Most Americans' perception of Iraq is of a war-torn country, a place filled with terrorism and unrest. Iraq is rarely described as a peaceful nation filled with music. Yet one young woman - Zuhal Sultan - has dedicated herself to creating just that in a very tangible way.
Next month, Sultan will speak in Redding and tell the story of how music brought some measure of peace to her homeland.
Sultan is the founder and Artistic Director of National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. The orchestra – made up of 43 Arabs, Muslims and Christians (male and female) ages 14 to 29 – is the first successful youth orchestra in the Arab world.
During the 2003 Iraq War, when many artists fled Iraq, Sultan found herself without a teacher. Despite the turmoil in Iraq, as an accomplished pianist she continued to perform concerts abroad.
In 2009, at age 17, Sultan founded the orchestra, with the help of the British Council, then-Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih – whom she contacted through Twitter - Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin and Musicians for Harmony’s artistic director Allegra Klein.
Her dream was to unite the youth of her country through music and to defeat extremism – one note at a time.
“The orchestra’s barrier-crossing connections have kept me going (during the country's tumultuous times),” Sultan said. “I remember all the results I have witnessed first hand with the orchestra, and how Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christian play together in harmony.”
The musicians, many of them women, have defied criticism and threats in order to take lessons, receive coaching, play chamber music and perform as an orchestra.
They're “using music as a peace-building tool,” Klein said.
The youth orchestra had planned to do its first United States tour, culminating with a Redding performance. But because of the current turmoil in Iraq, the U.S. Embassy closed and these young musicians – true ambassadors of peace - were denied visas.
Despite the tour's cancellation, Sultan, the orchestra's founder, is fulfilling the group's tour schedule, speaking to about the formation of the Youth Orchestra – why and how she created it, and its impact on Iraqi youth.
The tour is sponsored by the Euphrates Institute. The nonprofit organization – which recently relocated to Redding is dedicated to a world with less terrorism, conflict and fear through informing and inspiring Americans about the Middle East—a region critical to our security, energy and religious interests.
The organization was launched in 2010 by its founder Janessa Gans Wilder, a Shasta High School graduate who, to be near her parents, moved her family and her non-profit back to Redding.
Having spent two years in Iraq as a CIA analyst, Wilder realized how little Americans knew about that part of the world.
“I want to give the average American a greater connection to and an understanding of it and a greater sense of hope of what's possible,” she said.
A musician herself, Wilder says she's always drawn by stories that bring people together with music. “I've always known what a powerful uniter that is,” she said.
Wilder was familiar with the National Orchestra of Iran and its challenges. She learned about Sultan and reached out to her a few years ago.
This year, Euphrates honored Sultan with its Visionary of the Year award.
“With all (the) things happening in Iraq – ISIS, the breakdown of the government, ISIS recruiting people from all over the country to terrorize, divide, break and enslave young women, Zuhal (is) recruiting people from all over the country to play beautiful music together – to be united and be at peace,” Wilder said.
“Look at what one young woman can do who dared to have a dream and dared to realize it. Every person who joins the orchestra is one less person joining ISIS. What they're doing is learning about coexistence, harmony, working together, listening and cooperation. It's the opposite of what ISIS stands for.”
Wilder said that this tour is an important time for her to get the word out about the orchestra. As someone who envisions a world at peace, she believes it's already happening in places most people might least expect.
“Just because you don't see it in the news, doesn't mean it isn't happening,” she said.
Clearly, Sultan is an example of this. At the age of 24, she embodies the real possibility that peace can exist in the Middle East. She's living proof that music can be both its own language and unifier.
You can see Zuhal Sultan in person on Fri., Oct. 2 at the at the United Methodist Church at South and East streets in Redding. This free event begins at 7 p.m., where Sultan will not only be the featured speaker, but she'll perform on the piano.