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

Kelly Moffitt, St. Louis Public Radio
Zuhal Sultan, founder of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

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.

An orchestra is about listening to each other, not overpowering one another. —Zuhal Sultan

  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 Thursday’s “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.

Credit Euphrates Institute
National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.

“When I started the orchestra, the main motivation for members to join was to get music lessons … perhaps they didn’t even think about making friends,” said Sultan, remarking that, at first, the orchestra sounded horrible because they did not want to talk to each other. She said that all changed when one member started dancing to traditional Kurdish music on the orchestra’s bus and others started to join, finally talking to one another.

“An orchestra is about listening to each other, not overpowering one another,” said Sultan.

Members of the orchestra are mostly self-trained and come together once a year for four weeks in the summer to be trained further by international musicians. They culminate that training with a concert where people from all over the country come to hear them perform. They have toured across Europe and were even invited to the United States in 2014 but had to cancel the trip after the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad suspended the visa-granting process.

Sultan and her closest relatives no longer live in Iraq; she left a few years ago to pursue a law degree at the University of Glasgow. However, with a stronger internet connection and close ties to the group of almost 50 orchestra members, she has kept the group growing from afar as its artistic director. She hopes one day to return, saying that it will take youth involvement to bring Iraq to its full potential.

Credit Euphrates Institute
Zuhal Sultan.

  Sultan is visiting the United States to receive the “2015 Visionary of the Year Award” from the Euphrates Institute, an NGO with two chapters in the St. Louis region dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East. She’s making a stop in the area for two speaking engagements tied to her award, at Principia College, in Elsah, Illinois, and Principia Upper School, in St. Louis.

“What the western world gets in the media is war and conflict, but at the same time there are younger generations in the country who want to grow out of that image,” said Sultan. “ … People are finding something to be proud of, of an Iraqi, regardless of who they are or where they come from.”

Related Events

"Uniting Iraq's Youth through Music"
Thursday, September 24 at 4:30 p.m.
Wanamaker Hall, Principia College, Maybeck Place, Elsah, Illinois

"Prepare for Peace"

Friday, September 25 at 8:00 p.m.

The Principia School's Ridgeway Auditorium, 13201 Clayton Road in Town and Country


"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.