“A soul to the universe”

Leezan BG iraq_A2

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.”

Plato

So much of what is on television today appears trite and banal. This is a shame, because at its best television can be a powerful medium for entertainment, information and education. With so many channels to choose from it would be easy to assume that there would always be something of interest to see, but perhaps it is simply my jaded palette that leads me to find much of today’s television content disappointing.

Having made this sweeping critical generalisation about the world’s favourite media, I have to confess that from time to time a programme is broadcast on our screens that leaves an indelible impression and cannot be easily shaken from the memory. Just such a programme featured in the television schedules last night; a documentary so thought provoking and desperately sad that it was the first thing I thought about this morning as I awoke.

“Dancing in the Danger Zone,” sensitively fronted by the reporter Evan Williams and produced for Channel 4, tells the story of the Baghdad School of Music and Dance, the only arts based school remaining in the troubled country of Iraq. In particular it follows the daily routines of two young students, Leezan an elegant and articulate ballet dancer and Mohammed a gifted musician, and the stresses that are part of their daily lives and that of their families. Both of these students express their search for excellence in their chosen discipline, and a determination to achieve a performance as close to perfection as they can possibly manage. Their enthusiasm and commitment portrays the most fundamental features of the relationship between teaching learning and passion for their chosen subject that characterises the best qualities of education.

If these two young people were in school here in England they would be widely admired for their talent, dedication and endeavours, but they would probably not have attracted the attention of documentary makers. The appalling reality of this programme was that it focused as much upon the dangers that these gifted young people face simply in attending school, as it did upon their artistic accomplishments. Early in the programme Evan Williams makes the astounding statement “Leezan could be the last ballerina in Iraq” and commences to describe how religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence has challenged the legitimacy of the performing arts within the country. The graceful movements and subtle expression of ballet so greatly admired around the world, have been illegitimately equated by religious zealots to acts of immodesty and even wantonness. Powerful clerics have deemed that acts of performance, whether these are of dance or music are ungodly and sinful and they have therefore sought to banish these from the country.

At one point in the programme Leezan tells Williams, “Inside the school everything is beautiful,” she then goes on to describe why there are armed guards posted at the school gates and the reasons why she never talks about attending this school, or her love of dancing to anyone. To do so could put herself and those she loves in danger. Mohammed in a tearful interview shows a poster he made to commemorate the life of his friend Ali another talented musician, who also attended the school, and was killed by a bomber. We see him play a Chopin nocturne with great tenderness, it was apparently one that Ali particularly liked and Mohammed states that when he plays it “I feel he is still around.” In a moving passage he describes in a stilted and choking voice his sadness at not being able to attend his friend’s funeral because he was from a different religious community and would not have been welcome in the area. The irony of this is clear, Mohammed is from the Sunni community and his lost friend Ali was a Shia yet they were best friends. These young people appear more willing to cross boundaries and learn to understand and respect their different backgrounds and beliefs than those who currently rule the country.

During the programme we are shown the homes and families of both of these students. Their families express both their determination to support their children in pursuit of their dreams, but also share their anxieties for the dangers they face every day simply for attending the school. There are now only two ballet teachers remaining in Baghdad, both recall earlier days when the school flourished and performances were eagerly awaited by the public. Now such a public display of talent would endanger the lives of students, teachers and any who cared to support them. The statement made by Evan Williams in the film that “each day here is an act of defiance” is chilling when one considers that this description is being applied to a school. Equally disturbing is the belief expressed by both students, that in order to pursue a career in the arts it will be necessary to leave Iraq.

Iraq is a country that was home to the great poet Muhammad Al-Jawahiri, the painter Faeq Hassan and the musician Nasseer Shamma who is well known as a peace activist working in support of the people in that region. These individuals and many like them continue to bring joy and understanding into the lives of people across the world, of all religions and none. It is hard to believe that there are some in Iraq who would wish to repress the creativity of such individuals and deny the dreams of gifted students such as Leezan and Mohammed.

School years should be a time of learning and joy, a period during which young people are encouraged to discover their talents and hone their abilities. This happens in situations where students are enabled to think freely, express their ideas and share their interpretation of their world with others. Wherever there have been efforts made to suppress creativity individuals and groups have found ways of defying and overcoming the regimes that fear the abilities of creative people to express their views, whether this be through the written word, music, dance or the production of visual art. I hope that in the future we may hear more about Leezan and Mohammed and others like them from Iraq as they enjoy successful artistic careers both within and outside of their homeland. I am equally hopeful that the good people of Iraq, who undoubtedly form the majority in that country, soon enjoy a return to the peace and stability that allowed a flourishing of free thinking and creativity throughout earlier periods of their history.

Until such a time arrives, as it surely will, we must be grateful to journalists such as Evan Williams and those who support him for the making of programmes such as “Dancing in the Danger Zone,” which ensure that the plight of young people like Leezan and Mohammed are brought to the world’s attention. This is television at its most relevant, which makes even this most cynical of viewers sit up and take notice.

Do visit the website below to find out more about the extraordinary young people mentioned in this blog.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/unreported-world/videos/all/dancing-in-the-danger-zone