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ISIS destroyed his instruments. He made a new one from scraps and composed an album

Mokdad with the instrument he invented, named "Adad."
Ameen Mokdad
Mokdad with the instrument he invented, named "Adad."

Ameen Mokdad playing violin in Mosul, Iraq.
/ Ameen Mokdad
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Ameen Mokdad
Ameen Mokdad playing violin in Mosul, Iraq.

One day, when Ameen Mokdad was 10 years old, he found his father hard at work in their home in Mosul, Iraq.

Mokdad's father was an artist, and he was frustrated while trying to begin a painting of a composer.

"My dad wanted to create a painting about the composer who died before he finished his last composition," Mokdad recalled. "He wanted to call [it] 'The Missing Composition.'"

A photo of 10-year-old Ameen Mokdad's hand, which his father asked to use as a model for painting "The Missing Composition."
/ Ameen Mokdad
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Ameen Mokdad
A photo of 10-year-old Ameen Mokdad's hand, which his father asked to use as a model for painting "The Missing Composition."

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

"OK, when I grow up I will become a composer and finish his composition," Mokdad told his father.

"Yeah, of course," his father replied skeptically.

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

"My instruments are like my babies"

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

At the age of 20, he picked up a violin for the first time, and then spent the next five years teaching himself to play it, as well as many other instruments.

By age 25, he had accumulated 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.

Mokdad with "Peter" the cello.
/ Ameen Mokdad
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Ameen Mokdad
Mokdad with "Peter" the cello.

"Every single 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 single penny. It wasn't a fancy instrument, but it's my instrument. 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."

Composing in secret

In June 2014, the extremist jihadi group ISIS took over Mosul, and Mokdad suddenly found himself living 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. "When you sacrifice part of your freedom, you end up losing it all."

Mokdad surreptitiously began work on a collection of 25 compositions, what would eventually become his album The Curve.

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

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

He slipped into a deep depression.

"I was so broken," Mokdad said.

Creating something new

After his house was raided, Mokdad moved in with his relatives.

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

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

They then planned to build an instrument from scratch, though not recreating one of those lost. Instead, they invented something entirely new.

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

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


It's a 44-string, open-faced rectangular instrument and it rests comfortably on Mokdad's lap. He plucks it like a harp.

"But when we had the instrument, we were like, 'Oh, this is a big problem.' We literally felt we made a mistake," Mokdad said. "Just like having a baby in the wrong time, in the war."

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

Music born from ruin

Like his other children, Mokdad needed 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.

"They wanted to destroy the door and the name and the history of it," 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 its namesake. Atop the rubble of the Adad gate, he played a song that he composed titled "Hope in God."

When he listens back to that recording, Mokdad says he cries of happiness.

"I know you will feel sad [sometimes]," Mokdad tells himself. "But every time you feel sad, just listen to this recording and remember you did something good."

A new life

Once Mosul was liberated from ISIS rule, Mokdad was free to travel the world, and he's spent the last year composing and performing music around the U.S.

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

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

"Because this is the way that I learned music," he said. "I learned it from humanizing it."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a production assistant for All Things Considered. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's flagship afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. He has been a question on Jeopardy and an answer in the New York Times crossword puzzle. He has filed stories from above the Arctic Circle and aboard Air Force One, and he has covered wars in Iraq, Ukraine and Israel. His debut memoir, The Best Strangers In the World, was an instant New York Times bestseller. He has also performed as a singer in some of the world's most storied venues, from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl.