Notes on Peace

The story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) is a remarkable one. It highlights the dedication that musicians have for their art, but above this, the formation of this orchestra shows innovation, strength, courage and vision for peace-building. It all started with one musician, Iraqi pianist, Zuhal Sultan who is just eighteen-years old.

At sixteen Zuhal had an idea to bring together young Iraqis from different backgrounds to make music. “I want to unite young Iraqis from all over the country, who come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds and who have been separated from one another by the conflict. Through the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, I want to encourage our young people to establish a dialogue with one another in music, to realise that we have it within ourselves to be strong and creative and, most importantly, to celebrate our identity as Iraqi musicians together,” says Zuhal.

Zuhal is far more than a gifted pianist. She is also a British Council Global Changemaker – it was at one of their events that she became inspired to pursue her ambition to form the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. By the summer of 2009 her idea was a reality with over 30 young Iraqis including Kurdish, Arab and Christian musicians joining together in their first concert – a celebration of their musicality, friendships and peace.

This was an astounding achievement in the light of the difficulties that surrounded the efforts to bring this inspirational concept to fruition. Following the 2003 invasion, playing in an orchestra was seen as harboring western cultural values; just carrying and instrument case could put the musician at risk. The Baghdad Music and Ballet School, where Zuhal studied became depleted as its talented music tutors fled the country leaving young musicians to teach themselves. The passion for music could not be dampened and many of the musicians who are now members of the orchestra continued against the odds.

When it came to uniting their talents, just reaching out to young musicians was challenging. Auditions for orchestral places were carried out online; Zuhal posted a message in English, Arabic and Kurdish, resulting in 33 participants qualifying for her first summer course run in August of 2009. The initial obstacles were vast; language problems, musical instruments in deplorable condition, lack of experience. Astoundingly within just two weeks the basic unity of the orchestra had come together, despite the religious and cultural diversity of its members and helped by sharing 7 strenuous hours of rehearsal every day.

Zuhal had managed to gain financial support from the British Council and the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. This funding was put to good use in the appointment Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin as musical director. To help with developing the skills of young and sometimes inexperienced Iraqi musicians he was backed by a team of graduates from the Juillard School of Music in New York and the Royal College of Music in London. He was fascinated by Zuhal’s clear concept and vision and both now put an enormous amount of work into the orchestra. Their first full concert included compositions by Iraqi composers and was played in front of a large audience at the Palace of Arts, Sulemaniyah. It was an overwhelming experience for everyone.

Plans for the future include more concerts both at home and overseas. Zuhal and Paul jointly manage the orchestra she from Scotland and Paul from Cologne. The internet is being used to gather musicians and even offer them tuition and now the orchestra has grown to 42 members. They continue to be supported by The British Council who are delighted with the progress of the orchestra “These young musicians represent a bright and hopeful future for Iraq. Music has brought together these young people from all parts of Iraq, through music they are learning about each other’s cultures, and under the careful guidance of Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin and the enlightened leadership and inspiration of Zuhal Sultan, they have become the newest Ambassadors for Iraq,” said Tony Reilly, the British Council’s Director in Iraq.

With her sights on great things Zuhal has captured the hearts of everyone that she works with including her new composer in residence, the Queen’s Master of Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Inspired by Zuhal’s determination for both peace and music to play a major part in her country’s future he commented that: I think this youth orchestra is one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard of. Out of the destruction in Iraq has come the joy and love of the universal power of music. It is quite moving.’

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Image Pianist and inspirational musician Zuhal Sultan courtesy of