The night was clear, the air thick with humidity and filled with the sounds of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” It was Oct. 27 in Mosul, Iraq, and a makeshift orchestra was putting on a show — one unlike anything the city had seen for decades, one local journalist said.
The orchestra — a mix of players including a range of Baghdad professionals as well as local amateurs — drew an audience of hundreds to a plot of land where the Islamic State once trained its next generation of soldiers. For spectators and participants, it marked an artistic rebirth in a city still trying to rebuild after the militant group’s harrowing three-year rule.
Mosul, ruled by the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017, was the largest city under the group’s control. Civilians were ruled by a strict religious code that called for harsh punishments; executions of men and women charged with crimes such as spying or adultery were routinely held in public squares. Then much of Mosul was destroyed during the Iraqi government’s eight-month offensive to recapture the city, during which hundreds of thousands of civilians fled and thousands of others were killed.
It has been more than a year after since then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul liberated, but much of the city is still in ruins and struggling to find the funding to pick up the pieces. Organizers of last month’s performance hoped the concert could help residents grapple with the trauma.
“This city deserves culturally to be identified as somewhere where there should be music instead of the sound of bombs,” said the concert’s conductor, Karim Wasfi. Wasfi is the former conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, whose Peace Through Art foundation helped put on the show.
Wasfi is known for bringing music to dark places. He drew international attention in 2015 when he played his cello atop some rubble in Baghdad where a car bomb had exploded the day before. Mourners and passersby sang along as he played Iraq’s national anthem.
That performance came during a bleak time: The Islamic State still held control of major swaths of the country, and hundreds of civilians were killed each month by acts of terrorism and violence. The purpose of playing, Wasfi told The Washington Post at the time, was to reach “out to people exactly where someone had experienced something so grotesque and ugly earlier.”
Wasfi’s organization hoped to do the same in Mosul — and also perhaps draw attention from international donors who could help reconstruction efforts.
“The government is depending on international support to rebuild Mosul,” said Salih Elias, a local journalist who helped organize the show. “A concert like this will send a positive message to the international world.”
Sure enough, the city is drawing more cultural summits in the hopes of revitalization. This weekend, the annual Iraqi song festival took place at the University of Mosul, a choice made by the national government.
“We insisted … to do the festival this year in Mosul to support this city because it’s been through a lot, and to send a message to the whole world that Mosul is alive,” said Asia Kamal, the deputy head of the Iraqi Artists Association, who spearheaded the festival.
Wasfi and his band of musicians will perform in Mosul again Saturday. This time, Elias said, the concert will take place in the more heavily damaged western half of the city, near a tall building where the Islamic State used to execute LGBT people by throwing them from the roof.
“We are fighting their terror with life and music,” he said.