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Iraq oud Player Rahim AlHaj to Bring Sounds of Life in Iraq to UChicago Presents' Music Without Borders Series

Rahim AlHaj, a National Heritage Fellow, virtuoso musician and political refugee, is one of the most important voices shining a light on the everyday lives of those living in Iraq and the Middle East. An outspoken activist against the Saddam Hussein regime, AlHaj was forced to leave his native country nearly 30 years ago, but it is memories from his life in Iraq, and stories of others living in the country at war, that are the basis of his project, Letters from Iraq. On Sunday, May 5, AlHaj, joined by Chicago-based Kontras Quartet, bassist Christian Dillingham, and percussionist Issa Malluf, brings Letters from Iraq to UChicago Presents’ Logan Center for the Arts.

Born in Baghdad in 1968, AlHaj began playing the traditional, lute-like oud when he was nine years old. As a teenager, he was selected from nearly 2000 applicants for one of five spots to study with Munir Bashir, considered the greatest oud player ever, at the Institute of Music in Baghdad. After being repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by the Saddam Hussein regime, however, he was forced to leave his home a year after his graduation from the conservatory, in 1991.

Though AlHaj hasn’t lived in Iraq for many years, it is those experiences and memories that inspire his music and fuel his performances. Since settling in the US, he has recorded twelve albums, been nominated for two GRAMMYs, and received the country’s highest honor for traditional arts, the NEA National Heritage Fellowship. In 2017, he began one of his most personal projects yet, Letters from Iraq, in which he turns letters by Iraqis living through war into music.The liner notes to AlHaj’s album begin with a quote from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation… Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Those words highlight the motivation for this project. In an interview with NPR, AlHaj said “I wanted to tell the story. I promised myself to be the voice for the voiceless people… to tell them to please hear our voice, to please give us a chance to tell you the story of what happened here…”

The songs AlHaj wrote and the letters they draw from show both the small, private moments of individuals and the big moments of conflict and violence that provide the backdrop to their lives. Two letters reveal the lives of teens in love, torn apart by sectarian violence. One tells of a young boy who suddenly lost his mother to an explosion as they walked through an open air market, and one is by AlHaj’s nephew, who struggled to escape when a car bomb exploded near the barbershop where he was having his hair cut. AlHaj shares his own experience, too, of finding his home completely changed, almost unrecognizable, when he returned two decades after leaving. The last of the letters, “Voices to Remember,” takes all that came before it and offers a vision for the future.

AlHaj performs Letters from Iraq at 3:00 pm on Sunday, May 5 at Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago’s Hyde Park. He is joined by local musicians Christian Dillingham (bass) and the Kontras Quartet (Eleanor Bartsch and Francois Henkins, violins; Ben Weber, viola; Jean Hatmaker, cello), as well as his frequent collaborator, Palestinian-American percussionist Issa Malluf. Before the performance, AlHaj speaks with UChicago Professor Philip Bohlman about his life and music, and after, he joins the audience for a reception in the Logan Center lobby.

Call 773.702.ARTS (773.702.2787) or visit tickets.uchicago.edu for tickets or more information.


Acclaimed oud player Rahim AlHaj.