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Middle East

The Gaza Music School: A composition in defiance and harmony

It was damaged by an Israeli bomb – but the Gaza Music School is quickly becoming a symbol of resilience

It is late afternoon and in a room darkening by the minute because of an all-too-familiar power cut, Shaden Shabwan, just 10 and a study in concentration, plays a Czech folk tune on an upright Yamaha piano as her teacher wills her to avoid mistakes. It is test day for piano students at the Gaza Music School, where Shaden is in her second year. Across the corridor, her classmate Abdel Aziz Sharek, also 10, is just as focused. Accompanied on ouds and tabla, he dexterously picks out a mesmerising classical longa on the qanun, the zither-like instrument that has been central to Arab music for a millennium or more. Abdel Aziz takes his regular studies as seriously as he evidently does the music. "I want to be a doctor," he explains. "But I will keep playing. I will be in a band at the same time."

Back in the piano room, Sara Akel plays two études by the Austrian composer Carl Czerny and a Bach Polonaise, with such confidence that you would never guess, if you shut your eyes, that she was only 12. Sara prefers music to academic subjects at school. "I really love it here," she says. "The teachers are so nice and talented. I'm really looking to be a professional musician." In Gaza? "Why not?"

It's a fair question. This centre of artistic excellence may conflict with Gaza's popular image. But it is already nurturing a young musical generation worthy of its peers elsewhere. Each of the 52 boys and 73 girls come three times a week after school for two sessions of learning an instrument and one for theory. While many have never touched a musical instrument before, they have all passed competitive tests of ear and rhythm to get in.

Among several Gaza prizewinners who performed in the last national Palestinian music competition by video link – because students cannot leave the territory – a seven-year-old qanun player, Mahmoud Khail, came first in his age group. This April the school will become the fifth full branch of the Edward Said National Music Conservatory – the leading Palestinian music institution named after the nationalist writer and music lover who died in 2003.

But the school is also a powerful symbol of Gaza's resilience. It was founded three years ago at Palestinian Red Crescent premises in Gaza City's Tel el Hawa district with finance from the Qattan foundation and the Swedish government. The first crop of students gave their first concert on 23 December, 2008.

Four days later, Israel's military onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza opened with an aerial bombardment which landed a direct hit on the Preventative Security HQ and damaged nearby buildings including the school. Director Ibrahim Najar, a music graduate from Cairo University and a maestro of the qanun, was in the building at the time. He suffered only cuts and bruises and came back two days later to store the instruments in the school's innermost space, the bathroom.

But then on 14 January, Israeli troops entered Tel el Hawa. The PRCS building was hit, and the school and several of its instruments, including the precious piano, were destroyed. Thanks to the US NGO Anera, replacements were brought across the border despite the Israeli-imposed blockade, including two brand new pianos, and the school was up and running in new premises.

That the school offers European as well as Arab classical music is thanks to a group of musically qualified east European women among the sizeable number who married Gazan men travelling to the former Soviet bloc for study. Yelina Lidawi, a North Ossetian, graduated from Rostov Conservatory and taught music in Vladikavkaz before coming to Gaza with her husband in 1999. Yet, having no piano, like her pupils (unlike Abdel Aziz, who has a more transportable qanun) she depends at home on a digital keyboard. In all of Gaza, with its population of 1.5 million, she estimates there are probably only half a dozen pianos. Gracefully acknowledging the talents of her charges, she points out that "we make a very strong selection. Last year we had to choose 40 pupils out of 250 who applied".

Although tuition is at present free, many pupils are middle-class by Gaza standards – often with professional or academic parents. But beside running a scholarship programme in its existing centres to ensure that no talented pupil is excluded by poverty, the Conservatory has a growing outreach to more deprived, or culturally conservative areas.

Suhail Khoury, director of the Edward Said Conservatory, tells of an encounter on a recent trip to Gaza. At a school in Bureij, chosen for one of the network of choirs the conservatory also runs in Palestinian refugee camps across the region, the headmaster told him about two 11-year-old boys whose behaviour and academic achievement was so poor they were on the point of expulsion. "They both happened to have nice voices and joined the choir," Mr Khoury says. "The head said their personalities had changed; they had something to show for themselves. He said: 'I want to thank you for that.' That made my day."

Musically speaking, Edward Said's name is best known for the West-Eastern Divan orchestra he formed with Palestinian and Israeli musicians in 1999 with the conductor Daniel Barenboim. But the conservatory that bears his name doesn't work with the orchestra, believing in a cultural boycott of Israel until the 44-year-old occupation ends. Acknowledging that he differs both from Mr Barenboim and the late Said about this, Mr Khoury asks: "What is this orchestra telling the world – that Palestinian and Israelis can play together? We know that."

The stance did not stop the conservatory-run Palestine National Orchestra playing an inaugural concert in the mixed Israeli city of Haifa last January. The target audience was Israeli Arab but Jews – and Israeli TV – were welcome. Mr Khoury had declared: "Today an orchestra, tomorrow a state." After all, Israel's birth in 1948 came 12 years after the formation of the orchestra which became the Israel Philharmonic.

Back in the Gaza Music School, 20 or so young voices resonate from a lecture room this chilly winter afternoon, softening to near inaudibility before rising to a crescendo as they run through their scales. Ibrahim Najar is at the piano coaxing his solfège class to extend their vocal range. Afterwards the pupils talk music. "I used to like the piano but I preferred the qanun," says Adnan al Ghalban, 11, from the southern city of Khan Yunis. "It talks better than the piano."

Feras Adas, a café owner's son, explains how he first started to play a cousin's guitar. "I learned from him but I made lots of mistakes before. Now I want to be a big musician in guitar." Asked if, with talk of a fresh Israeli invasion, he fears the music school could be bombarded again, he has his own nine-year-old take on the power of music to transcend borders and battle lines. "I think it will not be hit," he says cheerfully. "The Jews like this kind of thing."