At 17, Zuhal Sultan founded the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Next test? Continuing despite ISIS

St. Louis Public Radio
Thu, Sep 24, 2015

by Kelly Moffitt

When she was just 17 years old, Zuhal Sultan founded the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq during a time of great turmoil in her country. A pianist herself, she wanted to unite fellow Iraqi youth through music, paving a path to peace by bringing together members from the country’s many varied religions and sects.

Six years later, the country is still in tumult, but this time from a new threat: ISIS. The presence of such a group in the country makes the work of the orchestra harder and harder to do, said Sultan on “St. Louis on the Air.” “It is my biggest challenge,” she said.

“Some musicians have received threats for being musicians,” Sultan said, relaying that some could not even carry instruments on the street for fear they would be mistaken as weapons. “Some of those musicians have continued. To those who felt their family as in danger, they have left the country.”

She told one story of an orchestra-mate who lived in Mosul, the first city that ISIS took over in its invasion of Iraq, who had to leave his birth home and belongings to flee further to the North.

“He’s Christian,” Sultan said. “When I talked with him a few weeks ag and asked how we was, he said ‘I’m sad, I miss my home.’ I asked him, ‘What about your music?’ and he said ‘I’m still practicing. I still want to be a part of the orchestra.’ ISIS has had an influence … but at the end of the day, there are still people who want to pursue life and continue living life despite ISIS or any extremists.”

“If they don’t take kindly to [the orchestra], they should leave,” said Sultan.

Unity despite turmoil has been the goal of the orchestra since its inception in 2009, “from my dark basement in Baghdad,” said Sultan. She wanted to bring young people, ages 14-29, from all different backgrounds, Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish and Christian, on to the same stage to perform with a shared love of music despite the fragmentation from politics and turmoil in Iraq.

To read the full piece from St. Louis Public Radio, click here.