A violinist who defied the Islamic State is now performing his music in Connecticut
Iraqi violinist and composer Ameen Mokdad became known as “the violinist who defied the Islamic State.” He composed music in Mosul, Iraq, when the region was under ISIS control and there was a crackdown on all music and art. Mokdad is now in Connecticut to perform a series of concerts with Cuatro Puntos, a nonprofit that works to uplift underrepresented musical voices. He spoke with Morning Edition’s Lori Mack about what music and freedom mean to him.
Lori Mack: Ameen, you were trapped for nearly two years during the occupation of Mosul, Iraq, by ISIS in 2014. During that time, you survived and resisted by composing music in secret. One composition is called “Fear.” What do you hear when you listen to that piece?
Ameen Mokdad: Well, it feels like yesterday. It’s a very weird feeling. The Iraqi Army just left everything, literally, in the streets: their clothes, their weapons, and surrendered the city to, the rumor said 200, only 200 ISIS members. So, fear was literally everywhere, giving a big city like Mosul to a very unknown destiny. And that unknown destiny stayed for three years. So very, very scary moments.
Mack: You had to play and compose your music in secret because you weren't allowed to publicly or privately play music. ISIS took musicians’ instruments and destroyed them. Why do you think music is perceived as being so dangerous?
Mokdad: It’s because their propaganda is to create people who really hate life, because this is one of their rules. In this case, they could really create a depressed army, and they could control them. If they asked anybody to go on suicide bomb or do any crazy things of theirs, they cannot really convince someone who loves life and connects to life. Music, from my own experience, it's a need, really. Everybody needs music to stay healthy. Like vitamins, you could survive without them, but you will never have a healthy life. So they banned [music]. And they banned all kinds of art because that’s what makes people healthy and love life.
Mack: What was the penalty if you were caught playing or performing music?
Mokdad: Well, there's lots of stories about that. Not only death, it will be a very cruel death. I was so lucky that that didn't happen.
Mack: Knowing the punishment if you were caught, what gave you the courage and strength to do this?
Mokdad: Well, I gained the courage, like I want to save the people by doing music just to prove that there is a civil life. There is art, there's beauty in that city.
Mack: At some point your home was raided and your instruments destroyed. What happened?
Mokdad: After one and a half years of composing and working and filming with a friend I have, they just found out about me. That there's something I'm hiding, then they thought I worked as a spy for the government. And they came literally in July 2016 and they had a big interview with me for three hours. They wanted to kill me right away, but they found out I'm not a spy. I'm a musician. And then after the conversation they found out ‘Oh, you have a curse inside. We cannot deal with you now until we get the devil out.’ So, being accused of being insane or crazy or being cursed by the devil saved me for a while, then I managed to hide for six months.
Mack: And thankfully, you were able to escape. Kevin Bishop, I want to turn to you for a minute. You are with Cuatro Puntos. Talk about how you met Ameen.
Bishop: Well, Ameen and I met in Turkey, when we were pretty much running away with the circus. We were both volunteering at a music school and circus school that had a music component to it in southeastern Turkey. And we ended up roommates. And we didn't sleep for about two weeks, because we spent all night with Ameen telling me these crazy stories, which seemed nearly unimaginable. So from that moment, we knew that we had to work together. And we've worked together for over five years now.
Mack: And you are really responsible for getting Ameen here, after a long process to get visa approval to come here to Connecticut.
Ameen, you’re traveling around the state for concerts, you’re visiting schools, what is your message?
Mokdad: My message, I would say, is that I only want to inspire people because it’s painful to talk about this story. Speaking about the truth, the real story behind all that because lots of people don’t really know what’s really happening and what did happen. So I feel responsible to be a messenger. So, I feel I’m blessed. And also I feel I’m responsible because I have the way to talk through music, through art.
Mack: So, Ameen, I want to ask you, what does freedom mean to you?
Mokdad: It is everything, really. That’s my star, my direction. Music is my freedom.
Mokdad is performing concerts with Cuatro Puntos from May 2 to June 16. He's also working with Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet, a dance company based in Middletown. You can learn more at cuatropuntos.org.
This story has been updated. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.