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Monday, June 01, 2009

NY Times: Minuets, Sonatas and Politics in the West Bank

A French musician, Benjamin Payen, teaches violin in Al Amari, a refugee camp in Ramallah

Ramallah, West Bank: the shy Palestinian teenager raised her flute and dispatched the courtly melodies and cascading runs of an 18th-century concerto with surprising self-assurance.

Over just three years of study the flute had become a near obsession for Dalia Moukarker, 16. She was practicing so hard — sometimes retreating to a bathroom in her crowded apartment, sometimes skipping meals — that her wrist filled with pain, limiting her to two hours a day. But in a classroom here recently, the discomfort was nowhere to be seen. For she had earned an almost surreal reward: a master class with her hero, Emmanuel Pahud, a major international soloist.

Mr. Pahud circled, studying her intently. Then he took her instrument and sent out stunning roulades of notes to demonstrate. Dalia gaped in wonder and gave a soft laugh of amazement. The flute, she said later, takes me to another world that is far away from here, a more beautiful world. Because it is not a beautiful place here. It is an ugly place.

Dalia is one of a new generation of Palestinians who have been swept up in a rising tide of interest in Western classical music in the last several years here in the Palestinian territories, but especially the West Bank. The sounds of trills and arpeggios, Bach minuets and Beethoven sonatas, are rising up amid the economic malaise and restrictions of the Israeli occupation.

But as with many endeavors in this part of the world, the pursuit of classical music is fraught with tensions and obstacles, including a desire not to be seen as working with Israelis.

A small effort to teach violin at a refugee camp in Jenin, north of Ramallah, was banned in March when camp authorities heard that the students had played for Holocaust survivors in Israel, saying the concert served enemy interests. A lack of detailed knowledge about the Holocaust is widespread among Palestinians, who view that chapter of history as a catalyst to the creation of Israel and thus a source of their suffering. But the music teacher, Wafaa Younis, an Israeli Arab, scoffed at the complaint. I don’t think it should be a problem, she said.

In another incident a music school in Jenin was heavily damaged by arson.

Because of financial hardships, most students rely on donated instruments and a rotating cast of European teachers. Since traditional Palestinian culture frowns on the mingling of the sexes, parents are sometimes reluctant to send their children to music schools, administrators say.

And politics are never far away. Some Palestinian teachers couch the instruction in propaganda, calling it a means of resisting the occupation. Across the border in Israel, which has a mother lode of classical music talent, there is little awareness that Palestinians are pursuing the same artistic tradition. That is perhaps no surprise in a conflict where mutual ignorance is prodigious.

We cannot perceive them as people who have their own cultural lives, said Noam Ben-Zeev, a music critic for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz.

Despite the opposition of some, many Palestinians see the study of Western classical music — part of a broader cultural revival in the West Bank — as a source of hope, a way to connect to the outer world from a hemmed-in and controlled existence, particularly at a time when hope for a Palestinian state seems ever more distant.

Deep inside, it’s to demonstrate we are alive, that we deserve to be alive and have our culture, said George Diek, a partly self-taught Palestinian oboe teacher in Bethlehem.

The presence of classical music is still tiny among a West Bank population of 2.5 million. But concerts pop up more and more. A Baroque festival took place across the West Bank in December. A piano competition for Palestinians attracted 50 entrants to East Jerusalem in January.

Sounding Jerusalem
, a chamber music festival, will take place in the area for the fourth year this month. Music schools are booming and sending students off to study in Europe and the United States. An influx of money from foreign governments, local foundations and the Palestinian Authority has fueled the music revival.

Even in Gaza, pummeled by a 22-day war with Israel that ended in January, Palestinian authorities are trying to reopen a small music school that was heavily damaged.

One of the major players in the nurturing of classical music is the Barenboim-Said Foundation, established by Daniel Barenboim, the Argentine-born Israeli conductor and pianist, who is a forceful advocate for Palestinian rights, and Edward W. Said, the Palestinian-American intellectual, who died in 2003. It opened a center in Ramallah in 2006 to provide lessons here and coaching in nearby towns and villages.

Dalia is one of the foundation’s students. She lives in Beit Jala, a village close to Bethlehem, where she shares a room with a sister, Roudy, 11, a budding clarinetist. She is the eldest of five children in a Christian family. Her father, Sulieman, is a security guard at Bethlehem University, and the family survives on money sent by two of her father’s expatiate brothers.

Posters of the French-Swiss Mr. Pahud are taped to Dalia’s bedroom window, which overlooks Bethlehem and a tumble of white houses. She can also see a wall that is part of the lengthy barrier built by Israel in response to attacks. Hundreds of Israelis were killed in suicide bombings emanating from the area. Dalia said that she felt in prison because of travel restrictions. Every time we look at this wall, we feel suffocated, she added.

Friends at first made fun of her flute playing, saying music was not a serious endeavor. Some teachers supported her. But the most important thing was the feeling the music gives me, she said. You feel as if you are flying. She now hopes to gain a foundation scholarship to study in France, she said, and dreams of being a conductor.

At the master class, Mr. Pahud told her to lighten her hold on the flute to release tension. Gentle fingers, small fingers, he said. Later, in an interview, he pronounced her a real talent.

Mr. Pahud, 39, was personally invited here by Mr. Barenboim. In addition to its own activities, the Barenboim-Said Foundation also assists a group called Al Kamandjati (the Violinist), founded in October 2002 by Ramzi Aburedwan, a Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp and studied viola in France. Having started with 90 students, the program now has 400, Mr. Aburedwan said. Among its students is Sondos Samarn, 12. Her teacher, Benjamin Payen, 28, of France, said she was one of the most talented violin students in Ramallah.
Al Kamandjati’s Jenin branch was the school struck by arson. No one claimed responsibility, and suspicion fell on an array of forces: Islamists (although religious authorities are said to have given their blessing to the school), social conservatives, people jealous of the school’s success, collaborators with Israel.

Classes were immediately moved to the garden, and the small stone school reopened within two weeks. On a day in late April children came bearing ouds, flutes and violins. The smell of smoke lingered despite the whitewashed walls. Iyad Staiti, the director, asked visitors to stay inside, to avoid drawing attention from the school’s enemies. Across town Al Kamandjati is renovating a building that will be a much larger home.

Just how complicated things can become is made obvious by the third classical music presence, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. Affiliated with Birzeit University, it began in the mid-1990s and has more than 650 students and a curriculum of theory, ear training, music history and performance, as well as an Arabic music program. It has ambitions to sponsor a Palestine national orchestra. The conservatory is putting up a modern glass-and-concrete building in Bethlehem about twice the size of its quarters there.

Though they share Mr. Said’s name, the conservatory and the Barenboim-Said Foundation no longer work together. A joint youth orchestra fell apart.

Suhail Khoury, the conservatory’s general director, said Barenboim-Said was siphoning off the best musicians for the Arab-Israeli orchestra it sponsors, the West-Eastern Divan. He accused Mr. Barenboim of effectively supporting the Israeli occupation by not using the orchestra to oppose Israeli policies.

The fact on the ground is that Israel occupies Palestine, he said. If one guy’s foot is on the neck of another, you can’t sing together.

Mr. Barenboim said that the orchestra was not a political project and does not endorse the Israeli occupation. Music, Mr. Barenboim said, is the best weapon the Palestinians have against violence and ugliness.

If you go to a violin lesson for an hour, he added, in that hour you are not in contact with violence or with the occupation.

Near Ramallah, hours after teaching Dalia’s master class, Mr. Pahud played a solo concert at a boys’ school. The call to prayer from a nearby mosque mingled with the notes coming from his gleaming golden flute.

Dalia sat in the third row, beside her main teacher, Ilia Karadjov, 40, from Germany. The two bent their heads over the score of each piece. At the end Dalia presented Mr. Pahud with a bouquet.

She said her flute was like a friend she could not live without. But it is borrowed, from an amateur musician in her village. Dalia will give it back when she gets her own and goes off to a university.

This way, she said, I can give an opportunity for someone else.

(Daniel J. Wakin in NY Times)

(Zoon Politikon)


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