When he was just seven years old, Ali al-Sabawi produced his first musical instrument. He made two ten centimetre long wooden flutes, whittling the instruments in the evening by the light of a lantern because the town had no electricity at the time.
“I learned how to play them from shepherds in nearby villages,” al-Sabawi, who lives in Mosul in northern Iraq, told NIQASH. “By the end of the 1980s, I was producing instruments professionally. There was a lot of demand for the rebab [a stringed instrument] and I was able to start a small business making those.”
Today al-Sabawi, who comes from a relatively poor background, still makes instruments. Working from a workshop inside his home, he produces them out of all kinds of things, including wooden sticks, fishing line and jerry cans that were once used for fuel.
“In the past I used to use olive oil cans to make the rebab. And you could get those with ration cards. But now they’ve been replaced by plastic containers,” the 45-year-old explains.
To sell the instruments he makes, al-Sabawi displays them on the street in the central Mosul markets. “Many young people here ask me questions about music,” he notes. “They love it and they want to play it. Many are just so passionate about it.”
Learning music is not necessarily an easy thing to do in Mosul. With its complicated mix of ethnicities and religious sects, Mosul saw its fair share of sectarian violence during Iraq’s most troubled years, and remains a relatively conservative city today. The place is changing but there are still many people who are afraid to show that they enjoy music and particularly, that they play an instrument.
Violin player, Ameen Miqdad and his friend, Mustafa Ibrahim, who plays the guitar, don’t feel at ease when they walk around the city with their instruments. Passersby jeer at them. “People make fun of us and treat us like idiots,” the pair report. “They imitate the sounds of our musical instruments when we go by and they call us by the names of the instruments we carry with us. It’s embarrassing.”
In fact the whole province of Ninawa suffers from an almost complete lack of cultural or artistic activities. There are no clubs or community centres where musicians can get together and play and there are only a small number of stores selling musical instruments on one single street in Mosul, Dawasa Street.
One of those store owners, Mohammed al-Asmar, laments the business climate. The price of instruments he rents and sells go from US$40 to US$120; some are made in China, some in Turkey and others are manufactured locally. Local musicians say that although the prices are cheap in comparison to neighbouring countries, the quality of manufacture tends toward poor.
Despite all the setbacks for music in Mosul, there is still a local movement calling for the opening of a music department within Mosul University’s Arts Faculty as well as an initiative to bring music classes to primary and secondary schools.
“It’s not easy though, to encourage music in a society whose educational institutions have all but abandoned every kind of art,” says one local music teacher. Ahmed Saad ad-Din, who teaches guitar. Ad-Din believes that the role of arts education is an important one. “The young people here have a passion for music,” he adds. “Even the older people love it.”
Ad-Din is one of a group of advocates for music in Mosul who haven’t given up on their dream of reintroducing song to the city. One private musical academy has already been established and students can attend classes there at relatively low cost.
Another group of local musicians have also banded together to encourage musical endeavours in Mosul. Calling themselves “The Dream of Music” on a dedicated Facebook page, the group eventually held an event at one of the city’s coffee shops.
The Ninawa Talents Gathering, as the event was known, was a huge success and drew a large audience. “We are an independent group and our only ambition was to paint a beautiful picture of Ninawa,” the group’s leader, Hamza al-Fakhry, said.
That desire is not limited to al-Fakhry’s group. Al-Sabawi, the roadside seller of homemade instruments, feels the same. “I believe the sound of music that these instruments will make is powerful enough to drown out the sounds of the explosions and bombs that mar our city’s skies.”