Interview with Zuhal Sultan
Zuhal Sultan, an Iraqi student who turns seventeen this year, is a talented young pianist who has played with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and at musical events across the region. She lost both her parents over the past four years, one to illness and one to violence. She tells John H. Silva of New Society what it is like to travel across Baghdad to attend musical rehearsals and how she hopes music will bring change to her country—especially to the lives of its children and young people.
New Society: How did you get involved in music?
MS. Zuhal Sultan: I was born in 1991 to a very scientific family of four children. My parents both obtained Ph.D. degrees in medical sciences from the United Kingdom and my three older siblings all attend graduate school.
My parents discovered my fondness for music when I was very young. According to my sister, I’ve been sleeping to the sound of music since I was a baby. As I grew a little older, I started to play the theme songs of Arabic soap operas by ear on an electric keyboard.
Believing I might have a hidden talent, my mother bought me a piano and found a teacher for me. After a year, I was ready to study with the best teacher in Iraq, an old Czech lady who is very selective in choosing her students. She was very impressed with my ability and told my mother that I was a ‘miracle child.’ She recommended that I apply to the Iraqi Music and Ballet School. I studied there from fourth grade through senior year.
NS: Since then, you have performed across the world. Tell us about your travels.
ZS: My first opportunity to travel abroad as a musician came in April 2004. I was selected with eighteen other musicians and dancers to participate in the International Children’s Festival in Turkey.
Two years later, I attended a summer school program at the Performing Arts Centre in Amman, which was held under the patronage of Jordan’s Princess Basma with sponsorship from the U.S. Embassy. The program consisted of three weeks of intensive courses in music followed by final concerts in Madaba and Amman. I was very proud to perform a very difficult piece, despite not having received any tutoring during the three years prior to the event.
The experience in Jordan was eye-opening. I was able to rise above my troubled everyday life in Baghdad and see how much I could achieve even without the pedagogy of a teacher. The experience led me to join the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.
NS: How did you come to perform with the INSO?
ZS: In May 2007, I received a phone call from the librarian of the INSO inviting me to attend a summer music and dance academy organized by the American Voices Association and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Master classes were held in a variety of musical traditions: classical, jazz, ballet, Broadway and hip-hop.
It was a wonderful experience. I met my piano teacher, John Ferguson, who is also the director of the American Voices Association. I was also exposed to jazz for the first time by Dr. Gene Aitken.
I also had the pleasure to meet Conductor Demetrius Fuller of Sinfonia Gulf Coast in Florida and Ms. Allegra Klein who conducted the youth orchestra and gave lectures about the Suzuki method of teaching music. Thanks to her instruction, Iraq will be the first country in the Arab world to start applying the Suzuki method.
I had a chance to perform with the Unity Youth Orchestra, which consisted of young musicians in the INSO and from Northern Iraq. I also had the chance to perform with the National Unity Orchestra, which consisted of all orchestras in Iraq. Performing on one stage with my country’s best talent at the age of sixteen was an overwhelming experience.
Two weeks after the summer academy, I was invited to attend the summer school in Amman for a second time. After struggling with flight delays and passport troubles, I was finally able to attend the event. After great intensive courses, the final concert was another success for me, I had many people congratulating me of my achievement.
Two months after the event, I received a phone call telling me that I’d been invited by UNESCO to perform in the Iraqi Cultural Week at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. I didn’t believe what was happening to me until my airplane actually landed and Charles de Gaulle airport. The whole time I felt like I was living a fairy tale. I performed in the hall of one of the most important culture and education organizations, before an audience of about 1300 including people from the media.
It was quite frightening to me to be the one to start the one-week event and to be the youngest performer there. After the concert, I had press interviews and a lot of people complimenting my performance. The Iraqi Ambassador invited me to stay for extra few days, along with Agnes Bashir, the director of the “healing through music” summer school, who also performed with me.
I was eventually invited to join the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and I have since been able to live my dream of performing in it.
NS: What is the orchestra like? And how has the orchestra coped through the war?
ZS: The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra began as the Baghdad Philharmonic in 1948. It became known as the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in the late 1950s, and started to receive government funding, but in 1962, the Iraqi Minister of Culture closed it down. Fortunately, the musicians kept rehearsing secretly until the orchestra was reopened in 1970.
Since then, the orchestra has toured many countries. The U.S. government even sponsored an INSO concert in Washington D.C. in 2003 and Yo Yo Ma performed. Still today, though, the orchestra faces many challenges. One is brain drain. Economic crises and political instability have led many musicians to leave Iraq and find positions elsewhere.
The orchestra is currently conducted by Mohamed Amen Ezzat and directed by Karim Wasfi. It performs once or twice each month at the Iraqi Hunting Club in Baghdad.
It is very diverse ethnically and there are members from every part of Iraq. I feel like I am part of a large family. We all have a great love and respect for each other and our music. There has never been conflict between members of the INSO due to their different backgrounds. The orchestra’s role in Iraq is great. Listening to live music gives Iraqis hope for a better tomorrow.
We all understand the risks we are taking by performing in public in Iraq. Many of us do not dare to speak publicly about our connection with the performing arts. And we do not carry instruments on the streets because we fear for our lives.
Quite often foreigners can barely believe there is a performing symphony in Iraq. But there is, and it makes me very happy to contribute to it and to the joy of Iraqis. I sincerely hope the international media would focus more on the bright side of affairs in Iraq.
I think all Iraqis who go to work daily are heroes regardless of their profession. The same goes for every student seeking knowledge under the circumstances in Iraq at this time. Musicians in the INSO have a uniquely difficult mission as a diverse group of Iraqi citizens. We must set an example of unity and cooperation for the rest of Iraq.
NS: How did he Iraq War affect the orchestra?
ZS: During the fighting in 2003, the orchestra’s headquarters were looted and the music library was burnt. Despite the violence and many challenges, the INSO performed in Iraq in 2003 and since then it has performed in the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Northern Iraq.
NS: Where do you plan to go from here?
ZS: I am about to complete my senior year in high school. I am very unsure about my future, especially about whether I will be able to pursue my musical studies further. Music has been more than a hobby for me until now. It has been a true companion when I have been happy, sad, unsure or just lonely. It has given me a reason to live and wake up every day. I feel so privileged to have my music and my piano.
I am currently applying to college in the U.S and doing my best to find a program that suits me. Due to the conflict in Iraq since 2003, I have had no regular teacher, but I have tried my best to perform and practice everyday despite the many challenges. Until December 2007, I was involved in a mentorship program by the Musicians for Harmony Organization through the internet. I am currently getting instruction from the renowned pianist Rieko Aizawa who agreed to help me for nothing in return just out of the goodness of her heart. I hope you will soon see me on a college campus in the U.S. or perhaps on stage somewhere, performing to the best of my ability.
Before we end our conversation, I’d like to encourage your readers to join our facebook group, Save the Iraqi Children—Through Music, and to make a donation to Musicians for Harmony. A $10 contribution will enable an Iraqi child to buy a webcam and start taking music lessons over the internet, the way I did. The donation will also go towards bringing students from the Baghdad Music and Ballet School to the U.S. for a national tour.
— Zuhal Sultan was interviewed by contributing editor, John H. Silva. Silva, a U.S. Marine veteran, is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University in Social Entrepreneurship. He frequently works on social enterprise projects in the Middle East.