By the time the Islamic State forces were driven out of Mosul in July of 2017, most of the city had been laid to waste. ISIS retreated leaving not only scars but a pervasive and frightening threat. Thousands of bombs had been left hidden in houses and under the ground, in cars and cellars, ready to be activated by the slightest of movements: the opening of a door, the creaking of staircase, or even by the ring of a cellphone call. Mosul lies in northern Iraq, about 400 km north of Baghdad, and is one of the main cities in the region, just a few kilometers away from the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Belgium a sequence of images tore people’s hearts in minutes: two musicians unearthing two guitars amid the debris left by the ravages of war. The guitars had been hidden. All other instruments were destroyed by the Islamic State. With their hands, the two musicians dusted off their instruments, tuned the strings, and began to sing John Lennon’s Imagine. For more than two years the city had been occupied by the Islamic State. The images were from a music school and now, the two men wanted to start teaching music again.
– The video was aired in 2017 by journalist Rudi Vranckx on Canvas, a TV channel from the Flemish public broadcaster VRT, and within hours, the editorial board was flooded with offers from people wanting to donate their musical instruments. “We received over 100 instruments,” said Vincent Merckx, project team leader for the VRT news desk. “Flutes, guitars, a cello, even a full set of drums. All of a sudden we were faced with a difficult challenge: How do we ship all these instruments?”
It was a time of war, and it became difficult to have the instruments transported to Iraq. But the team persevered and in the end it was the Belgian military who offered its assistance to bring the instruments by plane to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “We were able to borrow two vans from Oxfam to drive the instruments from Erbil to Mosul,” said Merckx. “But it was a very tight schedule because we only had four days.” Along with Rudi and Vincent came Brahim Attaeb, a well known Belgian R&B singer who believed in this project. But none of them could imagine what challenges lay ahead.
“On our first attempt, we were refused entry at the Kurdish militia checkpoint. We had to drive back to Erbil,” said Merckx. “The following day, we drove past it but at the Shiite militia checkpoint we were sent back again because it was a religious holiday. It was only on the third day, on October 1st, 2017, that we could make it to Mosul.” The team spent two hours at the music school, enough to deliver the instruments and see the joy on people’s faces, to hear them sing Lennon’s Imagine, and head back. They were to fly to Belgium the following day.
On Wednesday May 9th, 2018, a group of musicians from Mosul will perform in Flagey’s Studio 4. They will play pieces ranging from instrumental music inspired by Arab culture, to Western music from the 1980s. They are part of a delegation of Iraqi musicians who will be in Belgium from the 1st until the 14th of May, touring different locations in Flanders. There are the concerts in Brussels: Flagey, Difference Day (organized by the VUB); in Lier (LIERische Kunstenfestival), as well as many others. And this trip will also give them the opportunity to meet the generous people, mostly from Flanders, who gave away their musical instruments.