Until we started to teach our children music, some of them never heard a single note before. With time, they discover the healing effects music has on them and others.
I would like to say that my first glimpse of Shariya Camp in all its newness, glistening between the mountains, took my breath away. It did not. We (another story) had driven mostly off road (read in the ditches) determinedly passing the endless oil tankers, non stop for the seven hours from Halabja by the Iranian border. I was about ready to throw up at all our “near misses“ that occurred at the gentle speed of 180kmh on roads designed for 50.
The second time, however, was different, more sedate, more thoughtful. More aware. More tuned in to the surroundings. The camp actually did glisten in the sun, the tents still were a pristine white, only standing for a few months. The camp was home to the sound of silence and the awe of shock.
Incredibly uprooted, displaced kids dressed in little but rags, many barefoot, ran to embrace us, the strangers dressed in The North Face, still shivering in our multi-layers. As they came towards us, I jumped over a stream, slipped in the mud to find that I was standing in urine. I looked down at the already stinking wet soil, then raised my gaze to the mountains...and then I heard it.
Way deeper than the trails of urine could pierce, was a heartbeat, buried like treasure in the darkness. An ancient but yet new song, a familiar but never heard melody was aching to to be heard. It was the combination of the sound of tradition, of the comfort of all that was lost, the sound of Sinjar, combining with the sounds of the sleepy village. It was a cry of persecution, a sharp wailing, with the sounds of a long evening with friends eating a newly slaughtered lamb. It was the melody of joy of rescue, of the lost coming home mingling with the sound of the wind in the eucalyptus trees and the cooking pots being scrubbed in the camp. The silence of terror fighting for its voice with the singing of joyful kids rebuilding their lives.
As I gazed at the mountains, I saw a worried frown cross their ancient brow. “ No Julie Andrew stuff. Don’t tell us that ‘the hills are alive with the sounds of music’. We are guardians of the most ancient of sounds, it is to be found as you connect with the soil and walk the alleyways of the camp“.
A few months later, we amazingly held the deeds to the land that is now The Hope Centre. Dr Saeed and I lived in a place of perpetual incredulity (we still do) and on that day we looked at each other. Words were not needed. It was the look of “so now what?” “We build a school of music, we begin with the music, with the sound that this people carry, and we go on from there “
So that is how our story began. We found the only Yezidi music teacher in the region, freshly graduated from the University of Sulaimani, and here his story begins.
“My name is Natik, I am 31, born and raised in Shariya village. I have always loved music, I think since I was born. Music is a familiar land to me. I remember that from when I was a small child I knew that I would be a musician. I always paid attention to music that I heard, whether Arabic or Kurdish, I would listen to each note, with such great care.
In those days we had neither internet nor cd players, so my world of music was very limited. We owned a piano, no one remembers how it got there as no one knew to play it. I asked my parents to find me a teacher but no one in the village knew how to play. Most did not even know what a piano was. I remember being so sad and praying that somehow I would be able to learn.
One day I saw the film The Godfather on tv. I paid no attention to the storyline, the music overflowed and filled my head and my soul. My brain recorded the music, I went to the untouched piano and began to tap out the keys until I taught myself to play the music I had heard. I was 12 years old.
As I taught myself how to play, I began to comprehend that the black and white keys contained worlds if not the universe itself. Life, hope, comfort, joy, excitement, sorrow, pain, struggles, all were contained in these keys. Music became my friend, my inspiration and my solace. Once I had realised this, I wanted to create a school of music for kids who were growing up without a piano. I had watched the thousands of children displaced from Sinjar pour into the village, and pour into the camp. I wanted to be a part of their life, a part of their healing. To give them a means of expression, an outlet for their feelings which could not be spoken in words.
I knew that creating a school of music with Springs of Hope Foundation would be a challenge. The traditional music of Sinjar is closer to the Arabic sound, whereas the sound of the village is a Kurdish sound, and my training is classical. Miss Lisa spoke to me of the sound that she could hear, of a sound and a rhythm, I too could feel that and am working hard to prepare an atmosphere where this sound can reveal itself.
I have learned that trauma, healing and sound live together. They can not be separated. Music is a reflection of the journey. The sound changes as the journey changes. There is the sound of the survivor and there is the sound of a successful student who is learning well, and is in a psychologically good place. Three years ago, my students were undisciplined, they had no focus. Today they are emotionally and mentally ready to commit to discipline and practice. They are engaging with the instruments.
Going back to the subject of sound. There are two different skill sets, and our challenge is to work with them both. There is the classical sound of the west, and the Sinjari tone of the east. The Sinjari tone is based on quarter tones which do not exist on the piano. The same applies to the styles of music. The rock, jazz, blues, rap etc of western culture do not exist in the Sinjari tradition. When the Sinjari singers and musicians sit on the ground to sing, (yes one song can last eight hours) you will hear several styles “kuchik, diwana, lawk, and hayran“ for example of which the west has no grid of reference.
One of my many challenges as Music Director is to open up the world of sound. To broaden the horizon of my students from Sinjar, to combine, the piano, the guitar, the flute and the violin with the daf, the tambour, the oud and the traditional sounds of their ancient lands.
My first students actually were a bunch of kids who drove us crazy. They would be showered, dressed and ready to go at 7 every morning and would pelt our gates with stones until we finally broke and let them in. They fell in love with the keyboard and guitars. Their life in Sinjar had not given them access to musical instruments, neither had it provided a reason to learn. They would lovingly stroke the guitars and touch the keyboard with a sense of respect. As “ The Mafia“ laid down their stones, and picked up recorders a transformation took place. They became quiet, more relaxed, less tense, they began to smile and laugh. I knew that we had to stick with The Mafia, and others would come. Today I have thirty students and an ever growing waiting list.
As their skills and proficiency began to develop, we took them into the community. For two reasons, we wanted to make a very determined connection between the Sinjari camp kids and those from the village. The Mafia began to hold recitals in the village kindergartens and schools and in health centres. The director of one health centre later told us that his patients visibly relaxed and began to smile, and as the music penetrated the tense atmosphere of the clinics. It is always interesting for me as the Director to take my students out and to see the reaction of those listening to the very different sound which our kids are playing. It is as if the sound reaches out and embraces everyone.
I asked some of my students about their desire to participate in our Music School. I would like to share their thoughts with you. I also wish to thank you for supporting our Music School. I hope that you will remember me as a young child when I was sad that I had no teacher, and now be glad because you are helping to take away the sadness of many of our children living in the camp“.
- Natik Salim, Director of Music
“My name is Raid and I am 17 years old. I live in the camp. My family and I fled for our lives from our village, Ger Zerk in Sinjar. I love learning the guitar. Before I came to The Hope Centre, I had never seen nor heard a guitar. I have discovered that listening to music and playing music calms me and helps me to cope with the stress of tent life within the camp. It is my safe place. Sometimes I am very unhappy at home, so then I come to The Hope Centre. It is such a clean and beautiful place where the sound of music echoes across the campus. I go into the music room, pick up my guitar and find a quiet place, usually outside. Then I am happy and am totally at peace“.
“I am Maram. I am 14 years old. The Hope Centre is my home and the Music Room is the centre of my home. I spend more time in The Hope Centre than I do in my tent home. Music is a new discovery for me. I knew nothing about music, we did not even hear music in my home. This is the most amazing discovery, every instrument is so different, yet every instrument is needed to make the perfect sound. Music has become my life. I want to excel in three things, music, art and English. I will be a professional musician. I want to bring joy and comfort to people. The classical sound is totally new to me, it is a healing sound. It is a sound which embraces you and hugs you safe. I will write music. My music will be both traditional, the sound I know from Sinjar, but it will also be classical, reflecting who I am, reflecting my journey. It will be the sound of my generation living inside the refugee camp, an uprooted generation striving for the future. That will be my sound“.
“Hi there, I am Zaid and since coming to The Hope Centre I have found myself. I am an artist and a musician. Both Miss Lisa and Mr Natik came to have lunch with my parents and persuaded them to allow me to pursue both art and music. When I have school exams they have to be my priority, but they know that my career will be in the field of art and music and they have changed their mind and are happy to support that. When we first came to the camp, they were too busy just trying to survive but now they understand. My Mum often sends cookies to The Hope Centre, both my brother and I are there every day, it is my second home. Listening to music, playing music gives me the ability to separate myself from the pressures of the camp, and to calm my soul. There are so many stresses and problems in the camp, there is no space, no privacy, no quiet, so my happy place, my quiet place is in the guitar, or the recorder, and when I pick up a paint brush. If I am not in the art room, then if you look between the trees and the flowers, there you will find me with my music. My fellow students are all very different, we are learning to respect each other’s sound and to play together. One loves the Sinjari instruments and one loves the violin. We are learning to need each other. Whenever we come together a new sound flows“.
Somehow it seems appropriate to close with the famous words from which I shied away.
“The hills are alive with the sound of music.
With songs they have sung for a thousand years.
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears.
I go to the hills when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I have heard before
My heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And I’ll sing once more".