Arts, Culture & Media

Former Iraqi musician casts his first vote

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Rahim Alhaj with his oud. (image: Douglas Kent Hall )

Rahim Alhaj had never voted before. Not here, because he only became a US citizen in August. And not in Iraq, because when Alhaj lived there, Saddam Hussein was head of state and there were no free elections. As Rahim Alhaj told me, all of that made voting in this election even more powerful.

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“It was a great moment, not just for me, but for all nations basically. And this is first time in my entire life that I do go and vote. And it was a very exciting moment, and in fact I was in tear. Because this is my country, my adopted country and I need to make a difference in this country. And I think my voice has been heard.”

When he lived in Iraq, Rahim Alhaj says he opposed Saddam Hussein's regime. He associated with anti-Saddam political parties. That landed him in jail, where he was tortured. And Alhaj was targetted for other reasons too.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 tied together the histories and fortunes of the two countries.

Musically, Rahim Alhaj has responded to that. After his first concert in the states a few years back, Alhaj found that a lot of Americans didn't understand the Arabic music he played: its unfamiliar microtones and its rhythms that followed time signatures you couldn't tap your foot to.

So he tried to build some bridges. This composition, "Baghdad, New Mexico" was one of them. The sounds in "Baghdad, New Mexico" don't reflect classical Arabic music. There are hints of western guitar stylings.

That's the point.

Alhaj wanted to open a door to his culture that he hoped Americans would walk through.

But how will the American people find the time and energy to understand other people and their cultures -- their music -- when there are all these other things to worry about?

That is what Rahim Alhaj is waiting to see.  But he's eager to be a part of it and to make those connections.After all, that's why he's making music today in the United States. He feels his time has come too.

Support PRI when you purchase Rahim Alhaj's CD "When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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