Kurdish Violins: From Suleimanya to St. Louis- A Musical Journey

Classic Arts Features   Kurdish Violins: From Suleimanya to St. Louis- A Musical Journey
 
For the past two summers Marc Thayer, Vice President for Education and Community Partnerships for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, has taught in the mountainous northern Kurdistan region of Iraq as part of the American Voices project.


The program brings musical diplomacy to the developing world. In the fall of 2008, two of Thayer's students, Alan Salih Mohammed and Zana Jalal Ali, joined him in St. Louis so they could pursue studies at Saint Louis University.

Before coming to St. Louis to continue violin lessons with Thayer and study English at SLU, Salih and Ali (which are their family names) were playing violin in the Suleimanya String Orchestra and teaching public school there. They were two of many students in Suleimanya (population: 800,000) and other cities in Iraq who benefited from the generosity and commitment of Thayer and American Voices.

For Salih and Ali, both men in their early twenties, Thayer helped secure the rare opportunity to study at a top-flight American university and with one of this nation's premiere orchestras. Thayer initiated and managed a visa application process that took many months and required that his students travel to Jordan for interviews at the American embassy.

"I wanted them to come here because there are no more educational opportunities for them where they live," says Thayer. "They wanted to study more, they knew they needed to study more...." Salih and Ali are experiencing opportunities for musical development they had scarcely imagined possible. When asked what or who has been helpful or valuable to them in St. Louis, a common answer from both men is "everything" or "everyone." This is less an artifact of limited language skills in English than a genuine assessment of their experience here thus far.

Asked what, if anything, has surprised them about the U.S., St. Louis, or the SLSO, both say, "Everything." Asked, what if anything, has been a disappointment, both say, "Nothing." (They have taken a particular liking to fried chicken at KFC and Hodak's.) Salih: who is several years older and significantly more fluent in English than Ali: adds, "I can honestly say nothing about America has disappointed me. Especially the people. I was worried that as people from Iraq, people might avoid us or hate us, but just the opposite is true." Indeed, when I accompany Salih and Ali across the SLU campus to take photographs, both men were greeted and embraced countless times by a wide diversity of students.

Both men are studying with Thayer, observing concerts at Powell Hall, and playing with the renowned Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. They are obviously thrilled with new discoveries about their instruments and the classical tradition. "Music is our life," Salih says. "Music is all I have in my life." Ali added to music his beloved wife Rezhwan, who remains behind in Suleimanya and adds an edge to his homesickness.

Both men also are aware of being away from their city and country at a time when they feel it is moving dramatically forward. Saddam Hussein was regarded as a brutal butcher in Kurdish Iraq, and his overthrow regarded with rapturous delight. Though neither Salih nor Ali have served in the Iraqi military, they both have known many people who lost their lives under Hussein's rule and both grew up in fear of Iraqi soldiers as an occupying army.

But they came of age in a cosmopolitan city and with worldly, open-minded parents. They are both Sunni Muslims with a love for God and respect for their religion: traditional Kurdish devotional music is in their repertoire, along with Paganini, Mendelssohn and (now) Copland: but Islamic tradition is no more confining to them than is the Christian faith for most of their peers at SLU. "Our families would never make us do anything we don't want to do," Salih says. "It is very individualistic."

Their parents need not fear that the individualism they instilled in these impressive young men will lead them to resettle in their new host country. Ali is eager to return to his wife; when his residence here ends in May, he will have been apart from her almost as long as they had lived together after they wed and before he left for St. Louis. Salih is contemplating advanced music study here, perhaps at Webster University, because the Kurdistan region still has no university that offers a master's degree in music education. If anything, Salih will take what he learns here and go back home and work to change that situation. Asked if he will be tempted to stay here permanently, Salih doesn't hesitate a moment before saying, "No. My country needs me. My country needs teachers. I must take what I learn here and go home to help to rebuild my country."

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Alan Salih Mohammed and Zana Jalil Ali perform violin duets that mix European classical and Kurdish traditional music. To learn of upcoming performances contact Marc Thayer at 314-286-4433 or marct@slso.org.


Chris King is the editor of the St. Louis American.

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