The car exploded without warning on a day this past April, at a stopping center in an area of Baghdad called Al Mansour. Dozens were killed. The market was left charred and in tatters. The air carried a sickening smell of smoke and burnt flesh and the sounds of sorrow and rage and panic, that music of our age.
This is life for a great many people in the world, a daily existence upon which is balanced a need for the basic essentials of food and water, the universal desire for safety and comfort, and the very real possibility that an act as simple as going to the local grocery store may well end in death. People call our time the Digital Age or the Information Age, but there are times it seems more the Fearful Age.
That this bombing occurred somewhere in Baghdad doesn’t really matter. It could have just as easily been London or Paris, Moscow or whatever city is closest to you. The reality is that none of us are truly safe, and it’s been that way for a long while. Unlike my children, I never had to worry about terrorism as a boy. But I do have the memory of hiding beneath my school desk during a nuclear war drill, of glancing up at wads of chewing gum and scribbled names of children long gone and knowing even then how ridiculous it all seemed. As if my tiny school could keep the Russians away. As if a one-inch piece of laminated desktop would save me from death.
But we’ve learned to carry on in spite of it all, haven’t we? We outlasted the Cold War and Saddam and Osama. Chances are we’ll outlast whatever perversion of religion leaks out of the Middle East, too. Iran. China. North Korea. Maybe we’ll even be forced to outlast ourselves. But the shadow of death will still hover over this world as it has hovered since Cain slew Abel, and even in our safest and most quiet moments, we feel that shadow there. We take our children’s hands and tell them to keep close, worry when they don’t, all because of that shadow.
Yet somehow we still prosper. Our children grow on with us, we still find reason to laugh and sing and devote a large measure of our worry to things that don’t matter at all. We adapt to the shadow of death, that rot in the world. We get used to it. Humanity’s ability to accustom itself to all manner of horrible situations to the point where even the worst things become accepted as normal could be our greatest attribute. Without it, how could we have survived this long? And yet that knack for adjusting could also be our worst curse, because it allows evil to continue on unfettered.
I don’t know if that’s what Karim Wasfi was thinking when he heard of the bombing in Al Mansour, but I’m betting it was something close. Because while the dead and grieving were being taken away and the market workers were cleaning up—telling themselves and each other, perhaps, that this day was lost but tomorrow would perhaps be better—Karim Wasfi decided to do something about it. To do something profound. He didn’t reach for a gun, didn’t vow vengeance. He instead dressed in his best suit, reached for his cello, and went to the market. He placed a chair on the burnt ground, and there in the midst of all that carnage and ruin, he played.
One Iraqi said that Karim “is playing music for the souls of the people who died just a few hours ago. I can imagine them listening too, and wondering, ‘Why?’”
You don’t have to be dead to ask that question: Why? It is just as much the call of the living, a single word that has passed through the lips of every person who has drawn breath, one syllable that has both sparked faith and doubt. Why? Why must things be this way? Why is this allowed?
And here’s the answer—I don’t know. You don’t. No one does. We can couch our guesses in religious terms and say God has a plan. We can drown in the shadow of death and call it evidence that there is no plan at all. Either way, the reality remains. Life is merely a string of ever complex questions. The answers, for the most part, only come after.
But that reality doesn’t mean we’re powerless, nor does it take from us the burden of responsibility. We have a task in this life, you and I, and while that task can at times seem pointless and even false, it remains the only task that matters. We are not only to seek out the beauty that remains plentiful and vibrant in our world, but to make that music ourselves and in whatever way best suits us. It is to do as Karim Wasfi did on that April day. To fill the air with hope and love and peace, and to call that the music of our tomorrow.