ISIS destroyed his instruments – so he made a new one and composed an album: NPR

Ameen Mokdad plays the violin in Mosul, Iraq.

Ameen Mokdad


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Ameen Mokdad

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Ameen Mokdad plays the violin in Mosul, Iraq.

Ameen Mokdad

One day, when Ameen Mokdad was ten years old, he found his father hard at work in their home in Mosul, Iraq.

Mokdad's father was an artist and he became frustrated trying to create a painting of a composer.

“My father wanted to make a painting about the composer who died before finishing his last composition,” Mokdad recalls. 'He wanted to call [it] 'The missing composition.'”

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A photo taken by ten-year-old Ameen Mokdad, which his father wanted to use as a model for the painting 'The Missing Composition'.

Ameen Mokdad


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A photo taken by ten-year-old Ameen Mokdad, which his father wanted to use as a model for the painting 'The Missing Composition'.

Ameen Mokdad

Curious, Mokdad asked his father if this was a true story, to which he replied yes and told him the story of Beethoven, who died before completing his 10th Symphony.

“Okay, when I grow up, I will become a composer and finish his composition,” Mokdad told his father.

“Yes, of course,” his father replied skeptically.

Mokdad's father started and restarted this painting for years, never satisfied with his work. And like the subject of the portrait, he never managed to complete it before he died.

“My instruments are like my babies”

Although Mokdad did not complete Beethoven's 10th Symphony, he did become a composer.

At the age of twenty he first picked up a violin, and over the next five years he taught himself to play it, as well as many other instruments.

By age 25, he had amassed a modest collection of instruments: two violins, a cello, a guitar, and a harp-like instrument called a “zippy zither.” He loved them all dearly.

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Mokdad with “Peter” the cello.

Ameen Mokdad


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Mokdad with “Peter” the cello.

Ameen Mokdad

“Every instrument I had a story with,” Mokdad said. “I was a student and the economic situation [in Iraq was] really bad, and I had to save every cent. It wasn't a pretty instrument, but it's my instrument. Just like my babies.”

And like children, Mokdad gave his instruments names. “Peter” was the name of his cello. His two violins were “Red” and “Parrot.” He called his guitar 'friend'.

Compose in secret

In June 2014, the extremist jihadist group ISIS took over Mosul, and Mokdad suddenly found himself under their occupation.

Most music was banned under their extreme interpretation of Islam, but Mokdad continued to play in secret.

“I was so angry. And I just wanted to protest and say, 'I'm going to keep doing this, I'm not going to stop,'” Mokdad said. “If you sacrifice some of your freedom, you end up losing everything.”

Mokdad secretly began working on a collection of 25 compositions, which would eventually become his album The Curve.

“Yosur” by Ameen Mokdad

YouTube

Despite the risk of prosecution, he recorded his music and uploaded it to the Internet for the world to hear.

One day, ISIS stormed Mokdad's house and found his stash of instruments. They destroyed them all, but agreed to spare his life.

He fell into a deep depression.

“I was so broken,” Mokdad said.

Creating something new

After his house was robbed, Mokdad moved in with his family.

Seeing him in such unrelenting despair, Mokdad's cousin came up with an idea.

“Why don't we make one of the instruments you lost?” Mokdad's cousin asked.

They then planned to build an instrument from scratch, but not to recreate any of the lost instruments. Instead, they invented something completely new.

Using pieces of wood from the market and steel wire traditionally used for soap cutting, the pair completed their new creation in less than a month.

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Two of Mokdad's cousins ​​help him build his new instrument, which he named 'Adad'.

Ameen Mokdad


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Ameen Mokdad

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Two of Mokdad's cousins ​​help him build his new instrument, which he named 'Adad'.

Ameen Mokdad

It is a rectangular instrument with 44 strings and an open front that rests comfortably on Mokdad's lap. He strums it like a harp.

“But once we got the instrument, we thought, 'Oh, this is a big deal.' We literally felt like we had made a mistake,” Mokdad said. “Just like having a baby at the wrong time, during the war.”

He was also afraid of what would happen if his house was robbed again and the new instrument was found, after his life had already been spared once. Still, he decided to keep it.

Music born from destruction

Like his other children, Mokdad had to give this instrument a name.

Mosul is home to the ancient city of Nineveh, famous for its five gates. When ISIS took over the city, they bulldozed those archaeological treasures.

One of those destroyed gates was called 'Adad', named after the ancient Mesopotamian god of thunder.

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Mokdad with the instrument he invented, called 'Adad'.

Ameen Mokdad


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Mokdad with the instrument he invented, called 'Adad'.

Ameen Mokdad

“They wanted to destroy the door, its name and its history,” Mokdad said. “Why don't we just piss them off and call this instrument Adad.”

When ISIS was finally driven out of Mosul in 2017, Mokdad took his instrument to the ruins of his namesake. On top of the rubble of the Adad Gate, he played a song he had composed entitled “Hope in God.”

When he listens back to that recording, Mokdad says he weeps with happiness.

“I know you will feel sad [sometimes]', Mokdad says to himself. “But every time you feel sad, just listen to this recording and remember that you did something good.”

Ameen Mokdad plays “Hope In God” with his instrument Adad.

YouTube

A new life

Once Mosul was liberated from ISIS rule, Mokdad was free to travel the world, and for the past year he has been composing and performing music in the US.

During this time, Mokdad completed a new collection of compositions for a new album called Bike Baghdad.

Last month he received good news. Wesleyan University accepted him with a full scholarship to the music department's master's program. Mokdad said he is most excited to learn from other people who share his passion for music and art.

“Because this is the way I learned music,” he said. “I learned it by humanizing it.”

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