Director of Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra plays his cello at scene of bomb attacks

Karim Wasfi, a cellist and director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) in Baghdad, has made a name for himself online for his decision to take his cello to the sites of recent bomb attacks to bring music to the people trying to cope with the impact of war. When a video appeared on Youtube of his first performance in late April, it went viral.

Iraqi Cellist Karim Wasfi
Wasfi wants to tackle the brutality of war head on by bringing music to the streets of Baghdad. Image: stripes.com

The location for Wasfi’s first appearance was Mansour, the district of Baghdad where he lives. A car bomb exploded on 29 April, killing several and damaging shops and market stalls. Wasfi turned up just hours later, as security forces were still clearing up debris, and began playing.

Wasfi explained he wanted to use music to resist the terrible conditions in Iraq. “This was an action respecting the souls and the spirits of the fallen ones due to terror around the world — and, of course, Baghdad, because we’re living the reality over here,” Wasfi commented. “The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty and compassion.”

As well as expressions of support from viewers around the world, his stand has won gratitude from those who witnessed it first hand. “They loved it,” Wasfi told Al Jazeera. “Soldiers cried. They kissed, they clapped, they felt alive, they felt human and they felt appreciated and respected.”

In his Al Jazeera interview, Wasfi spoke passionately about how he thought music and culture were just as important as securing what many would argue are the more essential needs of the local population. He said that music can inspire people, refine feelings, improve the working of the brain, promote creativity, and serve as an “international language of mutual understanding.”

Wasfi didn’t just step out in to the public eye this April. He’s been head of the INSO since 2004, and if you consider the events in Iraq since then, including civil war and now the rise of ISIS, he has faced more than his fair share of challenges. In 2008, the INSO had only 50 members in Baghdad, and not all of them could make it to rehearsals because of the security situation. The orchestra also had no permanent home.

By 2011, the orchestra had a home at the Institute of Fine Arts. the venue narrowly escaped destruction when a car bomb targeting a building across the street exploded. Wasfi told a 2011 interview that they spent days clearing up shrapnel, and added that the group responsible for the attack posted a statement on a website apologising for hitting the orchestra.

Security for the orchestra’s concerts remains a major problem. Events are generally promoted by word of mouth and on social media, like this concert last September, to prevent potential terrorist attacks from being planned.

However, the orchestra is even more determined to continue its work. Wasfi explained in 2011 how it sought to overcome the sectarian conflicts in the country. “We have every sect in the orchestra, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, women, Kurds,” he said. “I’ve also launched a youth orchestra and an after-school youth academy where we teach music, civics, manners and the like to almost 300 kids. We pay poor kids to attend. Some even come all the way across town from Sadr City. Yes, I’m sure there are fanatics who disapprove of the symphony, but we’ve generated such goodwill that they’re afraid to oppose us publicly.”

Wasfi is determined to continue despite the great risks. Since he first took out his cello in April, a series of bombings have struck Baghdad. In early May, Ammar Al-Shahbander, Wasfi’s friend who filmed his first performance, was killed in a car bomb outside a cafe. Wasfi appeared soon after at the site.