Amin, Younis and Mustafa are students studying the sciences at the University of Mosul. The oldest is 23. And they’re also all musicians. Like so many young men all around the world, the trio are trying to make a success of their band. But almost immediately they have run into problems specific to the troubled northern Iraqi city of Mosul in which they live.
Mosul, with its complicated mix of ethnicities and religious sects, saw its fair share of sectarian violence during Iraq’s most troubled years, and remains a relatively conservative city today. And one of the first challenges faced by the would-be band was the sign at the entrance to their university which reads: “Musical Instruments Are Not Allowed Inside The University Campus”.
So immediately they had to work to get permission to bring their musical instruments with them to school – and as a result, they couldn’t practise for a whole month.
The group was first encouraged to form by a university professor who runs an arts competition at the University. “For years the annual competition for creative students has not had any musical entries,” Ammar al-Saffar explained. “Which is why I encouraged these students to form their own band.”
In the middle of December 2011, the University approved a request for the establishment of a choir for religious music. However because the three young men were also keen to play secular music, they were allowed to form a separate group. Hakam, a guitar player, and Yousef, an oud (a stringed instrument from the same family as the lute) player, joined the group later on.
Women tend not to come into the equation here; although historical records indicate that some women have learned music in Mosul in the past, they do not seem to be involved in music at all at the moment - at least, not publicly.
The all-boy band has quickly come to be known as the “University Band” and when NIQASH met the group, they were practising in a small storage room in the sports department. The noise they’re making can be heard out on the nearby basketball court. The space they’re using was very cold and the musicians had had to warm the strings on their instruments up with their own hands before starting. On the whole though, the musicians were happy to find a practice space where they could play without being harassed.
“These young men should prove themselves and gain the sympathy and support of the university management,” said al-Saffar, who is now managing the band. “Otherwise they won’t be able to survive here as a band, in a city that is indifferent to music.”
The day the music died, as the song goes, came in Mosul after 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq which toppled former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein’s regime. The city, the majority of whose population is Sunni Muslim, began to be controlled by various armed groups and by the extremist Sunni Muslim group, al-Qaeda in particular. Musicians became targets for the religious group and there were no longer public concerts or performances. It was rare to find anyone studying music, even rarer to find anyone planning a career in music.
As one band member recalled, “when I first started playing music, I didn’t have a musical instrument - but my parents told me never to openly say I wanted one.”
“Mosul has lost the two things that make for an environment in which the arts can flourish – that is, security and abundance,” explained Mohammed Zaki, one of the city’s best known musicians who is also head of the music section of the local artist’s association. “This is also due to the religious groups who accused artists of blasphemy and who issued edicts saying they should be killed.”
While Zaki, who is also known as something of an ambassador for the city’s music scene, says that things are getting better, especially now that the security situation in Mosul is improving, he still believes the city has a “musical crisis” on its hands. Partially this is because there is no state support for musical activities, he notes. And the antipathy toward those who make music seems to have become ingrained in the culture.
None of the organisations active in the music scene in Mosul have anything beyond modest schemes and means and there is hardly any support for young musicians in the city. “Any band needs musical instruments, uniforms and transport as well as a place to perform,” Zaki said. “All of these require money and there is barely any.”
Other musicians active in the city lay the blame for the lack of musical support at the door of the Mosul’s educational institutions. “The faculty of fine arts does not teach music and the Institute of Fine Arts is incapable of graduating skilled musicians,” complained Mohammed Mahmoud, another local musician, adding that most of the most skilled locals had learned to play by themselves.
According to Mahmoud, there are several clear reasons for this failure in musical training. Firstly, rules around acceptance into an arts school play a part. According to the Iraqi educational system, a student’s grades in non-arts subjects determine whether he or she can study the arts – rather than any talent that the student might possess.
Secondly, as with so many things in Iraq, decisions about entry into an arts course can depend on favouritism, nepotism, connections or corruption – this can mean that those with real artistic talent miss out.
As an example, Mahmoud talks about a local arts institute which started offering evening classes in music to paying customers. “And those who study there, and pay money to learn music, are doing far better than those who are studying at state institutions free of charge,” Mahmoud said, citing examples of evening glass graduates who had gone on to record and to perform alongside well known Iraqi musicians. “This is because the students who pay have a real desire to learn and they’re making up for the fact that they were deprived of the opportunity beforehand.”
Unfortunately the evening classes were eventually cancelled too. “The complex security conditions, institutional obstacles and the tribal nature of Mosul society, which is conservative on both social and religious issues, are the biggest obstacles facing young people and their music teachers today,” Mahmoud explained.
This means that musicians will often hide their instruments should they need to carry them in a public place. Both Muslim and Christian musicians are harassed by the general public. One well known oud player, Akram Habib, who has been a musician for 48 years, says he does this so that he doesn’t get criticised by passers-by in public. His students do the same.
“It’s better to keep a low profile,” Habib said sadly. “People here still believe that music is taboo. Most people would not allow their daughters to marry a musician. In fact, I was obliged to close the place where I used to teach music and where I tried to improve the oud, in a project that took years of my life. If I’d spent my time selling drinks,” he lamented, “I would have had a better life.”
These days Habib still makes a living teaching the oud. “But I usually avoid discussing these negative issues with my students because I don’t want to discourage them. And I still dream of a day when musicians can move around the city freely and be respected by the local people.”
Still, despite all of these challenges, it seems that some of the young men of Mosul are more determined than ever to start their careers in music. Which brings us back to the University Band, who continue to practice and to learn under difficult conditions.
“The first time we carried our musical instruments in public, soldiers at a checkpoint in a very busy area with lots of traffic, stopped us” one of the band members recalled. “The soldiers there started to make fun of us. Then they ordered us to play music.”
The soldiers did not intend to listen but wanted to make fun of their musicianship in front of a crowd.
“We begged them not to make us but it made no difference. We were forced to get our instruments out. Then one of the soldiers said that devils come out when music is played at sunset [around prayer time]. So we were saved, and didn’t have the embarrassment of having to play at this crowded checkpoint.”