Lebanon’s Beiteddine International Arts Festival held in the Chouf mountains may be a few hundred kilometres distance from the Palestinian city of Ramallah, but getting there has been a lifelong dream for Amal Nazzal.
Nazzal, a 21-year-old Palestinian singer, had never left the Occupied West Bank before and had only known of Lebanon from films and news coverage.
But on Wednesday night she joined the Palestinian Youth Orchestra (PYO) in a performance before a packed audience at the festival, 45km south-east of Beirut.
The 70-person East Jerusalem-based PYO is an international group of professional Palestinian musicians currently living in Palestine, Israel and various countries in the Diaspora.
Formed in 2004, the PYO has been financed by Palestinian private donors and arts foundations.
It was the biggest orchestra Nazzal has ever performed with and a far cry from singing with her choir at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, where she is currently studying international business.
“When I was in Palestine it was a dream to come to Lebanon, an impossible dream. Music for me – particularly since I sing – is one of the greatest channels to send your message out, specifically the pain,” Nazzal says.
“Unfortunately, as Palestinians our nation has been through much and to sing, to perform, we can release all this pain and joy through music.”
It took Nazzal and other members from the West Bank some 25 hours to travel to Lebanon, criss-crossing through Jordan, then Syria and finally arriving in Beirut.
“It was very tiring because we did it by land. I wish things were easier than this because we are travelling through Arab countries so why all these complications?”
PYO musicians carrying Israeli passports were barred from entering Lebanon, and those from Gaza were prevented from leaving the Gaza Strip due to Israeli military restrictions.
Heather Bursheh, the PYO’s musical director says it took three months just to sort through the paper work and authorisations to get the Palestinians to perform as an ensemble at Beiteddine.
Pool of talent
The orchestra managed to draw talented Palestinian musicians from as far way as Honduras. For 10 days, they lived together and practised in a remote Lebanese village.
“Music is very central to the lives of most of these musicians. Many are already studying to be professional musicians or plan to study to be professional musicians,” says Bursheh, a Scottish musician who moved to Palestine to teach flute but got married to a Palestinian man and ended up staying.
Even for musicians like 19-year-old Faiq Mari, who has already played in some Arab countries, performing at one of the Middle East’s most prestigious festivals alongside Marcel Khalife, a legend in the world of Arab music, is an achievement he does not take lightly.
“This performance is unique because we played in Lebanon for a seasoned and educated audience that understands music. We hope we will be able to perform well and live up to our audience’s expectations,” Mari said.
The PYO’s next stop is Jordan where they will perform two shows.