Orchestrating Independence

The Broader Picture
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The Independent Culture
The Al-Nour Wal Amal Association, a women's centre in Cairo, boasts an orchestra sufficiently accomplished to tour internationally. In the last decade, the Al-Nour wal Amal musicians have visited Austria, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Morocco, Jordan, Thailand, the Arabian Gulf States and Japan. This in itself is something to be proud of; but what makes it even more of an achievement is that the Al-Nour wal Amal centre, which translates as "Light and Hope", is exclusively for blind girls and women.

The orchestra is led by a sighted conductor in his sixties, Ahmed Abu el-Aid, known as the Master; he has worked with the group for nearly 15 years, and is responsible for the high standards which led to its first tour, in 1988. He conducts by slapping his lectern with a flyswatter - a cue that can be heard rather than seen. Western European art has long been a part of the cultural scene in Cairo, and the women at Al-Nour wal Amal play Western music: Dvorak, Verdi, Brahms and Chopin. Most of them are Muslims; as conservative Muslims can maintain that music encourages licentious behaviour, some were concerned enough to seek religious advice about joining the orchestra. Luckily, the judgement was that as long as their music did not make anyone dance or behave immodestly, the women could be permitted to play.

When the orchestra is ready to prepare a new piece, each musician learns her part separately by studying it in Braille. Louis Braille was a musician himself, and Braille notation can represent all the elements of a musical score. Once all the players have learned their parts, Abu el-Aid takes each section of the orchestra and helps them fit the parts together. Then the sections are gradually added to each other, until the orchestra is playing as a whole.

The orchestra is the most conspicious project of the Al-Nour wal Amal Association, which houses 80 blind girls and women in its dormitories, and provides help for dozens of others who commute in to study and work. As well as primary and secondary education, it offers rehabilitation projects and the chance of paid work to blind women, who still have a marginal place in Egyptian society. "When we play," commented one woman, a bassist in the orchestra, "we prove ourselves as Egyptians, as blind people, and as women. We show the world what we can do." !