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Iraq’s Suleymania Bustles With Cranes, $15 Million Hall: Travel - Bloomberg

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Iraq’s Suleymania Bustles With Cranes, $15 Million Hall: Travel By Michael Luongo - August 18, 2009 19:00 EDT

National Youth Orchestra

Dust Removal

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Iraq’s Suleymania Bustles With Cranes, $15 Million Hall: Travel - Bloomberg

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Pianist Zuhal Sultan

Bassoonist Murad Safar

Arts Palace

Mosque Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) -- It’s been two years since my last trip to Iraq. I have come to Suleymania, a city near Kurdistan’s border with Iran that has been abuzz since the end of July, when three Americans wandered across the border only to be snatched by Iranian security. Friends worried that I was among them, but I’m not here for mountain hikes. I’m volunteering as the photographer for Musicians for Harmony, a group run by Allegra Klein, a New Yorker working with the British Council to create the first National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. The ensemble was dreamed up in July 2008 by Zuhal Sultan, an 18-year-old pianist with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and the new project’s star.

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Iraq’s Suleymania Bustles With Cranes, $15 Million Hall: Travel - Bloomberg

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Suleymania is changing from the city I saw two years ago. There’s more traffic, more construction. Concrete and steel skeletons rise along Salim Street, the main avenue. Some new buildings are typical of the region -- Arabesque filigree over pointed arches -- underscoring the explosion of new mosques since my last visit to what locals proudly call a secular city. The buildings that catch my eye, however, are slickly appointed with colorful enamel panels, smoked glass and ceramic columns, and whimsical, pointed roofs. While they appear to be empty, new ground keeps breaking. Rising on a hill above the city is a 29-story tower that looks like a mini version of Dubai’s famed sailboat-shaped Burj-Al-Arab hotel. It too will be a five-star hotel, the first in Suleymania. Arts Palace Another building to have risen since my last visit is the Arts Palace, where the concert for the youth orchestra was held on Sunday before an audience of over 900. The orchestra played a mix of European and Middle Eastern music, including Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 and Ali Khassaf’s “Iraqi Melodies for Orchestra,” which was commissioned for the concert. The sprawling, three-auditorium structure opened in June 2008, at a cost of about $15 million, according to Mohammed Qaradaghi, executive assistant for economic development to Barham Salih, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Supreme Economic Committee of the Iraqi Government. The Palace’s double-barrel roofline mimics the surrounding hills. The parking lot is shaded by rolling blue glass screens, like lapping waves. Slippery black granite floors spread through a dimly lit interior, red steel staircases ascending glass-paneled niches, giving a 1980s feel to the space. Desert Dust “A city like Suleymania needs buildings like the Arts Palace for many activities, not just for intellects and arts,” Qaradaghi told me, “but for conventions and public events.” Salih allocated $50,000 to the youth orchestra. In the weeks before the concert, an army of men pitter-pattered across the floors, mops in hand, fighting a losing battle with desert dust. They were accompanied by a cacophony of sounds as instruments were tuned and Arabic, Kurdish and English echoed through the corridors. Three dozen musicians came from Baghdad, Mosul, Erbil, Suleymania and other cities for two weeks of intensive training before the concert. They range in age from 14 to 29; 15 of them are in the National Symphony. High Heels Sultan, whom I first met in 2007 in Erbil, used YouTube and Twitter to audition players and to contact Salih about funding. Once a shy but determined teenage girl, Sultan now balances her work coordinating the orchestra with learning how to walk in high heels, something she avoided until social life began to pick up again in a moderately safer Baghdad. I sat with Klein as the musicians rehearsed under the baton of Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin. Her face reddened and she began crying. “It’s emotional to see it all finally happen,” she said. Angelia Cho, a violinist from New York and a fellow of the Academy, a Carnegie Hall program, is one of seven British and American tutors helping the musicians. “It was Iraq -- how could I say no to that?” she responded when Klein asked her to join the project. “Friends were worried and they started projecting their fear on me,” she added, “but I am very glad I came.”

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Iraq’s Suleymania Bustles With Cranes, $15 Million Hall: Travel - Bloomberg

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The young musicians, particularly those from Baghdad, have known little but war, but it seems far from their minds. Bassoonist Murad Safar, 23 and a member of the National Symphony, is nonchalant about life in the capital. Getting Better “I don’t care about the things from the past few years. I go to my school, I go to my classes, and I don’t think about these things.” Sultan doesn’t dwell on war either. Perhaps there is a lesson from the chaos of the occupation, she explained, saying, “I think sometimes, you have to go through these things. And it will get better, look at Lebanon.” A youngster by the standards of ancient Mesopotamia, Suleymania was founded in 1784 by Prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban, who wanted a city free of tribal and religious restrictions. The central souq or marketplace has several historical buildings from the early days but they can be hard to find. Most are covered in garish signs and wiring, but their distinct brick and wooden patterns hint at the Kurdish love of architectural decoration. The people here tell me that most will be demolished. Air-conditioned malls with plenty of parking are blossoming amidst the warrens of stalls. The city even added oddly incongruous Chinatown-style lighting to the souq, further destroying the Middle Eastern flavor tourists to the region expect. Happy Here Still, the warmth of the local merchants hadn’t changed, and each seemed to go out of his way to greet us. Tourism has also come to the souq, and I noticed a group of fair-haired shoppers, obviously American, a rare sight two years ago. Mark and Kirsten Carter established the Language Institute for Further Education last year in Suleymania, teaching English and hosting American visitors. Kirsten can’t say enough about how much she loves living here. “We love it here,” she says, looking at me intensely. “The Kurdish are wonderful people.” For more information on the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, visit To contact the writer of this column: Michael Luongo at To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at




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bloomberg: Iraq’s suleymania bustles with cranes, $15 million hall