One young woman found a way to make music again in the turmoil that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. She established the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, which she now runs from her home in Glasgow. What follows is her remarkable story…
LAST summer a group of children from orphanages and nursery schools in the Kurdish city of Ebril attended their first classical music concert. Sitting cross-legged in the dark auditorium the youngsters listened to the unfamiliar strains of Mozart and Haydn performed by 40 self-taught musicians comprising the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.
“It was the first time most of the children had ever heard classical music,” says Zuhal Sultan, who organized the event. “It was wonderful to see how they reacted and how much they enjoyed it and wanted to hear more. The musicians loved playing for such an appreciative audience too.”
The children’s concert was the highlight of a frenetic year for Sultan, who runs the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) from her home in Glasgow. The 19-year-old moved to Scotland from Baghdad 18 months ago, when the orchestra she created was in its infancy, and continues to be the project’s chief organizer, fund-raiser and motivator.
Sultan’s next venture will unite her two disparate worlds. She is preparing to bring the NYOI to Scotland, with the help of a £100,000 donation. The orchestra is one of several cultural and humanitarian organizations in Iraq to receive a share of the £13.9 million confiscated from the Glasgow-based Weir Group after it admitted paying bribes to Saddam Hussein’s regime to secure contracts in Iraq.
“It is very good news,” says Sultan. “Fund raising is extremely difficult in the current financial climate. For the orchestra to visit Scotland will be an immense breakthrough. Most of our musicians have never worked with professionals or interacted with other orchestras.
But it is more than just bringing the orchestra over. The money will help the musicians’ education and their psychological wellbeing by getting them away from the madness in Iraq. It will change and enrich young people’s lives.”
Sultan founded the youth orchestra at a time when classical musicians in Iraq lived in constant fear of reprisals from fundamentalists unleashed after the toppling of Saddam. Many music teachers had fled the country and public concerts were canceled. Sultan, a talented pianist, held out hope that youngsters who had survived war and political instability could come together through music.
Her first move was to post a press release “Iraqi teenager seeks musicians” online. Among those who saw it was Paul MacAlindin, an Aberdeen-born conductor who now lives in Germany. “I thought it sounded interesting,” he says. “I made contact with Zuhal by e-mail. What really grabbed me about her was her purity of intent. She was very clear about what she wanted to happen. I was impressed by her vision.”
Sultan appointed MacAlindin NYOI’s musical director, a role that now includes running the German-based Friends of the NYOI.
Tracking down musicians aged between 14 and 24 proved more difficult. “In Iraq every aspect of culture is frowned upon by some people. Musicians carrying their instruments would disguise them in shopping bags to avoid trouble,” she says. With no obvious place to look for talent, Sultan again turned to the internet. She posted messages in English, Arabic and Kurdish and received more than 50 applications.
After choosing the 33 most promising applicants, Sultan arranged for them to receive online tuition from music teachers overseas. “It was really the only way for musicians to learn,” she says. “Many musicians in Iraq are self-taught and this was a way for them to be assessed and helped by proper teachers.” With a conductor and musicians in place, her greatest challenge was securing funds. Sultan recalls sitting up all night sending e-mails to anyone she could think of who might help. One night she found the deputy prime minister of Iraq on Twitter and sent him a message asking for his support. He agreed to meet her and handed over $50,000. “It was the quickest $50,000 I ever got,” she says.
She also received money from the British Council but that funding has now ended. “Their support was to get the project up and running and this year there is no more money,” she says.
The NYOI made its debut in August 2009 in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya. Sultan chose to hold the event outside Baghdad because it was safer for the musicians and the foreign tutors who travelled to Iraq to help train the youngsters. The concert, at the end of a two-week residential camp, was a triumph but Sultan admits that rehearsals were fraught with difficulty. Many of the instruments were in bad repair, the quality of the playing was uneven and the electricity kept shutting off. “But in the end it was amazing. They worked so hard,” she says.
Last August Sultan organised the second NYOI summer camp in Erbil. This time there were three concerts, including the children’s event, and the orchestra had grown to 40. “I wanted to get more members involved. It seems that the musicians who feel involved with the orchestra also feel more involved with their country. It’s a good way for them to learn about democracy.”
Sultan had no trouble finding new members. More than 100 musicians responded to her online advert. “It was very competitive this year,” she says. “It was difficult to choose because it’s not nice to reject people especially when you know this might be their only chance to get proper tuition.”
Although she is happy in Glasgow where she lives with her brother, sister-in-law and their two children, Sultan still calls Baghdad home. She was brought up in city by her father, a pathologist, and her mother, a virologist who set up Iraq’s first influenza laboratory. “I grew up in a very scientific family. My brothers are doctors and my sister has a degree in women’s studies. But I liked to listen to music,” she says.
Aged six, Sultan started picking out tunes on a toy piano. Her mother found her a tutor and Sultan was soon displaying precocious talent. She was admitted to Baghdad’s prestigious Music and Ballet School where she studied until US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
Sultan was in her early teens when her father and then her mother died. She stayed with her older brother, now her guardian, to finish her education. When war broke out, her piano lessons ended although she continued to practise at home and received online coaching from Reiko Aizawa, a Japanese pianist living in the US…(Full Story)
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