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Letters from Iraq – July, 2008 


St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Vice President for Education and Community Partnerships, Marc Thayer, just returned to northern Iraq for 3 weeks where he coached music students in an institute sponsored by American Voices. This organization sets up temporary teaching institutes in areas of conflict. In this letter, he writes from the ancient city of Suleimanya.


Taking music from St. Louis to Iraq    


By Robert W. Duffy, Beacon Associate Editor
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 01 July 2008 )
Music is the transportation that Marc C. Thayer’s taking to get from St. Louis to northern Iraq.Most of the time, Thayer is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s vice president for education and community partnerships  and his usual circuit is around Powell Hall in Grand Center or 10 or 20 miles or so from it. But for two years now, Thayer has worked in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq. On July 1, he takes off on his journey, making stops in Chicago and Vienna before arriving in Erbil on Friday.


International language

International language photo

Photo provided by Marc Thayer

Thayer (in blue shirt) worked with accomplished musicians in Iraq last year and is on his way back.

Although the geography is completely foreign, Thayer’s work in Iraq is not so different from his work here. A significant part of his job in St. Louis involves the care and tending of young musicians, helping them to progress as artists and, for some of them, providing encouragement as they head off to serious careers in music.

The organizing entity for Thayer’s work in Iraq is an organization called American Voices . The group takes responsibility for establishing, for a specific period of time,  a music program in countries experiencing conflict of one sort or another.

Although the region in which Thayer is to work is relatively peaceful and enormously prosperous, fighting and destruction are never far away geographically — or emotionally.

The U.S. Embassies provide major support for the programs around the world, and in Iraq, our embassy in Baghdad is a main source of assistance. Locally, in Kurdistan, the Kurdish Ministry of Culture is the sponsor.

Thayer said most of the highly trained and experienced music teachers able to take a student toward a professional career have fled. The American Voices program, called the Unity Academy, steps into the breach with intensive workshops, coaching and performing.

The students who come to the programs are musicians of considerable talent and experience, and are thoroughly familiar with the music of the Western repertory.

However, by the time they’re in their early 20s, they’ve received all the training and coaching available to them. Progress beyond is generally impossible. These young artists cannot travel abroad to study, not because of Iraqi restrictions, but because countries outside Iraq – those who have music-education resources of a generally high quality anyway – refuse to grant visas to the students.

To its credit, St. Louis University bucked that system and has arranged for two students to come to St. Louis to study for a year, on full scholarships. (More later about violinists Alan Salih and Zana Jalil, who’ll be coming to St. Louis in September.)

Thayer’s first stop in Chicago is to gather up and to pack donations headed for academy participants in Iraq. It is not the usual airlift cargo. Thayer is taking printed music, reeds for woodwind instruments, strings for string instruments, hair for violin bows and musical instruments themselves.

All of this is generally unavailable in Iraq, Thayer said. “Here if we break a string, we get a new one. There, you tie a knot in it and carry on.” Printed music is rare. “Usually, if some is available, it is music owned by a teacher that has been photocopied,” he said.

Thayer, who is an accomplished violinist himself, will be joined by a number of other American musicians, pedagogues and performers. Cellist James Nacy, director of the high school orchestra program in the Rockwoods School District here, is on the faculty in Iraq. Andrew Karr, a French horn player and conductor from Sarasota, Fla., will conduct and coach wind and brass players.

Two “Broadway people,” dance instructors Quae Simpson and Michael Masterson, from New York, are participants, as is children’s theater teacher Carole McCann from Houston, Tex. Leader of the whole project is John Ferguson, who runs American Voices and establishes academies such as this all over the world.

American Voices will spend about two weeks in Erbil (one of the oldest cities in the world) and another two weeks in Suliemanya, also in northeastern Iraq and quite near the Iraq-Iran border. Participants come not only from Erbil and Suliemanya but also from Mosul, Kirkuk, Basra, Baghdad and Duhok to their south.

Beginning soon after his arrival in Erbil on the Fourth of July, Thayer will begin sending a series of articles and photographs of his work to the Beacon ( www.stlbeacon.org ) as well as to the symphony’s website.

To see a concert by the Unity Baroque Orchestra playing the Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins last summer, please click here.

Marc Thayer is playing with the orchestra. He is in the middle of the front row of violins. In addition to material supplied by Thayer, there’ll be additional news features from members of the Beacon staff. Readers are encouraged to supply information as well.



Letters from Iraq: Celebrating independence and music    


By Marc Thayer, special to the Beacon
Last Updated ( Sunday, 06 July 2008 )
I’m very happy to be writing to you from the Hotel Shahram in Suleimanya in northeast Iraq, very near the Iranian border.


Orchestra in Iraq

Orchestra in Iraq photo

After repacking 27 boxes of donated music and books in Chicago into 16 larger boxes, I met Carole McCann at O’Hare Airport and delivered the boxes to Austrian Airlines, which sponsored our travel to Erbil. Carol is a theater coach from Houston who will be working with the children’s groups. She was here last year as well.

We arrived in Vienna on Thursday and met James Nacy, cellist, and Andrew Karr, horn player and conductor. While checking into the gate for the flight to Erbil, which is the capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region and seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government, James and Andrew talked to a Kurdish man who told them that all Americans are heroes and thanked them for what we’re doing in Iraq.

This same man sat next to me on the plane so we talked at length. Dana (sounds like Donna) and his sisters escaped from Erbil in 1992 by paying $7,000 in U.S. currency to a Turkish gang that sneaked them across the border. They lived in Istanbul for two years as illegal refugees and finally made their way to Denmark.

The Danish government has been very open to refugees, accepting many times more the number of Iraqi refugees than the U.S. has accepted in the past five years. Dana finished college in Copenhagen and now is a public defender, saying that law and democracy are his religion and he thinks the U.S. is the most incredible democracy anywhere with freedoms that others can’t imagine.


Lake is not a mirage

Lake is not a mirage photo

He thanked me again for America’s sacrifices and said that this is a very necessary war and very important to the entire region. He was very emotional. This was his first time back to Erbil to see his parents since he left. He is 33 and plans to return to Erbil to help in the independence process for all of Kurdistan.

Dana was a big help in the airport as we were collecting our luggage and getting the boxes of supplies through security. Special thanks to St. Louis stores Shattinger’s Music and Clemens Violins, as well as many members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, who donated many items and music books for use here this summer, all of which arrived safely.

Michael Masterson, a dance instructor who was also here last year, was at the airport to meet us. The Kurdish government is the largest sponsor of this year’s academy and their Ministry of Culture was on hand at the airport to meet us and help with customs.

The president of Iraq, Jalal Talibani, is Kurdish, originally from Suleimanya. He and his wife, Hiro Ibrahim Ahmed, have been involved in the organization of this year’s Unity Academy. The academy is part of a program called American Voices, which provides musical coaching and lessons for performers in conflict-affected parts of the world.


On The Road to Suleimanya

On The Road to Suleimanya photo

Hiro Ibrahim Ahmed provided her convoy of five Toyota SUVs to pick us up and take us from the Erbil airport to Suleimanya. The four of us with Michal, another dancer named Rick from Houston, and two journalists were in the two armored vehicles in the middle and the outer cars were full of armed guards in gray suits. Very dramatic. Nothing like drawing attention to ourselves.

The two-hour drive was through mountain passes and valleys was breathtakingly beautiful. The soil was red or dark brown, and we could see mountains and canyons for many miles in the distance.

The landscape resembled southern California or Spain. It is hot and dry, with some olive trees, herds of goats and little towns here and there, but there are good paved roads many of which are being expanded or improved. After one long winding crawl over a mountain range, we saw a lake on the other side created by a dam, like a welcome mirage. The terrain continued to become greener as we followed the river down another valley into Suleimanya. After a dark orange sunset, the temperature dropped to a dry, comfortable level.

students & Marc photo

Sahand, a pianist, and Alan Salih (middle) a violinist who is coming to St. Louis in August. meet with Marc Thayer.

Upon arriving at the hotel, I met up with Alan Salih, a violinist whom I taught last year. He is coming to St. Louis this coming year, thanks to a scholarship at St. Louis University. Another violinist, Zana Jalil, is coming as well. Both will study at SLU and will play in the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. They will live with me.

We met up with John Ferguson, head of American Voices, and other Iraqi friends, for pizza and some wonderful bakhlava to celebrate Andrew’s birthday, the 4th of July, a meaningful date for our arrival in free Kurdish Iraq.



Letters from Iraq: Views from the mountainside and from the music stand    


By Marc Thayer, Special to the Beacon
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 08 July 2008 )
Hello again from Suleimanya,  a city in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northeastern Iraq near the Iranian border.As I send this off to you on Monday night, we’ve finished two days of teaching and rehearsals and it seems as if we’ve been working for a week. The students’ appetites for learning, practicing and listening seem limitless. It has been wonderful to reunite with many of the students and adults we worked with last year and to meet many more of equal quality, both in terms of musical ability and their basic humanness.




Part of a convoy

Part of a convoy photo

The musicians arrived in Suleimanya in a convoy of SUVs.


Our days begin at 9:30 or 10 a.m. with lessons, and also with photocopying duty. Reams of music must be produced for the day’s rehearsals and to fill the requests students make for this rare (in Iraq) musical commodity.

A small group of beginning string students meet at 10 a.m., and James Nacy and I take turns with them.  The intermediate orchestra, with players between the ages of 17 and 45, meets from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for lunches of rice, soup, chicken, flatbread, fruit and tea. Their lessons begin at 2. There is a violin and viola technique class at 3; there is chamber music or more lessons until 5 or 6; string pedagogy begins at 5 every other day; and then the Kurdish String Orchestra rehearses from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Sometimes I plan ahead and have some dinner, but the students are so much fun, and are so curious and eager to play for us that the time flies before my colleagues and I realize we’re hungry. The dancers, jazzers, actors and children’s theater groups are following similar schedules. Those of us on the faculty meet up after the students go home to discuss the ups and downs we’ve encountered during the day.

Accommodations tend to be on the basic side.  The air conditioning works, and although the power goes out in the city a few times every day, the interruptions last only a few seconds. The bathroom is interesting. The shower drain is a hole in the floor next to the toilet. A small shower curtain stretches across the room but doesn’t conceal the toilet from the “shower area.” The hotel where we stayed last year is nicer, but last year the U.S. Embassy funded the project. However, the Ministry of Culture of the Kurdish Regional Government has done the best it can and has made it work for us to be here again this year. I am able to enjoy the city’s restaurants — the food is wonderful. I also explore more than last year.

Once again the people have made up for any inconveniences or material discomforts. Last night, Pishko, a good jazz guitarist, took two of us way up a steep mountain to look out over the city. The view is incredible. The air was dusty but cool. Pishko said this is where people go to have picnics on Friday and to relax with their families and friends. We stopped and he bought a can of beer for each of us. Beer only recently has become available.

Pishko also said Saddam Hussein didn’t let people build houses beyond the bottom of the mountain. Now we could see new developments of large new houses built along the hillside. On the way down the mountain, we passed current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s enormous house.

Alan Salih, who’s coming to St. Louis in August to study at St. Louis University, has been my trusty translator, getting me through the conversations of the day. He is also playing in most of the groups I’m coaching. He plays quite well, and I’m excited that he’ll be in St. Louis this coming year.

The other musician coming to St. Louis is Zana Jalil, whom I also taught last summer. He is not here yet, but should arrive in a few days. They and other advanced string players have formed the Kurdish String Orchestra, which I mentioned earlier. Last night, we read through some of the Bartok Romanian Dances, a Vivaldi Concerto a la Rustica, and the first movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with Alan and me playing the solo parts.

Most of the orchestra members are from Suleimanya but others from Ranya and Kirkuk have joined them. They play quite well. Tonight, we went through more of the Romanian Dances, and James did the first part of Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. They all want lessons, they all want copies of all of the music, they all want to play duets and quartets and they ask for technical help, exercise books, scale books, and ask endless questions. And while some of them are having lessons another 10 or 15 stand around listening, watching the music as a student is playing. This goes on for hours every day.

It will be exciting to have this energy and the benefits of cultural exchange in St. Louis this year. We are still working on finding airfare for the two guys who’ve been given scholarships by St. Louis U. By some incredible luck, their visas were approved by the U.S. Embassy in Jordan. Our hope — that an airline would donate tickets, or that the Kurdish government would help to pay transportation costs — hasn’t been realized.

Round trip tickets will average about $2,000 each. If anyone could help, covering the transportation costs would be most appreciated, and would be a tax-deductible gift if made through American Voices, the organization coordinating this entire project. Go to www.americanvoices.org for more information. And I will be happy to answer any questions that people in the United States may have.


Letters from Iraq: Baklava and Bartok    


By Marc Thayer, Special to the Beacon

It’s now 1 a.m. Thursday in Suleimanya and I just got back from a visit to a hookah bar with a group of guys from the Kurdish string orchestra. We sat on the roof of a new Internet café. We had pizza, roasted shish-kabob meats and apple-flavored tobacco in the hookahs.

Building Boom

Building Boom photo

This new shopping center is part of new construction that’s going on throughout Suleimanya.

Things have changed in the last year. There’s been enormous progress in terms of new buildings, new restaurant, more vibrant nightlife, new roads and large new houses, some of which, the guys tell me, cost close to a $1 million. Last night, after a stop for ice cream, the fellows showed me these fancy new neighborhoods.

Later, we stopped for tea at a sidewalk kiosk where they were boiling water in huge copper pots on hot coals. Teenagers and twenty-somethings were stopping for a cup of tea on the street, hanging out at street cafes, walking around in the cool, humidity-free night air.

My companions (who never let me pay for anything, saying I’m their guest here) said that before, in the Saddam Hussein days, there were 8 p.m. curfews. If you were outside, or didn’t have an ID, you’d be taken to prison. They drove me past the Kurdish Historical Museum. Its building used to be where Saddam’s Baath Party would imprison people and torture or kill them.

Yesterday, a clarinetist from Erbil, named Mariwan, came to Suleimanya to see us and to have some lessons. I befriended him last year because he would ask me to listen to his trio play and he spoke one or two words of English. Last year, he told me I was the first teacher ever to tell him he was playing something well.

We’ve stayed in touch over the last year, but he, like most of the people I knew last year, didn’t really believe I would return to Kurdistan when I told them last year that I would.  So he came to Suly early, even though I would have seen him next week in Erbil, taking a bus through Kirkuk to get here.

It’s an overwhelming feeling seeing tears in someone’s eyes just because you came back. Since last summer, he has learned a lot of English. He was given a good clarinet by a member of the National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad, and now plays so much better. I heard him do Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto today, which he will play with the Kurdish Chamber Orchestra when it comes to the states in September.

He doesn’t know what cities they will visit; I’ll find out next week and let you know. Big thanks to St. Louis Symphony Orchestra clarinetists Diana Haskell and Tina Ward, who sent reeds, music and other clarinet gadgets for which Mariwan is so appreciative. And so am I.

He says his friends think he is crazy for playing Mozart and Brahms and not listening to popular music, but that is what he really loves. It sounds familiar to him. It is nice to know this kind of music is universal as an emotional language, not just for European descendants.

At practice

At practice photo

Chwas, at practice with Bzhwen, who brought Thayer to his home for a feast.

Today was another special first for me, to visit someone’s home. Bzhwen, a violinist I taught last year with whom I have been in touch a lot all year, invited me to his home for lunch and to meet his mother, brother and other family members. (His sister looks just like Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop, who was appointed to the Creative Conductor Chair with the St. Louis Symphony in 1994.) His father died a few years ago.

They put out enough food for 20 people, and it was the best food I’ve had here yet: roasted meats; stuffed vegetables; stews with vegetables; Biryani rice with currants and almonds; breads; herbs and green onions with chopped salads; Shifteh, a fried ground meat with spices; and fruit with a variety of baklavas for dessert — plus tea of course. It was difficult to go back to work after all of that.

The power goes out every few hours for a few minutes, especially fun when we’re rehearsing on stage.

Everyone wants copies of all the music I have here; there are lots of questions, there is the taking of photos, the playing of duets and chamber music every day.

I’m exhausted every night but exhilarated by the energy of the students, and touched by their kindness, and moved by the hunger to learn, the desire to play Bach and Bartok and anything else we can put in front of them.

In some ways, their isolation has preserved their humanity and the beauty of their culture, although I won’t convince them that things aren’t better everywhere else.

It makes me excited again, to be a musician and a teacher.


Letters from Iraq: Lessons in quartertones and the setting sun    


By Marc Thayer, special to the Beacon
Last Updated ( Monday, 14 July 2008 )
It’s 1 a.m. Monday now, and I’m just getting to a computer, finally — but I’m at Bzhwen’s house this time. He and his sister were playing Kurdish musicfor me. They gave me a book of folk songs for violin and piano. They also gave me my first lesson on a Kurdish scale called rast and taught me how to play the quartertones in that particular scale. The music is really beautiful.Yesterday afternoon, I filmed a number of students playing Kurdish, Iranian (Persian) and Arabic music, including some 5th and 6th graders in the youth orchestra. You’ll love it, but I have no idea how to email video to you. I can’t figure it out at this time of night.






Barbecue in the mountains

Barbecue in the mountains photo

Photos by Marc Thayer

Friday is the holy day, so most people weren’t working. We, however, had a normal schedule since the concert in Suleimanya is tomorrow (Tuesday).  The orchestra that rehearses in the evening asked if they could cancel that evening to take us on a picnic. In return, they would stay later the other evenings.

Of course we agreed: It is a city-wide custom on Fridays to go up the mountain area called Goyzha to eat, drink, to barbeque and to enjoy the sunset and the cooler air.  We — and what seemed like 100,000 other people in cars — went up the very steep roads around 6 p.m. and pulled off to the side, parked, set up tables, made salads, drank beer, set up a small barbeque pit, and saw an incredible sunset and the city way, way down below.  I’ll send photos as soon as I can.

The days are going quickly. These are long days of teaching and rehearsing. We had dinner Saturday night with Zana Jalil and his wife, Rezhwen, then a nice walk in a park. Zana is one of the violinists coming to St. Louis in August. He was very proud to show me the new U.S. visa in his passport, and it was hard for me to believe until I actually saw it.

He and Alan had to go to Amman, Jordan, to the U.S. Embassy for their visa interviews. No one thought they’d actually be approved.  I contacted every senator, representative, governor, mayor and deity I could think of to help with the visas.  I don’t know who did what, or what made the difference, but many thanks to them all.

Sunday we followed a regular schedule but we’re feeling the pressure of having only one or two more rehearsals with these groups before Tuesday.  Some of them are ready and some are not.



Youth orchestra members


Youth orchestra members photo

The youngest ones are doing very well and are angels, to use James’ word.  They really are precious, like children everywhere, and they’re so excited about playing. They have the same technical problems as young students in the U.S., but there’s something cute about them when they speak a different language. They giggle at my occasional Kurdish word and a few of them speak good English, thanks to a special school here.

We were discussing aliens today, marching in the song called “Starfleet.” James was trying to explain what that means and one of them came up with the word aliens coming to Earth in the march-like part of the song.

The Kurdish String Orchestra sounds very good and should be a fun part of the concert. The intermediate orchestra, well, we’ll see. James said it was like the movie “Groundhog Day” because it seems like we’re starting from scratch every day fixing the same problems. I wish I knew what the interpreters were saying during rehearsals. But it will probably all come together as usual.

A violinmaker from Halabja came to rehearsal today to show us his new violin.  He does pretty well with little to work from, and he’ll benefit greatly from the supplies and tools sent with me by Clemens’ Violin Shop in St. Louis. I’ll deliver them tomorrow, and he’ll be thrilled. He really wants to go to Europe or to the U.S. to study with a master craftsman. I don’t know what to suggest, other than being in touch with makers like Robert Clemens, by email. Any ideas from readers?

This morning was fun dealing with government bureaucracy, much like getting new tags for my license plate in St. Louis. To stay in the country more than 10 days, you need a visa with photo, so we went to the government  “office” that handles this (along with100 other pushy people who needed baths), waited in 4 lines, two of them twice, paid someone to staple our photo onto a green piece of paper and scribble something on it, go up some stairs and then come back down, get searched, frisked, ordered into single file lines (like herding cats), and then we’re told that we needed to go to the hospital for blood tests before coming here.

None of us was too excited about the idea of needles and blood tests, so we decided to wait until Erbil where you don’t need a blood test, another brilliant governmental inconsistency. We’ll just have to pay a fine since it’s after 10 days but apparently it’s not a big deal. We’ll find out.


Karwan photo


This afternoon, one of the classical guitarists came to my room, a 21-year-old named Karwan, and asked if I could play a piece with him in the concert. He didn’t have the music with him. I asked who wrote it.  He said, “Anonymous,” so I said to play it for me. I recognized the melody, fortunately; it’s an old Italian song, I think. I filmed him playing it, and it was absolutely beautiful so I played along with him the second time.

When we finished I shook his hand, told him it was so beautiful and he broke into tears. I couldn’t talk for a minute but then asked him to play something else. We’ll play it again Monday and I may sneak us into the concert,  just walk on unannounced. We’ll see.

New students show up every day and want to be a part of the academy. My lessons have turned into 10-15 minute sessions. I listen to something like an etude, convince them to play scales and arpeggios, fix one or two things and tell them they are great.

We’re running out of time but trying to enjoy every minute. After a quick dinner earlier this evening, three students took me to buy some beers and go to an area off the road where people literally sit on benches and drink beers. I felt a little like an outcast of society, but what else is new?  It was fun.

Bzhwen just came into the room in traditional Kurdish men’s clothing, usually worn on special holidays, although many older men wear it daily. It looks great — but must be really hot.

There’s more to come from Suleimanya.


Letters from Iraq: Finale at Suleimanya; the beginning at Erbil      


By Marc Thayer, Special to the Beacon
Last Updated ( Thursday, 17 July 2008 )
Time is going too fast. Tuesday afternoon I visited a mosque for the first time just to see the inside. Men can wash their hands and feet before going in, but the only requirement is to take off their shoes. Inside is an ornate room with a silver dome from which hangs a huge chandelier.An old man prayed in one corner by some Korans on a shelf.


Mosque in Suleimanya

Mosque in Suleimanya photo

Along the other walls sat quite old women, some passing out candy just to be nice, not asking for anything. They didn’t mind that I took photos of them but I couldn’t use the video camera. Some even complained that I didn’t take their pictures, so I obliged. This room was covered in large, elaborate oriental rugs. The floor of another, larger room was covered in small prayer rugs. Men of various ages prayed, counting beads on a string, or lay down resting.

Then we walked around the bazaar. It is loud, crowded and it didn’t smell like roses, sort of like the Soulard Market. But everyone was friendly and wanted their pictures taken. Women in burkas, men in traditional Kurdish clothes, guards with machine guns, children selling cold drinks, everyone mingling with me, staring at me a little bit, but not minding or surprised to see me there.

Last night was the academy’s big concert in Suleimanya. Everyone performed the same night, which made for a marathon concert lasting from 6 to about 10:30 p.m. It began with jazz, continued with dance and children’s theater, and concluded with the orchestras and the cello ensemble.

Before the concert, a bunch of American and Kurdish military and secret service personnel showed up to sweep the building and to put security all around the surrounding streets. The first lady of Iraq, Mrs. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, wife of President Jalal Talabani, attended the concert. She is from Suleimanya and helps support this project.

People flocked into the concert hall after being frisked and having their bags searched. A number of America diplomats from Erbil showed up as well, so there was extra security all over the place. The hall only holds about 500 people; by 5:45, it was full. By 6:15, the concertgoers were standing in the aisles. The doors were locked, so no one else could push in. The temperature rose, and people were demanding to get in — a real mob scene. It was interesting to see ushers in camouflage with machine guns by the entry doors.

The orchestra section of the program went very well, especially the performance of the youngest children who were excited and really outdid themselves. The intermediate orchestra did its best and the cello ensemble brought Missouri to Kurdistan with some ragtime music by Scott Joplin.

The Kurdish String Orchestra provided a great performance of the first part of J.S. Bach’s Concerto for two violins, Bartok’s Romanian Dances and part of Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite.

Afterward, James Nacy and I went out with a small group of string players to an outdoor park where there were a number of restaurants. We had to pay and get frisked to get into the park, but it was a beautiful area with lots of colored lights in the trees and bushes and the air was cool and fresh.

We had roasted kebab meat, chicken wings, hummus and beer, a great combination of flavors. There was also a very happy group of people, sweet and affectionate, and sad that the academy experience was over. We invited many of them to follow us to Erbil since there are some extra dorms rooms for students, so we’ll see many of them in a couple of days. I’ve learned that Erbil is the Arabic name for the city that was imposed by Saddam. Most of the Kurdish people call it Hawler or Hewler, its Kurdish name.

Erbil, (or Irbil or Arbil), is believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back to the 23rd century B.C.E. at least. The Sumerians settled it. This morning we drove to Erbil in two small buses, one for us and one for luggage and boxes of music. The drive was hot, bumpy and dusty but the views were breathtaking: tall, rocky mountains; a river and a damned up lake; small towns, goatherds and the occasional donkey.

The driver was being an ass and wouldn’t put on the air conditioning to save on gas, though he kept the awful music on the radio nice and loud. We were hot and crabby after the three-hour drive.

We were glad to check into the Hotel Chuawchwas (Four Lanterns), which is very nice, with real bathrooms, a restaurant/bar, a nice outdoor patio and so forth.

I drove out to the student dorms at the Salahaddin University with John Ferguson, who runs the American Voices program that sponsors these academies, to see the conditions. We met a group of about 12 musicians who flew up yesterday from the arts institute in Basra on the border with Kuwait.

I’m glad there are some Arabic musicians here now to blend in with the others and they couldn’t have been friendlier. Some spoke English quite well. They complained that there was no electricity, so there’d been no air conditioning between midnight and 8 a.m. Apparently the university has to alternate power and plan the schedule with the city, which provides electricity to different parts of the city at different times.

Erbil residents can have only two hours of hot water a day so we’re negotiating with the cultural president and the university president to see if that can be improved. Otherwise the dorms are nice looking, although out in the middle of a dust field outside of town.

The power goes out a few times every day, sometime at scheduled times when switching from national power to local generators, and sometime for unknown reasons, but it happens a lot more than last year, rarely for more than a few seconds.

It’s especially “fun” while rehearsing on stage like yesterday during the dress rehearsal. It’s nice to be back at the Cultural Ministry building and concert hall where we were last year. We’ll each have our own room and some of the same students that I knew last year.

Here we go again.




Letters from Iraq: A fugue of ritual, feasting and farewells    


By Marc Thayer, Special to the Beacon
I realized yesterday that I take grass for granted. Everything is so dry and brown here, so dusty and hazy, that the few plants that grow have to be drowned daily. Houses have no grass,  just cement sidewalks and walls. Hotels have some green around them but they seem hardly worth the trouble.  Our hotel, the ChwarChra (Four Lanterns), has a nice green lawn in front where guests sit outside for dinner.


Great food, but …

Great food, but … photo

One of the baklawa shops at the Bazaar in Suleimanya.

Drinks are available, but beer in a can is the most common sight, although only a few people are imbibing. My colleague James Nacy and I laugh about how much water we drink every day and how few times we have to take a leak. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of my digestive system, although I did go to a pharmacy for some Imodium and almost ended up with some kind of glucose pills because the guy thought I said “diabetic.” It’s my own fault. The food is too good to resist.

Today is Monday, my last full day. I’ll teach tomorrow morning and help with one orchestra rehearsal and then run to the airport.  Because of flight schedules, we have to stay in Vienna overnight, then back to St. Louis Wednesday. I have mixed feelings about leaving.  I hate to leave in the middle of this second institute here in Erbil. I am just getting to know the new students, and there are some surprisingly good players here. It will be sad to say goodbye to old and new friends. But I’m also exhausted mentally and physically and can’t wait to get back to the St. Louis humidity!

Again, we’re teaching or rehearsing from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. or longer. Every minute someone is asking for a book for viola, or an exercise for a certain finger, or to listen to them play, or to try their instrument or to take a picture with them. It’s hard to know where to start. They think they need a new string and actually they should throw their instrument away and start over because it’s in such terrible condition. But you have to play it for a minute and tell them it’s just fine in order to encourage them.

Last night a former student, Alan Abdulruzka, invited me to his home for dinner. I taught him violin last year and have been in touch a lot during the year via Internet. He’s now 21 and his younger brother is playing viola in the program. He has three other brothers and a sister.

The father is in his 70s and has serious heart problems but seems OK. He speaks some English, and couldn’t be nicer. He said, “You’re part of the family and welcome here anytime.” His mother was very welcoming and after talking for a while on the couches they lay carpets and a plastic cover on the floor, set all the food on it and we sat around it leaning on the couches. Great food again, similar to every other meal I’ve had here, we don’t realize what variety Americans have and expect in food.

After the meal, Alan asked if I wanted to change into my nightclothes and I said, “No, I’m fine,” not quite knowing what that meant.  Later we had tea and then watermelon and honeydew for dessert.  Then, the father said I could take a bath.  A little alarmed, I asked if I were sleeping there.  He said, “Yes, with me.” I laughed, but then realized he didn’t really have a sense of humor.  At that point I understood that dinner included bed and breakfast. I said I had work to do and would just get a taxi.

After some more persuasion, five of the guys got into their SUV with a machine gun to take me back to the hotel, but not before many hugs and photos and requests to come back and live there and teach there, a tempting invitation.

I wish it didn’t take so long to get here and get back. I would love to spend a few days every month. I’ll write once more after I get back to the States.


Letters from Iraq: Home’s terrific, and a great place to plan for next year     


By Marc Thayer, Special to the Beacon
Last Updated ( Monday, 28 July 2008 )
Posted July 28 — I arrived back in St. Louis from Iraq on Wednesday night (July 23) after three flights and a stopover in Vienna, and the gray skies and rain in Missouri never looked so good.My last few days in Erbil were fun and full of teaching from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later at my own choice. Teacher-training classes were full and sometimes turned into gripe sessions, with teachers complaining about all the problems they face with their administrators.


Lots of farewells

Lots of farewells photo

Photos provided by Marc Thayer

The folks from Basra said students couldn’t start to play until they’re 18 years old. Others said their managers expected concerts after a month or two of classes. Others still said that they are only able to teach music for a few weeks each year, and the administrators can’t understand why that doesn’t produce results. We continually compared this to learning a new language and how effective a similar structure would be. We face similar problems in the U.S. with a lack of understanding of how successful learning works.

New students came from southern Iraq, so with the addition of these Arabic folks, we had to have two translators for everything, when we were able to find translators at all.  So everything we said took twice as long to repeat and very often everyone would end up talking at the same time and they’d continue the conversation or class in another language and we’d have to ask what everyone was talking about.  Or one of the musicians would correct one of the translators.

Sometimes I wished we could all just speak English. And at other times it was an interesting exercise for me to teach without translators through examples and non-verbal communication, often more successful.

I had only one such violin lesson with Hersh, a 20-something fellow from Dohuk who didn’t play very well. He was a very quiet, shy, serious student and didn’t speak much English at all. We were working on his bow technique and sound production and he looked at me and said, “You’re very nice.”  Later in the day he gave me a photo of himself because he had nothing else to give me before I left.  I believe they’re used to teachers who only criticize and yell.  Other students gave me little mementos such as some pens, a paperweight with a photo of Erbil’s Citadel, a metal violin that is also a lighter (very funny), some prayer beads, a pin of the Kurdish and American flags connected, CDs of Kurdish music, a music box made in China, all very meaningful because of who gave them to me.


students photo

Monday night, my last night, I invited a handful of the students I knew the most to have dinner with me at the hotel.  We sat outside and enjoyed the cool air and good food.  It was hard for them to let me pay for it; it is not customary for guests in their country to pay. But I explained it was very much a tradition for us with students, and I invited them, which makes all the difference in their society.  No such thing as going Dutch there.

Tuesday morning, I taught violin lessons from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., which means 20-30 minutes with each of the 5 or 6 people who wanted to play something for me, or wanted fingerings for a new piece they had just photocopied.  I gave new strings and the remaining music books donated by people in St. Louis to some deserving students.  Then from 11 am to 1 p.m., my colleague James Nacy ran the first part of the orchestra rehearsal and I did the second half.

John Ferguson, head of the American Voices program that sponsors the music classes in Iraq and elsewhere, paid me in cash, in U.S. dollars, since there is no real banking system and funds can’t be transferred from Iraq to the United States.  I hope they’re real.  No wonder it is so easy for money to disappear and slip into people’s pockets.  There’s lots of money in Iraq, but much is unaccounted for and hard to track.

The break in the rehearsal turned into picture time once again, with one after another student, or two at a time, four at a time, some I hadn’t seen before, standing next to me, saying just one more, one with me, please.  Then came well wishes, hugs, very kind statements of appreciation from some of the older gentlemen, pictures of families, email addresses, requests to come back and so forth.  And as I left in a van, three of my students jumped in to ride along.

At the airport, cars can only go to a parking lot about a quarter of a mile from the terminal.  Passengers have to go through security, metal detectors and luggage X-rays at this point, and then get on a shuttle to the terminal.  At the entrance are another set of metal detectors and X-ray machines for everyone, then to the check-in counter.  Later, you get frisked again and have your passport checked about 4 times at different points. At the gate for Austrian Air, various American and Austrian men are checking documents and baggage again.  No problems, just real security, made me feel good to see it, wish I saw more of it in the U.S.

On the way to the airport Alan Salih called me from Suleimanya to tell me that a political organization there had agreed to provide Zana and him with plane tickets to New York sometime between Aug. 5-10.  That is a relief, and it won’t be hard to get them here from New York.  Knowing they’re coming soon eases my separation sadness.

The flights all went smoothly, my luggage arrived, and the overnight in Vienna was a welcome respite.  I can’t believe how cool it was in Vienna and also now in St. Louis, of course not typical of the past few weeks here.  Everything is so lush and colorful and covered with flowers.  Nice to see the green, but the memories of daily difficulties in Iraq have already faded.

As usual, the lingering memories will be of wonderful people and beautiful music that will make me smile for the next few days and weeks.  My thanks to the St. Louis Beacon for passing on my thoughts and observations.

I hope all of you can meet Alan and Zana over the next year and hear them play.  Now it is time to start planning for next year.