The ballad of Rasha and Devorah

One is a blind, mentally disabled piano virtuoso from the West Bank, the other a Jewish settler risking the wrath of Israelis to teach her

Beit Jala, West Bank

Hunched over the piano, Rasha Hamad starts rocking on her chair, her teeth bared in a pained grimace, her eyes squeezed shut. "I want to go the zoo, I want to go to the zoo," she mumbles in English as she launches into a Chopin mazurka.

The music is beautiful, her performance is reminiscent of Geoffrey Rush in the film, Shine. As she moves onto a piece that is unfamiliar, less harmonious, somebody touches her shoulder signalling that she should stop. She runs her fingers fast down the keyboard and lifts them off in a theatrical flourish.

Abruptly she stands up and, briefly disorientated, walks into the wall. She is gently guided back to the door.

Ms Hamad, a 36-year-old Palestinian from the northern West Bank, is blind, mentally disabled and severely autistic. That she is able to play at all is thanks to an unlikely pairing with Devorah Schramm, an Orthodox Jew, which began when Ms Hamad was 11.

Mrs Schramm, who lives in Gilo, a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem, was unfazed by taking on an Arab student, even though some of her regular Jewish students would say, "You're teaching her?" But the American-born teacher, who wears a heavy, brown wig as her religion dictates, describes herself as apolitical, and says that she hates to put people in "boxes".

Yet without a medium such as music to bring them together, examples of such friendships between Arabs and Israelis are still rare. Under her tutelage, Ms Hamad has blossomed from a girl unable to express herself into an accomplished concert pianist. As her musical expression has flourished, so, too, have her verbal skills. She can hold a conversation in Arabic, Dutch or English.

Mrs Schramm had just had her third child when she received the call from the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and Arts asking her if she would take on a blind student. "Of course, they didn't tell me she was in her own world, and that I wouldn't really have a language with her," the piano teacher recalls. "She spoke very little and sometimes she didn't speak at all."

At her first lesson, Ms Hamad sat down and started to play. "I heard something that told me that the music speaks to her at a very deep level. The depth of this makes the musician," she says. "Music to me isn't just correctly moving your fingers, music is something very deep within the human spirit."

Ms Hamad is one of the fortunate ones. At the age of four, she was brought along with her blind, deaf and mute sister to the Vollbehrs, a Dutch missionary couple who would later establish Beit Yemima, a school and orphanage for handicapped children near Bethlehem.

The two girls were badly malnourished, constantly banging their heads and poking their eyes, forcing the missionaries to sew up the ends of their sleeves.

The Vollbehrs first discovered Ms Hamad's musical talent when she started to sing along in harmony to hymns, prompting the couple to buy her an old piano on which the late Helena Vollbehr taught her to play. As she progressed, the Vollbehrs brought her to the Conservatory, where she was paired up with Mrs Schramm.

"Her playing was quite peculiar. She used to bunch her fingers together," the teacher recalls. "I was fascinated that she was using sophisticated harmony. You'd expect somebody mentally disabled to do something quite rudimentary. From the first lesson, I said this is very striking."

Even more striking was Ms Hamad's extraordinary memory, something that has become more apparent as the relationship between the two women developed. "She can hear something on the radio – it could be 20 years ago – and she will start playing it," Mrs Schramm says. "She'll say it was a Chopin concerto, but I know it's not a Chopin concerto, but it sounds like Chopin... I'll spend time in the music library, and then ... [I'll say] 'By George, that's what she played!'"

At other times, she would play her own compositions, which her teacher describes as "the most exciting of all". During springtime Ms Hamad is at her most inspired. "During one lesson, she sat for an hour and started playing something out of her soul. It was unbelievable," says Mrs Schramm, adding that Ms Hamad's music is "very dark".

It is through Mrs Schramm's work with Ms Hamad that the Conservatory started up a programme to teach musical instruments to special needs children, funded by the Jerusalem Foundation, and Ms Hamad's story will be showcased in a short film when the Conservatory's youth orchestra performs in London this week.

Mrs Schramm says that her experience with Ms Hamad has opened doors to other disabled children. "To liberate a soul somewhat confined in such a state such as autism is to free them, like giving them wings to fly," she says.

But freedom is a fragile thing in Israel. During the Second Intifada, Ms Hamad and her teacher found themselves on opposite sides of the firing lines as Palestinian militants in Beit Jala fired on Gilo – Ms Hamad would miss lessons, leaving her highly agitated and distressed.

Now a financial crisis is crippling the Beit Yemima centre and Ms Hamad is a drain on its finances, due to the time and money spent trying to secure her permits to cross into Israel. The centre has contemplated cutting her lessons at the Conservatory. Such a step would, Mrs Schramm says, be disastrous for Ms Hamad's mental state and professional development: "They say savants dry up if they are not stimulated," she says.

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