Orchestrating peace

One evening in the summer of 1993, my husband and I were entering our hotel after having dinner at a friend’s home in Amman. From the dining room came the strains of a Beethoven piano concerto. We peered around the half open door and found Edward Said, dressed in a white suit, sitting at the keyboard, his eyes closed, playing for himself. We had forgotten that Edward, author of ‘Orientalism,’ a first rate scholar and powerful spokesman for the Palestinian people, was also a high accomplished musician.

Like Edward, we were passing through the Jordanian capital on our way home from a conference in Israeli occupied East Jerusalem. A few days earlier at Birzeit University, Palestine’s premier seat of higher learning, Edward had received the first ever Palestinian honourary doctorate.

Edward was also a member of the board of the Palestinian National Conservatory of Music, founded in 1993, and in 1999, with his friend Argentinian-Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim established the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra bringing together musicians from the Arab countries, Iran and Israel with the aim of promoting peace. Following Edward’s death from cancer in 2003, the name of the conservatory, based at Birzeit University, was changed to ‘The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music’ (ESNCM).   
The conservatory was the brain child of five prominent Palestinian music teachers and musicians who met in 1990. A survey on the status of music in Palestine had convinced them that Palestinian children and young people urgently needed a musical dimension to their education.

The ESNCM, which admits students six years old and above, provides an academic programme on preparatory, elementary and intermediate levels, over eight grades. Graduates receive a diploma and qualify for music training at university level. The programme covers Arab and Western instrumental music, theory, history, and harmony. The ESNCM has branched out from Birzeit, a suburb of Ramallah, into East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and has 650 students.

The largest number are at the Birzeit facility, a former university dormitory which was transformed into classrooms. Last year, its dull grey cement exterior was plastered, painted white and, under the direction of the US peace group ‘Break the Silence-Arts’, decorated with a delightful mural showing musicians playing the Palestinian national anthem, ‘Biladi,’ My Country.
In 1998, the Conservatory established its outreach programme to provide musical training to children and youth in other West Bank communities. Taking teachers to the students was necessary because Palestinian children have to contend with nearly 600 Israeli barricades and checkpoints when travelling to school and extracurricular activities. Initial efforts were made in refugee camps and outlying villages. The governor of Jericho, eager to bring music teaching to the town, offered a multipurpose centre for lessons and asked the ESNCM to provide teachers and instruments.This unit has been so successful, said the conservatory’s Lena Saleh, that it will soon become a branch of the ESNCM.
There are other well established outreach efforts in Nablus and villages in the Bethlehem area where students attend classes after school. A new unit is starting up in Tubas. The ESNCM also holds workshops and camps where young musicians can play together in ensembles and orchestras.

Saleh told Sunday Herald that the conservatory hopes to introduce jazz soon. Students got their first taste this summer  thanks to a visiting Swedish professor who plays the saxophone. The highlight of the year is the graduation concert at the modern cultural centre at Ramallah.

This is a fantastic experience for rural parents who have never attended such an event.  “Culture is the new form of resistance,” asserted Saleh. “It helps people survive in a rich and beautiful way and to be proud.” During her first trip out of Palestine on tour, Amal Nazzal, a girl in the choir, said, “We come here to sing our pains, but our joys also.”
In 2004, the ESNCM launched the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO) which brings together 50 musicians from occupied Palestine and the far flung corners of the diaspora. Israel’s occupation makes holding concerts a major challenge. Over the past five years the PYO has performed in Palestine, Jordan, Germany, Syria, Bahrain and, this past summer, at the Beiteddin festival in Lebanon.

To travel there, the young Palestinians, who have unrecognised Palestinian Authority passports and refugee identity documents, had to obtain special visas. This concert was a tribute to the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died in August 2008, and to Jerusalem, the capital of Arab culture for this year.

Another 20 musicians and 40 choiristers from the Arab world joined the PYO, in a performance of a cantata by the Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife based on Darwish’s nationalist poem ‘Ahmad al-Arabi’. The second composition performed was a musical depiction of the trials and tribulations of the Palestinian people seeking self-determination in their homeland.

After Beiteddin, a high-profile festival of music, Saleh asserted, “The sky’s the limit.” The PYO is now planning fresh forays to countries unsullied by occupation.     

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