Dancing in the Danger Zone
7.30PM Fri 18 April 2014

Reporter Evan Williams and director Marcel Mettelsiefen meet the extraordinary young dancers and musicians at Iraq's only music and ballet school, who are battling to keep their art alive against the rising tide of sectarian violence in Baghdad.

In the run-up to elections, up to 300 people are being killed in Baghdad every week by car bombs and assassinations.

But, hidden away from the violence, the school is a refuge of culture and artistic expression, with 162 students from across the city. Ranging from six to seventeen years old, they are chosen for their artistic ability for music and dance.

The star student is 17-year-old Leezan Salam, who has studied at the school for 10 years and is just two months from graduation. 'When you enter the school you enter a place of hope and peace. Outside you hear the sounds of car bombs and gunfire. Inside the school, everything is beautiful,' she says.

Pianist Mohammed Ramsey is one of Leezan's best friends and they are both on the brink of the biggest decision of their lives: what to do when they leave the school. Leezan will have to leave Iraq if she wants to continue her ballet. Mohammed's future as a piano player is uncertain.

Every day the pupils risk their lives by crossing Baghdad to reach the school. Six weeks earlier, Leezan and Mohammed's best friend - musician Ali Nouri - was killed by a bomb on his way to school.

He used to take Leezan home every day until one day she heard a bomb had gone off. 'I called Ali's phone and a stranger picked it up,' she tells Williams. 'I said "Who is this?" The guy said "If you know this person call his family. Please. Call the family and tell them he's dead."'

As Williams talks to Thena Ibrahim, the School Registrar, they are interrupted by a chilling reminder of the violence outside. Seven car bombs have just been detonated across the city, killing at least 20 people and injuring 70.

Leezan's mother is ethnically Kurdish and Shia; her father is Sunni. They say they had wanted to move to northern Iraq to escape the sectarian violence. But Leezan didn't want to go as it meant giving up her ballet.

They reveal another problem. Increasing religious extremism means they don't tell their neighbours that Leezan is studying ballet. 'They say that ballet dancing is another word for seduction and other words I can't say,' says Leezan's mother.

Her father says: 'I heard one of the officials of the Ministry of Education said he turns his face to the other way when he passes the ballet school.' Her mother adds: 'He thinks the school is a sin so everything about it is prohibited.'

At his home in a Sunni area, Mohammed tells Williams that Ali was a Shia and was buried in Najaf, one of the holiest Shia sites. It's too dangerous for Mohammed to visit his grave.

Mohammed's father says that with both Sunni and Shia militia now banning music, Mohammed has to be careful who he tells that he plays piano.

Wassan, one of the school's ballet teachers, is in the same position. 'I cannot declare that I am a ballet teacher,' she says. 'It is very difficult to leave from work knowing that somebody might come and blow up the school, killing us and claiming that this is prohibited.'

While many girls are dropping out of the school, Leezan is determined to carry on, but she's realistic about her prospects.

'Our political leaders aren't cultured enough in the arts. Therefore, surely they won't support us to improve or reach the next level. It's impossible,' she tells Williams.

Wassan agrees: 'There's no future. It's over for her. She will continue her academic studies normally and that's it. There is no future for her in ballet.'

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      Reporter Evan Williams and director Marcel Mettelsiefen meet the extraordinary young dancers and musicians at Iraq's…

      • This episode has subtitles available.
      Watch the intro to Unreported World - Fri 18 Apr 2014 clips
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        Reporter Evan Williams meet the extraordinary young dancers and musicians at Iraq's only music and ballet school,
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      Reporter Evan Williams and director Marcel Mettelsiefen meet the extraordinary young dancers and musicians at Iraq's…

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