Iraq’s airwaves, music stores flooded with songs calling for
Sufi-influenced singers praise jihad, attacks on coalition
Special to The Daily Star
FALLUJAH, Iraq: You can almost dance to the rhythm, but the lyrics call for
“America has come and occupied Baghdad,” singer Sabah al-Jenabi croons.
“The army and people have weapons and ammunition. Let’s go fight and call
out the name of God.”
The US has flooded Iraq’s airwaves with radio stations playing harmless
Western and Arab pop tunes. A US-funded television station, Al-Iraqiya, was
started last year to draw Iraqis away from the pan-Arab sentiments of the
Gulf-based news networks and the anti-Americanism of the Iranian stations.
But the next big battle the US faces for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi
people could be waged in the cassette and CD players of the Iraqis.
Though the US-led occupation has outlawed media calling for violence against
coalition troops or other Iraqis, on the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi,
Jenabi’s CDs and tapes and a series of others calling for violent
insurrection against the Americans are the hottest sales items.
As rebels shoot down helicopters at a rate of about one a week in the Fallujah
area, Jenabi’s tunes ring out in the bazaars of the so-called “Sunni
“The men of Fallujah are men of hard tasks,” he sings in an Arabic dialect
only people from Fallujah and Ramadi can decipher. “They paralyzed America
with rocket-propelled grenades. May God protect them from (American)
Even Iraqis who are supportive of the US occupation admit they are attracted to
Ahmed Hussein plays Jenabi’s cassettes in his car.
“I like the music and the lyrics,” said Hussein, a member of Iraq’s Shiite
majority, which was oppressed under Saddam Hussein. “I don’t know why. I
don’t agree with what he is saying. It just makes me feel good.”
Though the lyrics are contemporary, the music is based on a centuries-old
religious music called praising. The Sufi-influenced praisers say they’ve been
told by the coalition authorities not to write songs that call for violence.
Dan Senor, a spokesman for the coalition, told reporters recently that “any
sort of public expression used in an institutionalized sense that would incite
violence against the coalition or Iraqis” is banned.
Yet CD shops and cassette stalls sell Jenabi’s albums as well as those of
other musicians calling for jihad against the Americans for about 2,000 Iraqi
dinars, or less than $1.25. They appear to be mass-produced by the CD shops
themselves, with different versions carrying the names of the shops selling
At Sabah Recordings, a popular cassette shop in a Fallujah alleyway, owner Maher
al-Ajrari at first denied he even sells Jenabi’s music. After an hour of
hesitating, he finally admitted that the tapes are his best-selling products.
Other big sellers include Sayyed al-Hassooni and Abdul Rahman al-Refai.
Ajrari even carries multi-media “video” versions of the CDs. One shows
scenes from the Anthony Quinn movie, Omar Mokhtar, in which Islamic warriors
fight Italian occupiers in 1920s Libya. Another musician sings anti-American
songs to news footage of American troops killing and maiming Iraqis.
“The men of Islam will fight the Americans like leaderless soldiers,” Jenabi
sings in one tune. “We’ll drag (US President George W.) Bush’s corpse
through the dirt.”
But Ajrari said he was not promoting an anti-US agenda.
“We sell these just for business and for commercial profit,” he said.
The musicians themselves are difficult to locate. In Fallujah, a tight-knit
agricultural town wary of outsiders, a group of children at Jenabi’s house
said he was visiting Jordan.
Their music taps into the rage of Iraqi Sunnis who feel abused by Americans.
Saddam Hussein favored Iraq’s 20 percent Sunni minority over its Shiite
majority. Since his ouster, US troops have struggled to quell a guerrilla war in
the mostly Sunni flatlands and marshy river valleys of central Iraq.
Fatima Daher al-Rubaie, a musicologist at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts, said
the music is part of Iraq’s traditional folklore. Originally, it was limited
to religious occasions, she said, but now it’s increasingly used for political
“Even when I listen to this music I feel emotionally affected. The buildup in
rhythms really builds up emotions. It’s very captivating music,” she said.
But many praisers describe the politically inspired lyrics as inappropriate.
Sayyed Abdullah Hassani, 36, a
Sufi praiser, sings and plays the daf, a big hand-held drum. His family has been
praising for 30 generations, and Hassani, bearded and wearing a black turban
marking his descent from Prophet Mohammed, ticks off the names of each of his
forefathers from memory.
Followers come to his book-lined office in north Baghdad and ask him to sing a
few words about God, a deceased relative or newborn child in return for a small
donation. On Mondays and Thursdays he gathers with other Sufi Dervishes. They
use the music to build up a trance-like state. Then they stick themselves with
knives and swords and profess to feel no pain.
He said the “pretenders” singing anti-American songs in the praising style
had no real spiritual credentials.
A real jihad has to be called by a leading cleric and not some artist trying to
make a quick profit, he said. “The act of jihad cannot be until we have
permission from God and our source of emulation,” he said.
Under Saddam Hussein, the praisers who belong to a secretive religious order
were regarded with suspicion, often imprisoned or harassed by security
forces, Hassani said.
“The Americans have come as liberators, and for that we should be grateful,”
But Hassani also said that the Americans should not overstay their welcome.
During the 1920s, when Iraqi clerics called for jihad against the British
occupiers, praisers took the lead in coming up with creative resistance songs.
Hassani recounted the tale of his grandfather, who began writing religiously
sanctioned praises against the British, inspiring guerrillas in their fight
against the occupiers.
“Within a couple years,” he said, “the British fled Iraq.”
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