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Teaching Iraq's children the language of music, not war

By Arwa Damon, CNN
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Iraqi kids find musical escape
  • Nashat Majeed teaches guitar to groups of children at Baghdad's elite Hunting Club
  • Majeed believes music can help children psychologically deal with the impact of war
  • Majeed started playing as a teenager and continued when music was banned

Iraq, Baghdad (CNN) -- Behind blast walls, barricades, and heavy security Nashat Majeed, a guitar instructor, gently coaches his young students.

"Three, two, one..."

Small hands strum, some awkward, others already on their way to dreams of being professional, and the melody of "Sway," made famous by Dean Martin in 1953, slowly comes together.

For around two months now, Nashat has gathered the children, aged between 11 and 15, at Baghdad's elite Hunting Club for twice-weekly guitar lessons.

"Of course music helps the kids psychologically, especially after everything that Iraq has been through," he told CNN. "Music is a rhythm, it's like day and night, life and death, it helps organize what is inside us."

Music helps the kids psychologically, especially after everything that Iraq has been through.
--Nashat Majeed, Guitar Instructor.
  • Baghdad
  • Music
  • Iraq
  • Middle East

Among his students is 13-year-old Mawj and her younger brother. Her father is an architect, her mother a university professor.

They are part of Baghdad's dwindling elite, among the few families who could financially afford to leave but chose to stay.

"At the start, it was a tough decision, especially when things got really difficult in Iraq," Mawj's mother Sora said, referring to the worst years of sectarian bloodshed in the country.

"We though about leaving, but then we said, 'No, we should stay, and stay strong.'"

"When I play guitar, I feel like I am in a different world," said Mawj, smiling broadly. "A completely different world."

Nashat fell in love with music when he was Mawj's age.

"I used to have a small radio and I would listen to Voice of America," he said. "There was a daily music show called 'Top Ten Songs.' I used to listen to guitar music and I loved it."

He turned his passion into a profession, now playing at the Hunting Club and other venues around Baghdad. He says he never stopped, even during the days when carrying a guitar could mean a death sentence.

The militias and extremists that once ruled Baghdad designated anything musical as being "Western" and hence forbidden.

But today, he can -- amid tight security -- gather his students.

"We're trying to create a new environment for them," Sora explained. " ... They do know that they are living in Iraq, they know the circumstances of Iraq, but inside our home we try to help them relax and [live] in an environment that has music.

"We send them swimming twice a week, so we try to create a different environment," she continued.

These children are luckier than most their age -- they have an opportunity to escape.

Fifteen-year-old Osama wants to be a doctor, that is, if his dream to form a band and play on stage doesn't materialize.

He plays for his friends at coffee shops and parks, passing on Nashat's lessons.

Nashat says it's about teaching children the language of music rather than the language of war.