A numberless horde of outlanders threatens the integrity of this great land. They will probably bring laziness, drugs and rape. Their arrows will blot out the sun. They might even eat your babies. Each week, I get up close and personal with this riff-raff so you don’t have to…
Outlander the First:
At the age of three, in 1944, Saadi Tawfeeq al-Baghdadi went blind. He does not remember sight, nor does he know exactly how it was that he lost it: he was told that it was “because of the war” (1) and because the medical services available at the time were, at best, meagre. He is no way glum about his lot however, and cheerfully informs me that his hearing is excellent. His father was supportive as he grew into boyhood in Baghdad and would always seek out local musicians at any opportunity in order that Saadi might imbibe every last note.
At the age of nine he was enrolled in an institute for blind children. Here he learned many things, including woodwork, but, as you may have guessed, his favorite subject was music. Saadi was soon introduced to his first instrument: the piano; then later to the ney. (2)
At seventeen he graduated from the institute. He immediately plunged into a dual career: constructing wooden furniture and playing music. Gradually, his musical skill increased and with that, his popularity; so the need to engage in woodwork waned. He found himself being hired all across the city: weddings, concerts and every conceivable type of social event. At some point Saadi added the oud (3) to his repertoire which helped him as he carved out a reputation for himself. It wasn’t long before he was enlisted by a local radio station and began broadcasting his sounds amongst his fellow citizens. He toured the region, sharing his unique brand of Iraqi music with Egypt, Syria and Jordan — to name a few.
And so it went for the next four decades. Until that old scourge returned again, that curse which had robbed him of his sight: war. In the bloody aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Baghdad crumbled into chaos and sectarianism. Sunni and Shia, who had once enjoyed the harmonies of ney and oud together, became increasingly antagonistic. People were being stopped in the street and asked for their ID. Frequently, those who had the wrong denomination were executed. It was at this point that Saadi knew he had to leave Iraq. He spent four years in Syria before finally making it to the US in 2011, at the age of seventy.
He has lost much and left much behind in the streets of Baghdad: family members, innumerable friends, his youth, his mother tongue and, of course, the old, cherished music that formed the soundtrack of his life; lilting among the coffee-houses and bazaars. But he is hopeful for the future, is hopeful that the power of music — that borderless, limitless language of humanity — can help him forge a new life here in Milwaukee.
So it shall, Inshallah.
(1) During the Second World War, Rashid Aali al-Gaylani staged a coup against the pro-British government which resulted in the Anglo-Iraqi War. The British quickly crushed the rebellion and reinstalled a friendly, oil-generous regime. Perhaps this conflict, or its aftermath, is the war which Saadi refers to.
(2) A Middle Eastern flute. It is of a simple construction, fashioned from a giant reed into which holes are drilled. It has been in use for at least five millennia and remains popular throughout the region. Saadi has a chest full of neys; each a different key. “I got them fifty years ago, in Syria,” he chimes.
(3) A stringed instrument related to the European lute and the likely ancestor of the modern guitar.