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“Nightingales in Baghdad” – 1920s-1950s Iraqi music, archives and live performance

« Les Rossignols de Bagdad » – Musique irakienne des années 1920-1950, archives et spectacle
بلابل مُغرِّدة في بغداد»: الموسيقى العراقية من عشرينات إلى خمسينات القرن العشرين، والمحفوظات والعرض المباشر»
Coline Houssais
p. 165-174


« Une nuit parmi mille je suis tombée sur une vidéo YouTube grésillante en noir et blanc de Salima Mourad, la plus grande chanteuse irakienne du xxe siècle. Bien que la majorité des archives musicales irakiennes pré-révolution aient été détruites au cours des dernières décennies, certains documents et connaissances ont été sauvegardés dans un cadre familial. Aujourd’hui, ces derniers sont postés sur Internet et font renaître un passé qui n’existe plus mais qui n’a jamais autant été diffusé, grâce aux technologies numériques, au sein de la diaspora irakienne et au-delà ». Ainsi commence « Les Rossignols de Bagdad », ma performance live récemment produite à propos de l’âge d’or de la musique irakienne. Une performance mêlant texte, musique et VJ (vidéo-DJ) qui met au cœur de son récit la question de mémoires oubliées – parfois volontairement – à travers l’utilisation d’archives vidéo, audio et visuelles. Cet article vise à dévoiler la genèse du spectacle ainsi que les défis liés à l’identification et à l’obtention d’archives de bonne qualité. Il esquisse enfin des solutions permettant de passer outre des documents de qualité moindre ou absents tout en restituant une image aussi fidèle que possible d’un Bagdad d’antan. Créé à l’Institut du monde arabe (2017) et présenté à l’Institut des cultures d’Islam (2018) ainsi qu’au musée d’Art et d’Histoire du judaïsme (2020), « Les Rossignols de Bagdad » témoignent du pouvoir de l’archive dans la création artistique et de son rôle dans la persistance de déséquilibres de pouvoir entre anciennes puissances coloniales et colonies ainsi que des avantages et inconvénients de la numérisation d’archives amateure.

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“Nightingales in Baghdad” – 1920s-1950s Iraqi music, archives and live performance

1The Internet brings up unto the global stage stories, information and documents we would have been completely unaware of otherwise (Garde-Hansen 2011). It operates on an individual-to-individual level through free – financially speaking, and access-wise – platforms that until recently were not closely monitored as far as copyrights and ownership were concerned, provided uploaded material did not breach certain rules (such as spreading hatred or promoting illegal products and behaviours). As such it enables unofficial, or lesser-known narratives to be transmitted and shared between people who bear no relation to one another, even digitally. Narratives that were not deemed memorable enough to be newsworthy, become the subject of studies, books, films, major conservation initiatives or at least remain in the greater collective memory beyond communities that could directly relate to them. Yet, these narratives – in addition to their inherent interest – might echo wider concerns and phenomena by the themes they address, providing new examples and counter-examples. Iraqi music is a good case for advocates of the Internet as a window unto unheard-of universes: a rather confidential repertoire for a number of reasons pertaining to the structure and features of the Iraqi music industry, it is barely known outside a circle of connoisseurs, even in other Arabic-speaking countries (Tsuge 1972). As head and founder of Ustaza in Paris and l’Agence Ustaza, I have thrived over the past years communicating about, and later on, producing artistic and cultural content aimed at providing alternative narratives about eras, events and societies that bring depth and diversity to the perception we have of them, mostly in relation to the Arab world.1 Above all, I like true stories, as it happens that reality often exceeds fiction. One of my latest projects dwells upon the golden age of Iraqi urban music industry from the 1920s to the 1950s, intertwined with the presence and overall ill-fated destiny of the Jewish community in Baghdad. A live performance mixing storytelling, music and video-dj entitled “Nightingales in Baghdad”, it heavily relies upon sound, image and video archives to momentarily bring back a bygone era to life, and challenge a limited – but often derogatory – general perception about Iraq, and in a lesser extent about pre-1950s Jewish presence in the Arab world. This distinctive feature came with its own technical challenges, both in sourcing the archives and fitting them into an artistic creation that prided itself with remaining in the realm of reality.

Jewish cultural heritage from the Arab world, an unclaimed story

  • 2 Series of informal interviews, 2010-2019.

2Born and bred in France, I have regularly resided or sojourned in the Middle East and North Africa for the past two thirds of my life. Thus, I have noticed an ambivalence on both banks of the Mediterranean towards Arab Jewishness: Sephardis, Mizrahis… individuals and communities who have lived (or used to live) for centuries or millennia in the Arab world, and who adhere to the Jewish faith either through conversion, mixed marriages and migration from the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 8th and 6th centuries bc, as well as later on exile from Al-Andalus in the 15th and 16th centuries (five centuries on, some families still own the key of their Andalusian house, a symbolical gesture reminiscent of similar practices observed among Palestinian refugees). Despite a heritage dating back hundreds of years, French Jews of Arab or Berber descent have for some foregone this part of their identity, a phenomenon that increases as generations go by: knowledge of Arabic, Amazigh or Ladino, of the home country’s historical, social, geographical and political features, of local traditions, tales, music weakens (Schorsch 2007; Abitbol, Astro 1994). Most often, food recipes for religious celebrations might be the only element that keeps passing on from one generation to the next. Reasons behind this detachment from an identity that was central until one or two generations ago are numerous. They are the concerned individuals’ responsibility only and will not be detailed at length here, although a desire to respect the French traditional integration model of “assimilation”, to not be associated with Muslim people of North African descent, or to melt into the Ashkenazi Jewish culture that was perceived as historically anterior and socially superior to Arab Jewish culture in France – including within the Jewish community – are regularly quoted.2 It must be noted however that trauma and feelings of rejection, either in the country of origin or the new country of residence seem to play an important role in this management of family identity and cultural heritage.

3The result – which contributed to my desire to create this show – is that this shifting relation to identity appears to lead to a complete separation of Arabness and Jewishness in the eyes of the French public (and indeed to many all over the world). This is all the more surprising given that throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Arab (overwhelmingly of Northern African culture) Jewish family has been a staple of French comedy films, in the likes of the three installments of “La vérité si je mens” (1997, 2002, 2012), “Comme t’y es belle” (2006), “Coco” (2009) or “Le prénom” (2012), without forgetting “Madame Serfati”, the iconic character played by Tunisian-born comedian Elie Kakou. As a consequence of this separation of Arabness and Jewishness, popular opinion tends to exclusively associate the Arab world with a Muslim religious identity – save for Christian communities in Egypt, the Near East and Iraq-, thus contributing to the vision of the region as monolith, homogenous and therefore threatening in its lack of nuances and diversity.

  • 3 Again, the purpose of this part is to provide contextual elements about the popular perception of (...)

4In the Arab world, relationship to Jewishness is also fraught with ambiguity: in the years following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the majority of Arab Jews forcibly or voluntarily left their homeland in the Arabian Gulf, Near East and North Africa due to a mix of pull and push factors3 heightened by tipping points such as the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, or the independence of Tunisia (1956), Morocco (1956) and Algeria (1962). Their departure was made possible by networks of varying levels of formality (family solidarity, Zionist agencies) or through planned relocation operations led by Israeli authorities, either in active collaboration with Arab states (Ezra et Nehemiah – Iraq, 1951-1952; Operation Yachin – Morocco, 1961-1964) or unbeknownst to them (Operation Magic Carpet/On Wings of Eagles – Yemen, 1949-1950). This situation, coupled with regional solidarity towards the plight of Palestinians after the Nakba, has led to Jewishness being more often than not considered as alien to the identity, culture and heritage of societies in the Arab world. This includes limited visibility of public figures of the music and cinema industry who used to be very popular in their homeland and whose songs and film appearances remain part of popular culture in Arab countries today.

When History is the best story

  • 4 According to Maqam World, the leading resource platform on maqams authored by Samy Abu Shumays, “t (...)

5This is the backdrop against which, once upon a night, I stumbled upon a blurry black and white Youtube video of Salima Murad, the greatest Iraqi singer of the 20th century. The life and career of Salima Murad, or “Salima Pasha” (1901-1974) is unique in many respects. Born into Baghdad’s well-established Jewish community, like many musicians at the time, she started performing in the establishment owned by her sister, a high-end brothel offering the finest entertainment to the monarchy’s political, economic and cultural elite (Zubaida 2002). The rising star of a newly independent country, Salima Murad met in Baghdad giants of Arab music such as Muhammad Abdelwahab and Um Kulthum, who came to be initiated into the sophistication of Iraqi maqam (a set of instrumental and sung pieces particular to Iraq and part of the wider musical concept of maqams).4 Despite being the first Iraqi female singer to perform in Europe in the mid-1930s, “Salima Pacha” will remain faithful to her home country, shunning the siren songs of Cairo’s burgeoning movie and music industry that attracted so many aspiring actors and singers of the Middle East, and later on ignoring the call of exile that threw on the roads to Israel, London or the United States the majority of Iraq’s Jews in the 1950s. Afifa Iskander, Sadika El Mullaya, Monira Hawazwaz, Zakia Georges, Sultana Youssef, Zakia Daoud... Iraqi music of the early 20th century can boast numerous divas (Houssais 2020a). However, Salima Murad stands out not only with her expert knowledge of Iraqi maqam, but also through her modern and creative marriage to fellow singing icon Nazem al-Ghazali (1921-1963). Born an orphan in a Sunni impoverished neighbourhood of Baghdad, Nazem al-Ghazali – twenty years Murad’s junior – went from rags to riches thanks to his unforgettable warm voice and expressive facial features, making him the ambassador of his country in the Arab world through charity concerts in Palestine during the 1948 war as well as tours and screen appearances in Lebanon, Koweit and Egypt to quote but a few. From the first music broadcasts of Hudeiri Abu Aziz on Iraqi radio in the 1920s to the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab Music, from Nazem al-Ghazali’s flour factory shifts to the couple’s cabaret where Salima Murad continues performing after her husband’s untimely death in the midst of the post-1958 series of coups, the nightingales of Baghdad shaped and witnessed the birth and decline of the golden age of Iraqi music (Houssais 2020b).

6Ultimately faith is of little importance in the show, apart from underlining the human diversity of Baghdad and Iraq: music blended influences from the different communities living in the country at the time, as well as from other Arab nations and was neither objectively nor subjectively claimed as Jewish. Only the (barely) different perceptions of women in the music industry among the Jewish and Christians communities compared to those of Muslims can explain why Murad had fewer obstacles in achieving the career that was hers. Other figures evoked in “Nightingales in Baghdad” are Iraqi maqam singer giant Mohammad al-Qabbanji (1889-1988) and musicians brothers Saleh (1908-1986) and Daud (1910-1976) al-Kowaiti. Born in Kuwait, the latter became favourites of King Ghazi, composing hymns for his coronation ceremony in 1934 before fleeing Iraq in the early 1950s to Israel, where they became unknown and lived in difficult conditions.

7A great love story crossing through faith, class and age intertwined with one of Iraq’s most eventful eras between the end of the British mandate, the short-lived monarchy and the 1958 revolution? A real-life tale bringing together Baghdad’s most revered singers and musicians that had been given little to no coverage so far, especially in France? A refreshing vision about a country usually conveyed to the general public through images of war and religious fundamentalism, while classical Arab music is associated more often than not with Egyptian and Lebanese singers, rarely with Iraq? From the start it was clear to me that this video of Salima Murad was testament to a rich untold story I was eager to share with a wider audience.

Scarcity and low-quality: the plight of Iraqi archives

  • 5 According to Maqam World’s definition, the oud (also spelled ‘ud) is one of the most popular instr (...)

8Hence started the live creation I produced about the golden age of Iraqi music: a performance bringing together text (written and read), live and recorded music as well as drawings, image and video archives mixed with various effects and editing techniques projected unto a screen set at the back of the stage where I sit with my co-performer, an oud5 player. Beyond sourcing accurate information (which was rather easy for the level of detail required by a one-hour part-storytelling part-music and video show, as a lot of material – mostly in Arabic – was freely available on the Internet), two main challenges occurred throughout the making of “Nightingales in Baghdad”. First and foremost was the identification and the procurement of high definition archives, being able for time and budget reasons to move around little further than Western Europe in search of material archives, in addition to dematerialized versions obtained on the Internet (Collins 2020). Next was the issue of copyrights and ownership, which is fraught with difficulties. Last but not least was turning eventually incomplete and low quality archives (sound, image and video) into performance material that would bring back to life as faithful and vibrant an image of bygone Baghdad as possible.

  • 6 This is the case of numerous contents uploaded in Youtube, as well as Facebook pages such as Moder (...)

9After weeks of research, I had to acknowledge that digital archives – photographs, videos, sound recordings – pertaining to Iraqi daily life before and during the monarchy are almost non existent. From an Iraqi institutional perspective, the situation is either due to the scarcity of recorded material in the first place (recording equipment in its various shapes was rare during those times, and limited to European visitors or residents as well as to a small elite for decades, before state institutions began acquiring it). When recordings were made, ill-management of archives, political instability and wars destroyed most of it: in the present case the bombing of the Iraqi television and radio archives, as well as the Centre for Traditional Music (Hassan 2011) – which owned Nazem al-Ghazali’s archives sold to the centre by his widow Salima Murad – by American forces in April 2003 deprived “Nightingales in Baghdad” of its main potential source. For the few documents that remain, no digitalization initiative exists so they are not available to the public online. Moreover, the general absence of inventories makes it almost impossible to have an idea of the existing volume and type of archives available. As far as informal non-institutional initiatives are concerned, they often provide low-resolution archives with little background information. They can also bear marks (such as immobile or moving banners, logos and watermarks, for instance see France 2019) added by the owner of the social media/platform/blog account who uploaded the content. This is usually done in order to claim their ownership over material they rarely legally own in a bid to prevent others from using them.6 Their contribution to promoting Iraqi history and heritage is invaluable, yet the documents they upload are seldom fit for any use other than informative.

  • 7 Endless institutional sources were checked in 2017 and 2018, but no relevant archive was found for (...)
  • 8 Higher resolution versions are available at a cost on the website of the American Library of Congr (...)
  • 9 Legally speaking, Iraq was a British mandate from 1921 to 1932.

10From a non-Iraqi perspective, digitalized archives are more numerous and more easily accessible and can be divided in two categories: commercial archives (mainly footage from news agencies operating in Iraq at the time such as Pathé) that must be paid for at prices not always suitable to the budget of small-scale artistic projects, and public archives (such as the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France or, more relevant in the present case, the website of the American Library of Congress),7 which offers free high-resolution documents.8 This situation bears witness to the enduring imbalance in archives ownership between former colonies and colonial powers9 as only the Western gaze (in the choice of locations, themes, individuals, scenes recorded) testifies in high-resolution of yesterday's Iraq. For instance, the American Library of Congress offers mainly photographs of landscapes and cityscapes, as well as a detailed visual account of oil and transport infrastructures, that were realised by the American Colony of Jerusalem in 1932. None of the publicly available resources offered recordings of domestic life and Iraqi interiors, lesser so of the burgeoning music scene of the time.

11Non-commercial use of public Western sources is generally authorized, and it is easy to credit them as background information is usually provided on the platform from which archives can be downloaded. For amateur digitalized archives however, it is most of the time hard to identify and contact the rightful owner of the documents shared. I am aware that this obstacle has been used as a justification for re-editing a number of materials (particularly music, or film posters for instance) at the financial benefit of the publisher only, regardless of copyright. Even though I rework the archives I use for a project with artistic and educational value, identification of, authorisation from and in some cases remuneration of the owner of the rights to the material used remain in my view a requirement. Given the scarcity of available recordings about daily life and music in Baghdad in the 1920s-1950s era, I sometimes use archives in contradiction with my own principles through lack of identification of their owners. I hope however to solve this issue as “Nightingales in Baghdad” gains visibility and I further extend my research.

  • 10 The foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research (AMAR), based in Lebanon, being an exception.

12How to turn scarce and sometimes low-quality archives into pieces of a visual work created for the entertainment of an audience that often bears no direct relation whatsoever to pre-1958 Iraq? Most amateur-sourced visual documents (photos, videos) were low definition, leading to unsightly pixellisation on-screen, while the majority of high-resolution pictures did not directly concern Iraqi music. Bending the truth by using recordings from contemporary Iraq or from neighbouring countries being simply out of the question for ethical reasons, I resorted to drawings to express and describe what original material failed to do. Montage, edits, various effects (mosaic, mirroring) and layering added texture and rhythm, plunging the audience into partially recreated Baghdadi streets, cafés or the courtyards of grand houses where the high society would gather to socialize and enjoy the latest music pieces on the gramophone or the finest live performances. On a final note, incorporating original music recordings into the show proved a lasting challenge: like videos and photographs, they are barely available in a high-quality format on the Internet, and few institutions in the Arab world or beyond offer them in a digital format.10 When they do however, the support from which they were initially copied or digitalized (gramophone records) was either of a bad quality itself or in a bad state, resulting in botched restitution of the music piece. Given the absence of major remastering work of Arab artists – including first and foremost Iraqi singers and musicians-, the only available recordings, when played, can appear disagreeable to listen to in the ears of the audience, especially if they have never heard the songs before. As a result, a balancing act between use of genuine recordings, covers and live music must be done in order to prevent documentary considerations taking over aesthetic or entertainment ones.

13In conclusion, I see “Nightingales in Baghdad” as a never-ending work in progress, not because I am unable to produce a satisfactory version with the elements now in hand, but because this performance must play as a laying ground for dialogue and exchange with members of the audience who might relate in one way or another to the themes and events mentioned in the show. In addition, I hope to spark feedback about the video and audio archive material I gathered, looking forward to collect through this process new documents that would not be available to me otherwise, and perhaps meet the anonymous archivers whose work I have sometimes used without giving them full credit by lack of proper information about them. Hence a limited release so far in carefully selected venues that aim at diversifying my audience: after the premiere at the Tourcoing (a former mining city in Pas-de-Calais in the north of France) branch of the Arab World Institute in 2017, the show was scheduled at the Institut des cultures d’Islam in Paris as part of their Ramadan evening programme in spring 2018. It was also presented at the musée d’Art et d’Histoire du judaïsme – mahJ (Judaism Art and History Museum), also in Paris in 2020, before hopefully embarking on tours in the rest of France and abroad over the following years. Far from being a nostalgic of any kind, I firmly believe that the past is sometimes our best guide to better understand the complexity of the societies we live in, and that art, through its various shapes and appeal to both emotions and logic, can be a challenging but equally interesting medium to expose archives that would otherwise have a more confidential academic distribution.

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Abitbol M., Astro A., 1994, “The Integration of North African Jews in France”, Yale French Studies, no. 85, p. 248-261, URL:

Beker A., 2005, “The forgotten narrative: Jewish refugees from Arab countries”, Jewish Political Studies Review, 17(3/4), p. 3-19.

Collins J., 2020, “Doing-It-Together: Citizen archivists and the online environment”, in Popple S., Prescott A., Mutibwa D., Communities, Archives and New Collaborative Practices, Bristol: Bristol University Press, p. 79-92.

Farraj J., Abu Shumays S., 2019, Inside Arabic Music – Arabic Maqam Performance and Theory in the 20th Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

France P., 2019, “Archives sauvages et bootlegers des musiques arabes. Les formes du patrimoine musical arabe sur le web, 2000-2018”, Annales d’Islamologie, no. 52, p. 137-168, URL:

Garde-Hansen J., 2011, “Digital Memories: The Democratisation of Archives” in Media and Memory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 70-88.

Hassan S., 2011, “Non-assistance à trésor en danger. À propos des archives sonores de Bagdad. Un témoignage”, Cahiers dethnomusicologie, no. 24, p. 191-204, URL:

Houssais C., 2020a, Musiques du monde arabe – une anthologie en 100 artistes, Marseille: Le Mot et le Reste.

Houssais C., 2020b, Divas arabes, figures musicales du Golfe à l’Océan, unpublished.

Schorsch J., 2007, “Disappearing Origins: Sephardic Autobiography Today”, Prooftexts, vol. 27, no. 1, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 82-150, URL:

Tsuge G., 1972, “A Note on the Iraqi Maqam” Asian Music, vol. 4, no. 1, Austin: University of Texas Press, p. 59-66, URL:

Zubaida S., 2002, “Entertainers in Baghdad, 1900-1950”, in Rogan E. (ed.), Outside In: On the Margins of the Modern Middle East, London: I.B. Taurus, p. 212-230.

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1 See for examples.

2 Series of informal interviews, 2010-2019.

3 Again, the purpose of this part is to provide contextual elements about the popular perception of Jewishness in relation to the Arab world, which has motivated my decision to work on Jewish musicians in Iraq as part of my work to bring forward lesser-known narratives. The departure of Jews from Arab countries in the 20th centuries has been documented at length by academic and non-academic works. See for instance Beker 2005.

4 According to Maqam World, the leading resource platform on maqams authored by Samy Abu Shumays, “the Arabic Maqam (plural Maqamat) is a system of scales, habitual melodic phrases, modulation possibilities, ornamentation techniques and aesthetic conventions that together form a rich melodic framework and artistic tradition”, URL:, consulted on 24/09/2020.

5 According to Maqam World’s definition, the oud (also spelled ‘ud) is one of the most popular instruments in Arabic music. Its name means “a thin strip of wood” in Arabic, and this refers to the strips of wood used in making its pear-shaped body. The neck of the oud is short in comparison to its body and has no frets”, URL:, consulted on 24/09/2020.

6 This is the case of numerous contents uploaded in Youtube, as well as Facebook pages such as Modern Baghdad.

7 Endless institutional sources were checked in 2017 and 2018, but no relevant archive was found for the show.

8 Higher resolution versions are available at a cost on the website of the American Library of Congress, but the resolution of the free versions was sufficiently high for them to be projected on a large screen.

9 Legally speaking, Iraq was a British mandate from 1921 to 1932.

10 The foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research (AMAR), based in Lebanon, being an exception.

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Coline Houssais, « “Nightingales in Baghdad” – 1920s-1950s Iraqi music, archives and live performance »Égypte/Monde arabe, 22 | 2020, 165-174.

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Coline Houssais, « “Nightingales in Baghdad” – 1920s-1950s Iraqi music, archives and live performance »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 22 | 2020, mis en ligne le 03 janvier 2022, consulté le 05 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Coline Houssais

Born in 1987 in France, Coline Houssais is an independent researcher, curator and writer, specialising in Arab contemporary cultures and societies. A graduate from Sciences Po, INALCO and the London School of Economics, Coline teaches History of Arab Politics and Culture in Europe, as well as Music and Politics in Contemporary MENA and Politics of Museums and Heritage at Sciences Po. In addition to regular contributions in a number of publications and media outlets, she published Musiques du monde arabe – Une anthologie en 100 artistes (Le Mot et le Reste, 2020). Founder and head of cultural agenda-turned-creative content agency Ustaza à Paris since 2011, she released in 2018 her TEDx talk entitled “This is not a veil” on the history of female headwear in France (which is also the research topic of a joint IMéRA/MUCEM residency in 2021) and is a Camargo Spring 2020 Core Programme Fellow for a multimedia project about sound archives of the Kabyle community in France.

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