Global Hit

The World
The World

For today’s Global Hit, we go to Amman, Jordan. That’s where reporter Will Everett met a musician who left Iraq several years ago in search of artistic freedom. Now he’s trying to make Iraqi refugees in the Jordanian capital…feel at home.

The restaurant could be straight out of Madrid, but this is downtown Amman, and the musician isn’t playing a guitar. He’s playing an oud. The national instrument of Iraq goes back more than 5,000 years. Ra’ad Habib is from southern Iraq, and like most Iraqis living in Jordan, does what he has to do to get by. For now that means performing seven nights a week here at La Terrasse, an upscale restaurant with an international clientele. The classically trained musician plays everything from bullfighting music to Perry Como ballads to Iraqi folksongs, depending on who’s in the audience.

HABIB: “Life is boring here. This isn’t my ambition. My ambition is to go abroad and have better opportunities. But what can you do?”

As the lyrics of this folksong imply, Habib is a stranger in a strange land.

It’s an Iraqi song of mourning called a “mowal.” It opens with the words, “Help those who smell Baghdad’s soil, and embrace its land and tears. My love, my country, Iraq.” Later Habib sings, “Each drop of blood I shed will say, Iraq.”

HABIB: “I always think of home, of my country. I feel a lot of sorrow. What you’ve just heard, this music, is the expression of a lonely foreigner far from home.”

Habib began playing oud at twelve and went on to study at the Art Institute of Baghdad under some of Iraq’s oud masters. He worked for Iraqi TV, composing scores for TV shows and films. But he says government censors constantly monitored his music. In 2000, when he was 42, he decided it was time to leave.

HABIB: “Life was hard under Hussein. … There was no freedom of speech. I never felt free.”

He went to neighboring Jordan. When the U.S. invaded Iraq three years later, Habib thought freedom would come to his homeland. But he says he’s given up hope of returning to Iraq anytime soon.

HABIB: “I can’t go back home because of the militias. They would kill me. They don’t like music. They don’t like art or human development. They want to take us back in time.”

So Habib is trying to carve out a place for himself within the Iraqi community in Amman. He says radio stations here don’t play Iraqi music. And his fellow Iraqi musicians don’t play it. But he wants to bring a taste of home to Iraqi refugees. Habib says he knows hundreds of songs, and can cater to the tastes of listeners from many regions. Iraqis from Mosul, for instance, would be familiar with this love song that speaks of a man’s desire to hold and kiss his beloved. It’s one of the few folksongs that make reference to physical desire.

Like many of his Iraqi listeners, Habib is in a kind of limbo. Each year he has to re-apply to stay here. Habib traveled a lot when he worked for Iraqi TV, performing at festivals across Europe and in Turkey. Now he’s hoping to save enough money to visit those places again and make a new life in the west.

HABIB: “My ambition is to travel abroad, to introduce myself and Iraqi folk music to other countries, especially America, Britain and Europe.”

He still keeps in touch with friends back home. The news, he admits, isn’t good. But he’s confident that better times are coming for Iraq and Iraqi music.

HABIB: “When the situation clears up and the security is good, music will flourish again in Iraq. No one knows how long it will take, but one day, when people in Iraq come back to their senses, things will get better.”

Ra’ad Habib knows that he can’t stay away from Iraq forever. He repeats the old adage: Even if an Iraqi left home for a hundred years, he would spend the last year of his life in Iraq.

For The World, I’m Will Everett, Amman, Jordan.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.