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Iraq’s Youth Orchestra – a Musical Dream that Shattered | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Iraqi National Youth Orchestra was forced to stop playing in 2014. — AFP pic

Young Iraqis gathering from all around the country for about six years challenging the war to play in an orchestra, but the emergence if ISIS ruined their dreams.

The Iraqi National Youth Orchestra’s story is told in a memoir by Paul MacAlindin, the band’s conductor from its founding in 2009 until it was forced to stop playing in 2014, an end that left him “devastated and empty and very, very broken.”

In 2008, little did MacAlindin, a Scottish musician, know about Iraq and the severe struggle there, when he saw an appeal in the local newspaper from a 17-year-old Iraqi pianist, Zuhal Sultan, for a maestro to put the orchestra together.

“I knew pretty much what everyone else in the general public knew, which was that Iraq was a war zone,” said MacAlindin, who took the job that, was funded by, among others, the British and German governments.

The musicians were sought on Facebook and auditioned via YouTube since it was not safe for MacAlindin to go to Iraq and meet them.

“There was no teaching to speak of,” said MacAlindin, they learned everything they know by online videos.

The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq eventually met in 2009 for a summer school, the first of many rehearsals and concerts for which MacAlindin would fly in to conduct.

His proudest memory is their first concert, following two weeks of “orchestral bootcamp” with a team of translators to help the Kurdish and Arabic speakers communicate with their maestro and each other.

Resilience and Despair
Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, Haydn’s Symphony No. 99, and – to represent the ethnic mix of the orchestra – Kurdish and Arabic Iraqi pieces made up the repertoire that night and the orchestra went on to play in Britain, France and Germany.

As well as nurturing musical talent, the orchestra brought together people aged between 18 and 25 from all over Iraq.

“We had no interest in the politics or religion or all the other things that divide young people against each other in Iraq.

But since the orchestra’s collapse in 2014, the year ISIS declared a caliphate across swathes of Iraq and Syria, MacAlindin is pessimistic about its future.

“The whole country is in such a state of trauma that the possibility of anybody fulfilling their personal potential and contributing culturally to a nation – it’s just not happening,” he said.