Friday, March 31, 2017

The Story of the Secret Violinist of Mosul

by Nomad

In the song, "American Pie" we hear the phrase "the day the music died" but few could ever imagine a time or place when making music would become a capital crime.
Journalist Josie Ensor, writing for The Telegraph, recently introduced us to a young man named Ameen, the secret violinist of Mosul.

A Reign of Terror

On 10 June 2014,  jihadists of ISIS marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. For this fighters, the city was conquered lands and its inhabitants were a subjugated population. And as crusaders of their strict interpretation of Islam, one of their first tasks was to implement Sharia law upon the residents of the city. Among many other prohibitions, there were bans on all things Western. This included a ban on Western sins like cigarettes and alcohol. There were also strict rules on dancing and music.
The punishment for violators? Death.

For 26-year-old Ameen Mokdad, it really was "the day the music died." Music was more than a pastime for Mokdad. Since childhood, it had always been a means of self-expression.
Now all that had changed.

Fearing the wrath of the militia, the plan was to pack up all his instruments: violins, guitars, and cello into bags, stow them away and flee the city with his family. The idea was to wait in Baghdad for the fall of ISIS. How long could this reign of terror last? Weeks? Months?

By the beginning of 2015, Mokdad chose to risk going back to Mosul for the sake of reclaiming his violins.
“I thought I could just grab the things and leave. That seems crazy now.”
It was to be a deadly miscalculation. The corridors in and out of Mosul closed like a steel trap.
There was now no escape.
With no other place to go, Mokdad returned to his abandoned family how in al-Salam neighborhood in the eastern part of town. He was now alone; his friends and neighbors had, like his own family, left the city. It was a lonely and perilous place to be.

Freedom, Crazy Risk, and Hope 

Despite the fact that he believed he was being watched and that his arrest could come at any time, Mokdad took crazy risks. One of those risks was to play music.
According to the Telegraph article:
He found escape by playing his violin in the innermost room of the house, putting blankets over the windows to muffle the sound.
It was not only an act of defiance but a way of maintaining hope.  
“I felt by doing this I was, in my own way, fighting Daesh’s ideology. They could take away my freedom but not my self-expression.”

Life under ISIS was a catalog of horrors with atrocities a routine part of existence. Mokdad tried to be as invisible as possible, leaving his home only to buy necessities from the fruit and vegetable markets. Even then, he witnessed things outsiders would not comprehend.
For example, one day, the jihadists took over the marketplace and transformed them into an open-air cinema in order to give a kind of lesson. 
“They played films of their executions and torture and made young children watch.”
On the days when these reality horror films were not shown, the jihadists used the area as a public square to punish infidels or rule-breakers.
In February of that year, Mokdad recalls, a 15-year-old boy was arrested simply for listening to Western music at his father's market stall.
The boy was later beheaded.
It was a clear message to the population. Disobedience, even the most harmless kind, could and would get you killed.

Survival and Defiance

Yet, surprisingly, none of this deterred Mokdad. Somewhere along the line, he had decided that the comfort of music was, for him, worth the risk. 

In fact, his opposition became bolder. He began uploading videos of himself, performing his own compositions on his Facebook page. (Many of the videos were back-dated to the time before the ISIS-occupation.)

Only his friends who lived outside of the ISIS-held areas felt safe enough to post messages of support. Inside the zone, fear was the great silencer.

Since life under occupation is a continual risk, maintaining a routine involves a great deal of magical thinking.
This was true in Mokdad's case. He had come to believe that he would be fine, he would survive without getting caught, that he would escape the fate that had befallen others who dared to defy ISIS.
Like playing his music, this denial of the reality of his situation became a means of survival. 

Silent Fugitive 

It was, however, a self-deception that would soon come to an abrupt end. Soon, in July 2016, there was a dreaded visit by the ISIS morality police, the Hisbah. Mokdad recalls:
“They questioned me for three hours the afternoon of July 16, 2016. They took all my instruments - three violins, two guitars and a cello, and all of my CDs, and told me that they would return to my home the next day to teach me about the evils of music.”
This was all the opportunity he needed. That night, he became a fugitive, deserting his home and escaping to a new safe house in another part of town. ISIS fighters and their families were everywhere and Mokdad was trapped. He would remain trapped without his music, without contact with the outside world for the next six months. 
It was only then in mid-January of this that Iraqi troops arrived in his neighborhood. 

Today many parts of Mosul are still under occupation by ISIS. The end is, however, near for the terrorist army. Nonetheless, the tactics they are using to hold onto to the city have become more and more bloodthirsty and more harrowing for the people who have survived this long.
According to a New York Times article, the jihadists groups latest tactic is to round up local residents to Iraqi target zones with the hope that civilian casualties will discourage attacks from the air.  
The last weeks of this regime are likely to be worst than anything that has come before now.

For Mokdad, the ordeal has ended but the memories and the lessons linger. He has been reunited with his family in Baghdad and he is saving money to buy a new violin.

I will close with this piece composed and performed by Ameen Mokdad. It is called "Comfort."