Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Shnrwe Music School, Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan
New Breath for a Rich Musical Tradition

Violonist and Musiciens
Concert Evening in Halabja | © Albaqer Jafeer, Goethe-Institut

Kak Azad played in the Baghdad Orchestra in the 1970s. In 2018, he founded the Shnrwe Music School in his hometown of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ever since, he dreamed of organising a concert there. The coronavirus pandemic at first made it look as if his dream would not come true any time soon.

By Schluwa Sama

On the evening of 15 October 2021, the time had come: The stage was set up for a concert in the city park of Halabja. Local families, but also Arabic-speaking young people who’d found a new home here as Iraqi internally displaced persons, arrived in droves. It was the first time in their lives that they’d attended a concert. The students of the Shnrwe Music School were also attending their first concert and their first performance would be a highlight at the end of the programme. They were still practising hard on their instruments right before the concert began.

The coronavirus pandemic posed great difficulties, especially for children and young people in the Kurdistan region of Iraq: Classes were held online for the entire school year. The pupils at the music school – most of them between seven and sixteen years old – couldn’t even practise together. Some of them had only started learning a new instrument a few months earlier. Kak Azad says that he was afraid he would have to close the music school because they wouldn’t be able to pay the rent for much longer.

The city of Halabja not only struggles with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, but as a rural area in Iraq it also has weak structural support. Even today, Halabja is associated with the 1988 poison gas attack ordered by then dictator Saddam Hussein. At a stroke, 5,000 people were killed and many of the injured still suffer from the long-term effects. In the years that followed, the region was severely neglected. Conservative Islamic parties gained influence, with unfavourable effects on the cultural life of the city. It was only with the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 that this development could be stopped.

But this is only one of the stories that the people of Halabja want to tell. It’s important to them to remember other times as well. Especially through the music school and the concert, they hope to tie in with a time “when Halabja had a rich, progressive culture and was considered a cultural centre in Kurdistan,” according to the parents of the music school children. They talk about the women’s rights activist and liberation fighter Hapsa Khan (1892-1953), who founded the first school for girls in Iraq in the 1920s and supported the uprisings against British colonial rule. A statue in the city park of Halabja commemorates her.

Albaqer Jafeer © Goethe-Institut

On the evening of the concert, the orchestra was ready with Kak Azad playing first violin. Singers performed various pieces bearing witness to the rich, diverse musical tradition of Halabja, including a song in the Kurdish Hawrami dialect. It was extraordinary for the people of Halabja to hear their own musical tradition on stage. The village communities that gave rise to this diversity of musical styles no longer exist today, and Kurdish television tends to standardise them. The concert-goers therefore particularly enjoyed not only hearing their music, but also feeling it. In the words of the father of two participating music school students, “Music is medicine for the soul.” The abundant recognition is a great motivation for Kak Azad and the young musicians to continue their work and gradually make Halabja known once again as a city of great musical diversity.

  • Young Boy is Playing the Tambourines © Albaqer Jafeer, Goethe-Institut
    Young Boy is Playing the Tambourines
  • Young Boy in the Circle of Musiciens © Albaqer Jafeer, Goethe-Institut
    Young Boy in the Circle of Musiciens
  • Group of dancing men, back view © Albaqer Jafeer, Goethe-Institut
    Dance of young men at the concert of the Shnrwe Music School
Schluwa Sama wrote her PhD thesis at the University of Exeter on the political economy of Iraq with a focus on the everyday life of Iraqi farmers. She is also an author who writes about life’s realities for people in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdistan region. She is particularly interested in agriculture and rural regions, war, colonial continuities and global capitalism. Since 2021, she has been working as a communications assistant and author at the Goethe-Institut Iraq where she writes about current discourses in the Iraqi cultural scene.