Friday, April 09, 2004

Smoke gets in your eyes

Rémy Ourdan continues his passage through Baghdad's wistful thinking classes with this report on an aging, chronically depressed Baghdadi pianist who's now planning to emigrate to the US. Samir Peter plays Gershwin for Americans and Brel for the French. He is currently being followed around by BBC documentary filmmaker Sean McAllister. Peter is also old enough to remember the glittering 1960s Baghdad under president Abd al-Salam Aref (1963-1968): "It was fabulous. There were cabarets. The Moulin rouge, The Embassy. Some staged revues from Paris and Las Vegas with their splendid nude dancers. Baghdadi couples went to see them. You could invite your fiancée. When I see Baghdad to-day, these ignorant types and veiled girls..."

Though he may be melancholy and particularly unhappy with the present state of Iraq, Peter says he is "delighted" with the fall of Saddam which is the "most important part" of this American episode. Ourdan reproduces generous portions of Peter's statements about Saddam:
This man was the nightmare of an entire people. He insulted, raped and martyred our country. He killed. He rewrote history. He tried to teach us to love war. He taught our children to hate others and to hate art. He taught them to live only by his so-called "values," those of a pathetic dope and a criminal. ... Saddam became president of Iraq by killing all his friends and then he immediately launched a war. This man worshiped the idea of war. You could read the joy and excitement in his eyes when he brandished a rifle. I was able to avoid the call-up for a long time because I taught at the music school. But, one morning, when I was returning from a party, still drunk, three men knocked on my door. They took me away and forced me to sign a document stating that I was a "volunteer" to fight Iran. After two weeks of training at shooting a Kalashnikov, I found myself on the front, in a trench near Basra.

"We were board stiff in the trenches. So I spent my time sharpening a hunting knife that I'd brought with me, a knife that over the days became sharper than a razor. One night, I was on guard duty. I was thinking about my lot, me, the music professor, the resident pianist for the Sheraton hotel chain, who now found himself in the mud. I was sad. I fell asleep. I had a dream, a nightmare, in which Jesus came toward me. I woke with a start. The moon was shining. I saw some Iranians who must have snuck in through the no man's land while I was asleep, at the end of the trench. I wanted to grab my rifle but it had disappeared in the mud. I grabbed my knife and stood facing them, shouting like a madman. One of them ran off. The other jumped on me. We fought. I ended up finding his throat. I slit it. His blood squirted out on my face. Then he agonized, coughing with a hoarse breath.
Ourdan writes: "Samir is haunted by the face of this Iranian fighter, 'a handsome youth, with a well-trimmed beard.' He will never forgive Saddam Hussein for having made him into a man capable of killing another, even if during an honorable battle. 'I was demobilized soon afterward. A bullet had hit me in the face. And I've been trying to leave Iraq ever since I got back.'" But Peter's luck has been rotten.
I was supposed to get my first American visa in 1990: Saddam invaded Kuwait. Then, two of my daughters married Americans of Iraqi origin in Jordan but, every time I planned to leave, there was a problem. Their mother, my ex-wife, went to live in the United States, but not me. After each marriage, I was interrogated by the secret police when I returned to Baghdad. Why were my daughters marrying Americans? Was I a CIA spy? I was supposed to get my second American visa in 2001: I arrived at the American embassy in Jordan the day after September 11. All the visas were canceled: thanks, bin Laden. That time, I was detained and tortured for 12 days when I got back to Baghdad...
Since he couldn't get out, Peter lived through the two American wars.
I was terrified, especially during the first war. I'll always remember the first night. The planes arrived. I can still hear the sound of these planes. I was very scared but I didn't want my wife to know. And then, boom! The bombs. My wife, who is very pious, prayed the whole night. But I sat on the bed and drank and drank and drank. During the weeks of the American bombing, I think I drank at least 200 bottles of whisky and wine... Then, during the last war, I switched to Valium and whisky, too. The worst part was the ground war, the entrance of the American army into Baghdad. The tanks came, the machine gunners shot up houses, cars, passersby. I was surprised, while taking a bath, by a shell that fell on the roof of my house. There was shooting everywhere. I stayed lying on the bathroom floor for seven hours, naked, wrapped in a towel. I really thought my heart might give out... At last, I rejoiced: it was the end of Saddam. The end of Saddam!
In a few days, Peter is to receive one of his daughters and his American grandchildren who have never seen the land of their origins. Peter is overjoyed that they are coming but worries about leaving behind two other children, a son and a daughter who plan to join him in San Diego.
Their arrival worries me. Right now, Baghdad is only violence, kidnapping and banditry. I tried to dissuade them from making this trip but my daughter wants her children to see Iraq at least once in their lives. ... How is America? Do you think a 55 year-old Iraqi pianist has any chance of finding work? Of success? ... I gave the scores for all these ballads to the women I wrote them for but I think I remember almost all of them. Maybe I could record an album? Or a Jazz album? Or be an actor in Hollywood?
Peter had two names at the music school, "the skirt chaser," given him by the ballet teacher, and "Tom Cruise," because of the tinted aviator sunglasses that he's never without. Ourdan writes:
In the evenings, Samir Peter often disappears into a long silence. An abyss of silence. Who or what is he thinking of? Of Saddam, the Iranian soldier, of the women loved and lost? Of this moth-eaten corner cubbyhole that the al-Hamra hotel gives him and where he spends his cavernous nights? He says simply, with a very solemn air, that he's doing "very, very badly."

Then, a pretty foreign women appears at the corner of the stair case. So his eye perks up. Then, a glass of wine in his hand, a cigarette stuck between his lips, he gets back behind his piano. He plays. He sings. "Because of you... there's a song in my heart...." A song in his heart, Samir forgets everything. He forgets Saddam and the Iranian soldier. He forgets the past and the future, when he has a piano and a woman.

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