BAGHDAD — The other night I went to a charity concert at a state auditorium, packed with Iraqi artists, writers and actors.
A group of crisply dressed young men sat on a stage framed by purple and gold velvet curtains, and played in an ensemble of ouds, beautiful stringed instruments from the Arab world, that to me resemble a cross between a guitar and cello. (But I’m no musical expert.)
A famous poet read a length of verse that moved the audience to an emotional applause. We all sipped grape juice beneath the heavy crystal chandeliers.
Two local NGOs, Amarji and Ghawth, had organized the event through social media to raise money for the estimated 1.3 million Iraqis displaced by recent violence.
But it was also a rare showing of an Iraqi culture that can seem odd in Baghdad these days — especially if you spend your time, like many do, focused on political infighting and bloodletting.
It can also be easy to forget that despite years of turmoil and large-scale displacement, Iraq still has a secular, intellectual class.
They're a small bunch, and you certainly don’t notice them when you're driving the streets of this dun-colored, poverty-stricken, blast wall-crowded and car bomb-afflicted capital.
But when they get together, you can't help but be nostalgic for that Iraq of yore, the Iraq that I never personally knew but that older people talk about — back when creativity and cultural diversity weren’t always threatened by violence.
I went to the concert with Haider Alizzi, a conflicted 27-year-old, and his uncle, the famed Iraqi playwright Hamed al-Maliki (no relation to the recently ousted prime minister).
Alizzi, who said he became a U.S. citizen two years ago after he served as a translator for U.S. troops in Iraq, was back on his first visit to the country in five years. H felt both delighted by the concert and troubled by its message.
Now living in Texas, and still affiliated with the Department of Defense, Alizzi is proud to be American.
He spoke in a heavily accented English slang peppered with “y'all”s.
He used the words “us” and “our” to describe Americans and U.S. foreign policy decisions. He loved America, he told me. There’s no place quite like it.
But as the oud players played, and the beautiful but haunting voice of a young man transfixed the audience with its sadness, Alizzi also spoke of his desire to move back to this place, this broken country.
“I miss the culture,” he said.
“In Iraq, you wake up and everyone is waiting for [you] to get up so you can all eat breakfast together. In America, my girlfriend gets up to go to work. I eat breakfast alone,” he said.
In Iraq, you used to be able to knock on your neighbors’ doors to socialize. You would always respect your parents and respect your teachers. Social gatherings were something special. Music and language, too, are irreplaceable, he said.
We were sitting at tables covered in white tablecloths at the Oil Cultural Center. It’s an auditorium owned by Iraq’s oil ministry and used for private social events. But on that night, the ministry had let the charities use the space for free.
On stage, one of Iraq’s most famous living novelists, Ahmed Saadawi, read a poem to the hundreds of thousands of children displaced by Islamic State militants in the country’s north.
“Dear child, I'm sorry,” Saadawi said.
You are in the displaced persons camp, where you just arrived
Seeing this whole thing as just a game or a journey
That you'll go home, you and the rest of the kids
To your rooms, to your toys
And nobody is telling you the truth
That everything has changed.
Television actors whose faces adorn Baghdad billboards and prominent media and cultural personalities like Alizzi’s uncle packed the room.
Alizzi acknowledged that even an event like this one — or especially an event like this one — could be an easy target for a suicide bomber these days.
But he asked me anyway if I knew of any companies here in Iraq that were hiring.
He theorized about jobs he might do, Iraqi cities he might live in — anything to come home again, before things changed so much that “I'll want to visit Iraq and there won't be [an] Iraq to visit.”
Iraq’s political discourse this summer has been dominated by the nation’s increasingly bloody sectarian divide. But like many Iraqis of his generation and older, Alizzi comes from a religiously mixed family.
His father is Sunni and his mother is Shiite.
“When I see Sunnis and Shiites fighting ... it really hurts,” he said. Then, with a sheepish glance at his lap: “To be honest with you — I didn’t even know about ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shiite’ until after 2003.”
“Now you ask a 7-year-old: ‘Where’s your dad?’ and he'll say, ‘A Sunni killed him.’ Now you find a girl you love, and you can’t marry her because of the religion.”
The west Baghdad neighborhood that Alizzi grew up in — once diverse — is now almost entirely Sunni, he said. Childhood neighbors are long gone. His mom is the only Shiite now.
So why does he want to come back here? Why now?
It’s the same reason that brought him and 370 others to the charity concert, which volunteers said raised more than $3,000 to help displaced families, many of them from Iraq’s dwindling minorities.
“You can't replace culture,” Alizzi said. He’s not ready to give up just yet: Surely something here can be saved.
On stage, a singer crooned: “I’m a Sumerian,” in a reference to Iraq’s ancient civilization. “The first letter in the world was written by me. The first farm was made by me.”
The strings of the oud hit a deep note, sending a ripple of melancholy over the room.
“Ah, I missed that,” Alizzi sighed. “Beautiful.”