Gaza City – From the outside, Gaza’s only music school does not look like one.
A grey-and-white cement building, it could easily pass for an office or apartment complex. But for the approximately 200 children who attend, it is not about appearance; it is about sound.
In the hallway of the Gaza Music School, classical music mixes with Eastern tones. In one room, a nine-year-old girl has one of her first piano lessons, singing with her teacher as she carefully tests the keys. In another room, two teenage girls play the violin – but they rush to close the door, giggling, when they notice someone is listening.
Meanwhile, 11-year-old Alaa Abdulhadi lightly pulls the strings of a qanoun – an oriental instrument resembling a harp in shape and sound.
“I feel happy when I play, and proud because none of my friends can play music,” Abdulhadi says shyly. “When I play, it makes me feel that Palestinian children are able to play music just like children in any other place in the world. We have talent too.”
Ibrahim Najjar, director of the music institute, speaks proudly about his students. In his office, surrounded by piles of music sheets, he explains that his pupils were among the prizewinners of last year’s Palestinian National Music Competition. They participated via video link, since no one was allowed to leave Gaza.
|A Palestinian music student practices in Gaza City [Lena Odgaard/Al Jazeera]|
“The children feel closely connected to their instruments,” Najjar says. “Music is very important. It has a good effect on the children in Gaza as it releases some of the daily pressures in their lives.”
Inside the institute, the children cannot hear the sounds of the Israeli drones buzzing overhead or the constant noise of generators, which keep Gaza going during the frequent electricity cuts. But when the violence intensifies, the children must stay at home and are unable to play.
The music school had just opened when the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008 – dubbed Operation Cast Lead – left the building and many instruments severely damaged.
“The children were devastated,” Najjar says.
But with help from the conservatory’s founding organisation, the Qattan Foundation, and help from American and French organisations, the music institute was reopened in a new facility with new instruments.
In 2012, the school joined the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, a Palestinian institution that has branches throughout the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Still, having access to instruments in the Gaza Strip remains difficult. Instruments are prohibited from entering the besieged territory through Israeli checkpoints, Najjar explains. Most have therefore been smuggled in through underground tunnels from Egypt.
With limited resources, only a select few can be admitted to the school. Children between the ages of six and 12 can apply and once admitted, they receive eight years of training in classical and Eastern instruments and in reading music. The students do not pay any fees to attend, but Najjar is aware that for some, the financial burden of bringing their children to the school is heavy.
“Most of the parents who bring their children here are educated. It’s a specific type of [person] – the ones who can afford the price of transportation, for example,” Najjar says.
But while not all children are able to get music lessons, it does not always stop them from pursuing it.
hope that singing can lift the siege from Gaza.”]
In her living room in the Gaza City neighbourhood of Jala, 16-year-old Abeer Mohammed sings along to the tunes of iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz. The room is semi-dark due to Gaza’s continuing electricity cuts, with the music coming from her mobile.
Mohammed’s voice is her only instrument, but she explains that when she was younger, she taught herself to play music on a small piano her father had brought home with him from Israel, where he used to work before the wall was erected.
“I watched people play on TV and tried to do the same. I also had friends who would teach me and when we finally got Internet, I would look at YouTube videos,” she says enthusiastically.
Five years ago, her father sold the piano because her family needed the money. She says she dreams of playing the piano again, but in the meantime, she sings.
“Music is life. Music is revolution,” she says. “[I] hope that singing can lift the siege from Gaza.”
About six months ago, one Palestinian’s voice succeeded in sending a message around the world when then 23-year-old Mohammed Assaf won the second season of the singing competition Arab Idol. Assaf became a symbol of a different kind of resistance, says rapper Ayman Mghames, who is also from Gaza.
“Music can change people’s hearts and minds. We will not liberate Palestine but at least we can reach people outside and tell [them] about Palestine,” Mghames says.
But while Mghames has toured Europe, performing at concerts with other rappers, it is close to impossible for him to perform in public on his home turf. He recently finished a four-month workshop where he taught the art of rap to a group of young aspiring rappers. He wanted to end the workshop with a concert, but was not able to get permission from Hamas authorities who govern the Gaza Strip, to rent any public space.
|Palestinian rapper Ayman Mghames hopes his music will help address social issues in Gaza [Lena Odgaard/Al Jazeera]|
“In Gaza it’s difficult to perform hip hop because for the government it’s [considered] illegal. They say it doesn’t represent Palestinian tradition, and that it’s Western culture. They are afraid we will affect the mentality of the people,” says the 29-year-old rapper.
He believes it’s not their music, but its message, that is the problem.
“We are rappers. We criticise the governments’ actions – whether [Hamas] here or [the Palestinian Authority] in the West Bank. We disagree with most of their actions – not to forget those of the [Israeli] occupation. All the political issues are part of our music,” says Mghames.
Still, he says there is little understanding of the necessity of rap, or music in general, among most people in Gaza.
“The current situation of high unemployment, siege, bombings, limited salaries and a very restricted life means that when we talk about music, it comes at the end of the list,” Mghames adds.
“When the basic needs of life [are] missing, then how are people going to go listen to music?”