'm not against singing, "Be careful, little ears, what you hear." But big ears should listen to what's going on and then interact with those who make the music. We need to be aware of our own tendency to sin, while also remembering that Christ did not die and rise from the dead so that those who love Him would have a spirit of fear. The apostles hid when they mistakenly thought that Jesus' mission had ended in death. When they learned of the resurrection, they went on offense, and so should we.
In this war against the Iraqi leaders, the United States is battling for an end to dictatorship. Christians and conservatives are part of a broad coalition that wants Iraqis to have not only more political choices but more musical and theological ones as well. On March 20 in Paris, 25 prominent French bands played an Ensemble contre le guerre, a concert against the war. It would make more sense for them and others to form an organization called Musicians for Music that would emphasize Iraqi liberation. Christians and conservatives should join right in.