founder of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq
In 2009, at the age of 17, Zuhal Sultan, a pianist from Baghdad, founded the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq amidst seething conflict in her country. She had a dream to unite the youth of her country through music.
This fall, she came to the U.S. for a 15-day speaking tour, sharing her story from coast to coast.
The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) is a group of 43 young musicians from across the country–Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, Christian–who overcome incredible barriers to study and perform together.
The NYOI has traveled abroad each year since 2011 to participate in a three-week intensive music workshop, partnering with other youth orchestras for musical collaboration and cultural exchange. The orchestra has performed to sold-out audiences throughout Europe, including the Beethovenfest in Bonn, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the Grand Theatre de Provence.
Founder Zuhal Sultan had the dream to promote harmony and unity among her country’s youth, but she had no experience in taking on such an ambitious project–certainly not as a young, 17 year-old woman in Baghdad! Through her intrepid entrepreneurial spirit, she recruited renowned Scottish conductor, Paul MacAuldin, and held auditions for the orchestra via YouTube. Most of the musicians learned their instruments through instructional internet videos, in lieu of more formal training options. Not a mainstream move for anyone in their society, the young women in particular face the risk of criticism and other threats since playing an instrument–especially one of the classical (Western) variety–has been deemed un-Islamic by extremists. Yet they have defied the danger to take lessons, receive coaching, play chamber music, and finally, to perform as an orchestra.
The results are real, not only in terms of their improvement as musicians, but in the way each sees the other as Iraqi. This outcome has “kept me going”, Zuhal told us, especially in the past periods as she’s watched the country under siege from ISIS militants. “I have been so despondent, just laying in my bed and trying to process everything. Was I wrong to think people in Iraq could get along? Was all this work I’m doing in vain? But then I remembered all the results I have witnessed first-hand with the orchestra—how I have seen Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians all playing together in harmony. They don’t have a problem with each other because they see what they have in common. At first, they see that they are just playing the same music; and then they realize they might as well talk to each other. Then they see how much they have in common as young people, and as young Iraqis.”
Zuhal mentioned several examples of Arab-Kurdish reconciliation, of how a member from the south learned to speak fluent Kurdish because of the Kurdish friends she’d made in orchestra; of when the orchestra members were working to raise funds and there was an opportunity from some members of Kurdish parliament who were only willing to fund the Kurdish orchestra members, but the Kurdish players refused it, saying “No, we could never only get funding for us and not our fellow Iraqis! We are brothers!”
Unfortunately, the orchestra had to cancel its 2014 tour to the U.S. because the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had to reduce its staff due to rising conflict, (but the tour is back on track for summer, 2015.) On the home front, their efforts to hold a local concert were put on hold as well when the orchestra’s manager had to take some leave after his brother was kidnapped and murdered by insurgents.
Despite these temporary setbacks, however, Zuhal and the entire orchestra cling to a bigger picture, and remain undeterred. “I will keep trying no matter what, and never give up,” she reiterated. “After going through so much, there’s little else you can lose. You have to just go for it and put it all on the line. I don’t mean to make light of the risk and the struggle. It’s not easy, but I feel I have no other choice.”
To learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq: