Grammy-Nominated Rahim AlHaj Visits Harrisonburg

Folklife  •  News

Rahim AlHaj (photo by Douglas Kent Hall)
Rahim AlHaj (photo by Douglas Kent Hall)

The Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) announces a free, all-ages concert featuring Grammy-nominated Rahim AlHaj and special guests at Court Square Theater in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia, on Thursday, May 18, at 8 PM. The event is open to the public.

Rahim AlHaj is a virtuoso oud musician and composer from Baghdad, Iraq, who came to the U.S. in 2000 as a political refugee. In 2015, he received the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the U.S. bestows on a traditional artist.

AlHaj first began playing the oud, an instrument similar to a pear-shaped guitar, when he was only eight years old, and he quickly rose to fame in Iraq. According to a March 24 article in FORBES, he escaped Iraq after being incarcerated for refusing to join the ruling Ba’ath party, and was forced to leave his beloved oud behind.

“It was the most excruciating moment in my life,” explains AlHaj in a telephone interview with FORBES. “Torture, blah-blah, this is nothing. Nothing compared to this moment.”

From May 18-19, the Virginia Folklife Program will host AlHaj as a resident artist in Harrisonburg. A small city in the rural Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg is surprisingly diverse and has recently embraced many refugee and immigrant populations. There are particularly large Iraqi and Kurdish populations, with Arabic now the second-most-spoken language in the Harrisonburg public schools.

In addition to the May 18 concert, AlHaj will participate in cultural exchange activities with local Iraqi musicians and several bluegrass musicians from the region, including a Thursday afternoon public musical jam at Al Sultan, a restaurant frequented by the Iraqi community. While in Harrisonburg, AlHaj will also visit several public schools, including Spotswood Elementary and Thomas Harrison and Skyline Middle Schools.

The residency events are offered in collaboration with Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak, authors of Never Can I Write About Damascus: When Syria Became Our Home, featured at the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book. Huck and Kubasak work extensively with the Iraqi and Islamic communities in Harrisonburg.

More information about the Rahim AlHaj concert and residency is available online here.

About the Virginia Folklife Program

The Virginia Folklife Program, a public program of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is dedicated to the documentation, presentation, support, and celebration of Virginia’s rich cultural heritage. For more than twenty-five years, the program has documented the Commonwealth’s music and material traditions and shared those histories through hands-on workshops, performances, exhibitions, audio and video recordings, and apprenticeships across Virginia. For more information, visit

About VFH

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) connects people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement. VFH reaches an estimated annual audience of 23 million through community programs, websites and digital initiatives, grants and fellowships, radio programs and podcasts, the Virginia Folklife Program, and the Virginia Center for the Book. To learn more, visit