His unwillingness, however, to support Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party led to Al Haj being imprisoned and tortured twice, so, in 1991, he fled to Jordan. Targeted by the Iraqi secret police, he then went to Syria, where he remained for several years. More concerns over his safety brought him to the United States thanks to the work of a relief agency.
Al Haj settled in New Mexico and, while hoping to work as a musician, his first job offer was at a fast food restaurant. Fortunately, a concert was scheduled in Albuquerque and it sold out. From there, he started to get bookings and record albums including a first release, in 2006, for Smithsonian Folkways, the great non-profit label that records and preserves music from all over the world.
This release from earlier this year is a fantastic melding of Al Haj's work as an Iraqi oud player with a percussionist and an American string quartet. The eight compositions form what, in the West, is known as "program music," in which the recordings make up a general theme and the titles of the pieces allude to it, but there aren't lyrics and vocals. The instrumental score evokes the feeling of the theme.
As the notes suggest, the pieces, "aim deep into human feelings that comes out in times of crisis." Al Haj made a couple of return trips to his homeland in 2004 and 2014 and his "letters" are about young love; love between people from the Sunni and Shi'a sects; the story of Al Haj's nephew Fuad, who was trapped in a 2005 bombing and could not run because of problems with his legs from when he was prematurely born; Al Haj's return trips and his realization that he had a new home in America; a look to a future of peace in Iraq; and others.
The playing is excellent and the melding of the oud and percussion with the string quarter is doing in a seamless and unified way. Original art works and photos that are added to by Iraqi artist Riyadh Neama and included in the booklet are also excellent. The album exemplifies Al Haj's statement that:
Music can make us laugh, make us cry, make us march into war. I want to make music to make us realize peace.Whether or not there will be the kind of peace and a workable future for the people of war-torn Iraq that Al Haj hopes for, Letters from Iraq is a brilliant musical meditation and expression.