'Music is a freedom that breaks every border': Young musicians in Gaza fight the siege to play for peace

With just one grand piano in the whole of Gaza, and a dwindling number of teachers, young Palestinian musicians fight 11-year-long blockade to keep music alive in times of war

Bel Trew
Sunday 09 December 2018 15:47 GMT
Meet the young musicians of Gaza fighting the siege to play

She played the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” on the piano to drown out the deadening crunch of air strikes as they smashed up the neighbourhood around her.

It was November and Gaza, Yara Thabit’s home, was on the perilous brink of another war with Israel. The terrified 18-year-old, who has lived through three wars already, stuttered over the same Tchaikovsky phrase, as if clinging to the crochets could defend her.

The battered upright piano, her pride and joy, had taken years and thousands of dollars to get through the heavily-guarded border with Israel that has imposed an 11-year blockade on the militant-run enclave.

“My biggest fear is that it will be destroyed in an air strike that will kill us. It took three years just to come here because of the borders,” she says, sitting at her piano in Gaza City.

“The sounds make me relaxed, it helps with my fears and daily stresses. So even in the fighting, I play. It is an essential part of my life.”

Getting access to musical instruments is one of the main hurdles that face would-be Palestinian musicians, corralled for a lifetime into a 25-mile long strip.

Before Egypt tightened security along its borders, performers told The Independent they would commission smugglers to bring in ouds and violins into Gaza via secret underground passages to the Sinai.

If I don’t play the piano, who am I? 


Now that nearly all of these tunnels have been destroyed by the Egyptian military, they exclusively come in through the border crossing with Israel. The Israeli army fears many items, no matter how innocent they may seem, could have a dual use or be repurposed by the many militant factions that run the strip.

Pianos, being so bulky, are among the hardest to get in. Gaza, which has a population of 2.2 million people, only has a single concert grand.

And in fact, Yara is one of a select few music students who had the privilege to play the slick black Yamaha in its first international concert since being rehabilitated.

The grand, which was donated to Gaza by the Japanese government 20 years ago, was one of the few objects left intact when a missile blasted through its theatre home in the last war in 2014.

A year later, Brussels-based charity Music Fund twice sent foreign experts to the enclave to work on it. Their mission finished in October, in time for its first international concert.

For Yara, who played alongside Japanese musicians, it was one of the most important moments of her life.

“It was,” she says pausing. “Amazing.”

Yara Thabit one of the young Palestinians who got to play Gaza’s only concert grand

She continues: “There are not many people who play musical instruments here in Gaza, especially as a girl – when I tell people I play, it is considered unnatural.”

“But if I don’t play the piano, who am I?”

There is little respite in Gaza for its embattled civilian population held hostage by the endless cycle of violence and cross-border fire.

Music appears to be increasingly becoming a way for young Gazans to channel stress, despite the societal and physical barriers. According to a Save the Children report this summer, a staggering 95 per cent of children in Gaza display depressive symptoms, including aggression, while nearly two-thirds have trouble sleeping.

Thabit plays the piano during a concert to mark the debut of Gaza’s only grand piano after it was rescued from conflict

This year in particular, as the economic and humanitarian crisis has hit a crescendo, has seen an uptick in suicides. For many interviewed by The Independent, music has become an essential way to combat anxiety and depression.

But even pursuing music is near impossible.

Right now, Yara has no piano teacher as the last professional instructor, a foreigner, left Gaza a few weeks ago.

Yara plays her piano which took three years to get into Gaza and cost thousands of dollars

There are also no cello or trumpet teachers, adds Khamis Abushaban, of the Edward Said Conservatory of Music in Gaza, which organised the piano concert, and has branches across the Palestinian territories.

“We had a cello teacher who was living here since 1997 but this year she had to go back to Romania for personal reasons. So, we had to find solutions,” he tells The Independent, as a drum circle sounds in the background.

“We had a Russian colleague who taught guitar and trumpet, unfortunately, she left in October too.

“Of course, here we have no replacement. So those lessons are gone as well.”

A Palestinian musical student takes lessons on Skype in Gaza

Housed in a Red Crescent building and flanked by waiting ambulances, the Edward Said Conservatory is one of the only places that offers music lessons in Gaza. They also have scholarships and funding programmes for the poor.

In the room where Gaza’s sole grand piano was being temporarily housed, we walk in on a young student in the middle of a cello lesson on Skype.

With her headphones in, it is strangely disorientating to hear her sporadically play notes, while talking to her teacher on the cracked screen.

“We connect the students with teachers in our other centres outside of Gaza. It’s the best we can do in here, where you can’t have everything you want,” Abushaban explains.

The musical institution is no stranger to adversity, he continues. They nearly lost all their instruments shortly after they first began, as the 2008 Gaza war with Israel erupted just two months after they first opened their doors.

“The building was completely destroyed, we lost pianos, ouds, guitars,” he continues.

“We have a chassis of a piano that was lost in the first war [in 2008] – the only thing left of it is the metal frame,” he adds.

A military escalation is something we worry about, it takes just a small rock to destroy a violin

Khamis Abushaban, Edward Said Conservatory for Music, Gaza

Across town, another Gaza resident agrees that music is slowly gaining popularity in the enclave.

Raji Jaru, just 21, has with his father just opened Gaza’s first proper musical instrument shop.

Raji Jaru, the owner of Gaza’s first music shop, plays the guitar

“Jaru,” which first started as a shop selling sound systems, now has a second floor whose plywood walls are decorated with everything from tubas to Arabic zithers.

The young proprietor taught himself to play the guitar by watching YouTube videos and became increasingly frustrated there were no shops selling both Arabic and western instruments. So, he built one.

It is a major headache. He has spent 11 months waiting for approval on five different documents to import a semi-acoustic guitar that is still languishing at the border. But he hopes by giving Gaza access to other instruments, he will help change opinion.

Many of the instruments are unaffordable for much of Gaza’s population, over half of which live under the poverty line. He hopes, however, to hold musical evenings and seminars open to all, so they can try the instruments, the likes of which they might never have seen otherwise.

Music is the only thing to build up something for the youth, they can communicate 

Rami Jaru, owner of Gaza’s first comprehensive music store

“Most of the activities people can do in Gaza involve going to the beach as there is nothing to do, nowhere to go. But that doesn’t build anything,” he says.

“Music is the only thing to build up something for the youth, they can communicate – they can illustrate a bigger message.

“Here you can channel your energy into your instrument and tell your story, make the instrument your international tongue.”

Young Palestinians play instruments in Gaza’s first music shop

Akram Hasan, who sells Arabic instruments, expresses similar sentiments.

He plays a hauntingly beautiful song on his violin that came to Gaza years ago through a tunnel to Egypt.

That is no longer possible and so he often relies on good luck to secure new wares.

A clutch of violas that crouch in the corner were brought into Gaza by accident.

“They ended up in the wrong container as they were originally bound for the West Bank. So I paid the man and brought the instruments here,” he explains.

“Music in Gaza is a difficult idea because of the conservative society, but it’s opening up.”

Mohamed plays a Tabla in Gaza’s first music shop

Back in Jaru, a few young men browsing the shop demonstrate that shift. They say they are seeing some of the instruments for the first time. Until then, they had only existed in online videos.

“This place has broken the siege. We are finally able to get the instruments we want,” says Ahmed, a 21-year-old poet holding a beautifully carved Syrian oud.

Mohamed, 22, his friend who holds a drum, agrees.

“Music gives us a voice that is translated abroad. Music is a freedom that breaks every border.”

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