A new student observed diligently and mimicked his every move even as a young female violinist screeched an out of tune Mozart symphony in the background.
The oud tunes are distressingly mellow and very much reflect the mood in Gaza’s run-down music institute. The once bustling music hall is quiet now, with enrolment having dwindled from 40 students to a mere eight.
The students who have elected to remain enrolled are either dedicated music lovers or the children of wealthy or cultured families.
“We barely have a student who stays enrolled on a regular basis anymore,” noted al-Najjar, founder and director of the Gaza Music Institute, which charges 150 NIS ($35) a month for enrolment, or awards need-based as well as talent-based scholarships.
Things were not always so for the Gaza Music Institute. In the heyday of the Palestinian Authority, rich and poor and old and young alike frequented it.
One could see 65-year-old women alongside five-year-old boys training in the weekly music theory class, tapping their fingers and clapping their hands in synchrony to the enthusiastic lead of al-Najjar.
With the onset of the Intifada in September of 2000, all that has changed however.
Some students face pressure to
stop playing due to the Intifada
“Because music is one of those things affected by the political situation, people have stopped coming and the institute is in a very desperate state,” said al-Najjar.
Plans to merge the larger music conservatories of the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem with Gaza’s Music Institute were immediately scratched, and the Institute slowly saw its student population decline.
Al-Najjar says he can barely keep up with the running costs of the Institute, which he has funded personally for the past six years. He has even resorted to selling his only car.
“How much longer can I spend money from my own pocket to keep the Institute alive and running?” asked al-Najjar.
The few remaining students are facing increasing pressure from family and from society to stop attending and playing music. These are desperate times, they argue, and by playing music, the students are making a mockery of the Intifada and all that it stands for.
“I’ve faced many difficulties during the Intifada,” said one student. “I was embarrassed to even walk around with my guitar in public, especially where I live, in the Beach refugee camp.”
Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, al-Najjar remains persistent. “I am insisting on continuing because music is the language of love and peace. That’s what keeps me going, not material goals.”
"I’ve found that music has many lovers in Palestinian society, but unfortunately the search for food has become the priority at this point in time”
Gaza Music Institute,
Once a week, al-Najjar teaches a music theory and literacy class that is open to the public, free of charge. In addition to providing a service to society, al-Najjar says he sees this as a way to find undiscovered talent.
“He can be someone off the street for all I care - anyone is welcome into the institute on this particular day.”
Al-Najjar is something of a superstar to the few remaining students here. They look up to him as an expert in some 12 musical instruments, including the oud, violin, qanun (a stringed musical instrument), piano, and guitar. He is also an individual who will not give up on his dream.
“He’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” said Basma Ghalayini, a guitar student of al-Najjar’s who has been attending the institute since 1998.
“He’s very patient and he’s very dedicated to what he does…and I feel he does not have a material goal in mind to teaching music…he does it because it’s his passion, and he’s absolutely devoted to it.”
Some like 22-year-old Muhammad al-Bardawill are newcomers to the Institute. He has been enrolled for one day now, and has taken up oud and vocalisation. “I registered because I love music, and I want to excel at it,” said al-Bardawill.
Muhannad al-Haddad (L) is a
veteran at the Institute
“I get some criticism from people, who tell me to ‘forget about it’, but I’m insisting on achieving my dream. I’ve always loved singing but because of the situation I haven’t ever thought about seriously pursuing it.”
Others, like 16-year-old Muhannad al-Haddad, are veterans of the Institute. Al-Haddad has been enrolled for six years now, initially having taken up the organ upon the suggestion of his father’s friend. Al-Haddad plays four instruments proficiently-the piano, organ, guitar, and nay, a pipe-like instrument.
“From the day he enrolled I haven’t been able to keep him quiet, he’s really gifted,” said al-Najjar, as he asked al-Haddad to hold off playing a beautiful version of an Andalusian ballad in order to conduct the interview.
Bringing music home
Al-Najjar, who holds a Bachelors degree in Music Science and education, is no stranger to the music industry. He left Gaza in the 1960s to study medicine in Egypt. However, after fainting when he saw his first cadaver, he realised medicine was not for him.
Al-Najjar (L) with student
“My family wanted me to be either an engineer or a medical doctor, but to their shock I switched to music,” said al-Najjar.
The state of Kuwait immediately contracted the brilliant young musician to teach in their schools. And so he did, residing there for some 20 years. The Kuwaiti love affair with talented Palestinians, however, ended abruptly with the onset of the first Gulf War in 1990.
Along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, al-Najjar was kicked out of Kuwait, seeking refuge in Bulgaria instead.
“I was simply unable to adapt, the environment is so different,” said al-Najjar. By that time, the Oslo Accord had brought with it the promise of peace, and so al-Najjar immediately applied for a family re-union permit. By 1997, the permit had been issued, allowing him and his family to finally return home to Gaza after some 30 years of exile.
Immediately upon his return, he helped establish a music programme in the Palestinian Technical College. To his dismay, it was shut down after three years due to a lack of funding and teachers.
Al-Najjar also established the Palestinian Music Institute, and through the Ministry of Education, helped introduce a music curriculum for public schools. The schools now regularly hold competitions and choose gifted students to represent Palestine internationally in music competitions.
According to al-Najjar, people still have had a difficult time comprehending why music is so important, especially given the political and economic situation.
“From my experience, I’ve found that music has many lovers in Palestinian society, but unfortunately the search for food has become the priority at this point in time,” said al-Najjar.
“We hope for music to have a large role in society because it is the language of communication between societies and is the most expressive of all languages. I hope the political situation improves so that one day I can continue to realise my dream.”