The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is in Germany for a performance at the Beethovenfest in Bonn. While some members say they want a normal life in their home country, others are turning their culture upside-down.
It's a warm, sunny Friday in Cologne's main pedestrian district. Shoppers laden with plastic bags and students pushing their bikes have gathered around a group of musicians playing Vivaldi in a quiet alley off the city's bustling shopping street.
"I've never seen any street musicians in Baghdad," Aya Isham shrugs. She certainly would have an eye for them. After all, she's a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, playing at Bonn's Beethovenfest on October 1.
She and her group are trying to live a normal, modern life in Iraq - despite the ongoing violence, and restrictions placed both on women and musicians. Founded in 2008 by an Iraqi émigré in the UK, the orchestra is made up of 45 young Arab, Kurd, Shiite and Sunni musicians, exemplifying their complex, diverse society. For many, the trip to Germany is their first time away from Iraq.
With that distance, violinist Aya recalls the period of Saddam Hussein's regime. Even then, before the war and the ensuing violence, the bombs and the suicide attacks - when it was still relatively safe to walk down a street in Bagdad -, she says there were no musicians playing outside cafés or shops.
Recording that captivation
She's so enthralled with the street musicians in Cologne, she has to film them using her lime-green, flashy smart phone.
"He's really good," she says, without taking her eyes off the violinist, a tiny figure frantically fiddling away, building up to Vivaldi's crescendo on her phone screen. "I wish I could take him back to Baghdad with me," she muses.
She and her fellow members of the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra are on a grueling schedule during their two-week stay in Germany, rehearsing almost every day until late at night to prepare for their concert. Back in Iraq, rehearsals are normally conducted online, via Facebook and Skype, or recently, in the more secure, semi-autonomous, Kurdish area in the north.
But right now, Aya is enjoying a day off from rehearsals with her friend, Doaa Assawi, an oboist in the orchestra. They're headed to a music shop in Cologne's city center.
Teaching oneself to play in Baghdad's debris
They need to buy a supply of oboe reeds and violin strings. There are no music shops in Baghdad, so the members of the Youth Orchestra have to make do with patched-up, old instruments, handed down by friends or sent by relatives and supporters from abroad.
Douaa says street musicians are non-existent in Baghdad
In the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, Doaa was sent to a different city to stay with her mother's relatives. But when she returned to Baghdad, she discovered that someone had broken into her school and destroyed all the music instruments.
Schools there reopened among the debris and destruction of the war and continuing sectarian violence. Doaa's oboe teacher, like many educated Iraqis, had left the country in the first days of the war. So she, like many members of the Youth Orchestra, had to teach herself how to play her instrument.
Bucking the system
Despite continued violence, other things have changed over the years. Western styles, for instance, have permeated some of Iraqi culture.
Take Aya. Her hair is cropped short and dyed a color verging on orange. She wears a short black skirt and beige leather boots; her Arabic is mixed with American English. "I'm the only woman with short hair in Baghdad," she claims, proudly and defiantly.
She poses for a picture with the violinist street musician. She bought her new boots and skirt in Germany, sneaking out in-between rehearsals.
Aya samples donuts in Cologne
She also admits that she walks around Baghdad in short skirts and boots. Isn't she worried about getting harassed? "Well, there are many, many other problems on the street," she points out. "I don't care. I just want to enjoy my life."
And no, she doesn't hide her short hair and pierced ears, four rings in each ear, under a scarf.
Chaperons and piercings
But even her liberal family, who allows her to travel, play music and mix with men, cannot allow her to walk around Baghdad without a male chaperon. "I can't go out on my own," she explains.
Every time she wants to leave the house, catch a taxi or go shopping, she has to take someone along with her - a male relative, her father or a friend. And, she adds quietly, not every part of Baghdad is safe enough for her to visit.
She gingerly prods her new piercing: a small silver stud, just below her lip. She had it done just a day ago. When she gets back to Iraq, she will have to take it out. She will wear it at home, maybe at a friend's house in the evening, but not out in public. There are still limits as to what is possible in Baghdad.
"I just want to lead a modern life," she comments. She says "modern," but could also mean "normal" - a normal life in which she can stroll down a busy shopping street by herself or with friends, listen to musicians and buy violin strings and music scores.
Zuhal Sultan founded the Youth Orchestra when she was just 17
Life in Baghdad, after all, is still not normal. Aya says things have improved, but there are continued suicide attacks, bombs and insecurity. "But nothing as bad as the worst years," she recalls.
She remembers going to school back in 2006 and 2007, seeing corpses along the road. She used to come home crying, overwhelmed by all the horror. Back then, musicians were afraid to walk around with their black instrument cases, lest they be mistaken for makeshift bombs.
Today, Aya says, the city is slowly being rebuilt.
A real job
Doaa, for her part, is proud that she's making money as a musician. Not many of her friends have salaries in a country where some Iraqis still object to Western music - and female musicians. But, "at our last three concerts in Baghdad, there were so many people there, they couldn't all sit down."
To her, so many people crammed into the concert hall was a sign that Western music, and the musicians playing it, are being more widely accepted. Only one of Doaa's aunts has complained, saying she should find a better-paid job. She grins like any Western musician, laughing off a concerned relative's plea to get a job with a secure income and retirement plan.
Right now, anyway, Doaa has other worries - the music store on a side street in Cologne has closed and moved to another part of town. What other option but for her and Aya to grab some lunch and do more clothes shopping?
Shopping as a lifestyle
"I love shopping," Aya says. Iraqis, she explains, have started buying expensive clothes. Under Saddam Hussein, it was impossible to find expensive labels - Gucci or Louis Vuitton, for example. But nowadays, Aya adds, Iraqis are flaunting expensive clothes and labels, following the latest fashion trends.
National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in Köln
She and Doaa walk into a shop selling fluorescent-colored donuts. There are no donut shops in Baghdad, no McDonald's, no fast-food shops - and no pedestrian districts where young people wander in and out of shops without chaperons or fear of explosions.
A take-away iced coffee in one hand, a half-eaten cinnamon donut in the other, powdered sugar on her tiger print shirt, Aya strolls down Cologne's shopping street, laughing and chatting with the other musicians from the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Four of the Kurdish members are wearing Kurdish national dress: baggy gray or dark blue overalls, broad, colorful, fabric belts, rounded off with turbans or knitted caps - and luminously white gym shoes. Passers-by glance surreptitiously as the mixed Arabic-Kurdish group poses in front of a shop window selling beach accessories and necklaces.
Aya and Doaa, meanwhile, disappear into a store - two young women, shopping, on a bright, sunny morning.
Authors: Naomi Conrad / Rim Najmi
Editor: Louisa Schaefer