Iraqi youth-led orchestra brings hope back to war-battered Mosul

When the Islamic State (IS) militants took control of Iraq's northern city of Mosul in 2014, violinist Tara Amanj's home was burnt. She was forced to flee with her family. Music comforted her and helped her step out of a life of despair and destruction in the past. Amanj, a 15-year-old middle school student, said simply, "Music is hope." 

Four years after liberation from the IS, Amanj and other young musicians of Orchestra Watar are returning music and hope to the battered city. Established in November 2020, Orchestra Watar is composed of local young musicians who survived the war. Musicians include Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and more. They have formed Mosul's first orchestra since Iraqi forces defeated the IS in 2017. 

Under the rule of IS, residents of Mosul faced deadly threats and attacks. They lost facilities for health, education and entertainment. Musicians suffered more. "We used to hide musical instruments at home, and many musicians broke their musical instruments for fear of the oppression of terrorist groups," said Mohammed Mahmod, maestro of Orchestra Watar. 

Mahmod said the orchestra has formed to present folk music along with modern compositions for local citizens in Mosul. Musicians play violin and cello and also perform on Arabic instruments, such as the oud. Under Mahmod's guidance, the young orchestra members join to rehearse symphonic music every week. 

After months of training and rehearsals, the orchestra presented their first concert in April 2021 at the Spring Theater, which was almost destroyed in the fierce war against IS. "When we played the first chord, we felt life return to the severely damaged theater," Amanj said, she had to fight her emotions and complete the performance. 

The audience for the first concert held in the iconic theater after the IS occupation proclaimed the event a huge success. Orchestra Watar has become a household name in Mosul. Videos of their performances in the ruins of the old city of Mosul went viral on social media and attracted overseas audiences. During the pandemic, the orchestra was invited to participate in an online music festival in Belgium. 

Through their music, musicians try to let the outside world know about the calamity caused by the IS. At the same time they represent efforts to restore culture and life in the city. "We were keen to restore the beautiful image of this city through Orchestra Watar and its music," Mahmod said. "Music is the language of people and we can convey the culture of this city to the world." 

A variety of religious and minority groups lived peacefully in Mosul for centuries before the IS took the city. Thirty-year-old violinist Sam Salem said, "When I fled from IS, I didn't take anything from home. I carried only my violin and wallet." He was rejected by many arts schools until his talent was recognized in Orchestra Watar. 

As a violinist, Salem prefers to perform folk melodies. He said music reflects his mood and becomes his guiding friend in all the difficult times. "Through the activities of the orchestra, we gather the spectrum of society -- the Muslims, the Christians, the Yazidis -- trying to restore life," Salem said.

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