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'We Need To Be Human': Zuhal Sultan On Starting The Iraqi Youth Orchestra

Zuhal Sultan is the founder of the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra.
Courtesy of the artist
Zuhal Sultan is the founder of the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra.

It's difficult enough to start an orchestra, but Zuhal Sultan founded the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) as a teenager in the middle of a war. She brought together 40 young musicians from different Iraqi cities and sectarian backgrounds in an effort to unify a divided nation. Now, six years later, the Euphrates Institute has named her Visionary of the Year.

"When I started establishing the orchestra, people would tell me, 'Do you think Iraq really needs an orchestra? Do you not think it needs a hospital? Do you not think it needs a school or better infrastructure?' But music is what I'm familiar with," she says. "You know, we all need our basic needs — we need food, we need shelter and we need education — but we also need to be human."

Sultan, who now lives in Glasgow, Scotland, runs the orchestra online, sourcing and auditioning her musicians via Internet connection. The NOYI had planned to start a U.S. tour, but was denied at the last minute. The rise of ISIS has forced the orchestra into hiatus, but she says her musicians are anxious to start playing again — and says they're still hopeful for an opportunity to bring their show on the road.

"Unfortunately, since summer of last year, we haven't been able to have any kind of activity because of ISIS," Zuhal says. "I know that some musicians who live in Mosul, for instance, had to leave their homes and their life and their school to go somewhere else, and now they're destitute."

"A few weeks before the tour was supposed to take place, everything fell apart because of ISIS and the fact that we could no longer get visas," she continues. "It was devastating to the musicians. But I still hope that all of the efforts that were put into this tour should not be wasted, and so we're still hoping to bring the orchestra to the states."

Zuhal Sultan recently spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about why Iraq needs music and how a makeshift youth orchestra survives in a nation overrun with conflict. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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