Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Palestinian women find new freedoms with art (The Melia Art Center)


Palestinian embroidery has been an artform practiced by women in the area for hundreds of years. But recently it has taken on new importance for women in villages in the West Bank- it has become the primary form of economic support for their families and has given these women new liberties that were inconceivable only a few decades ago, while supporting an isolated artform that was on the verge of dying out.

The Arab Orthodox Society is one of the oldest women's organizations in Jerusalem, and has been responsible for many services for people here, including free health care. "About twenty years ago we really began to take notice of the elaborate embroidery of the women from villages that came to the clinic," said Malo Zakarian. "We began to think that maybe we could use this to generate income for the women."

The Melia Art and Training center was established to train women in the art of native embroidery and to sell the work of these women in Jerusalem. They now have 550 women working from home with the Society from villages around the West Bank like Deir as-Sudan and cities like Hebron.

Setting up the organization had some difficulties, not least of which was the conservative Muslim culture of many of the women. In these villages it was inconceivable that women would serve as breadwinners, which was primarily a male role. "The husbands would restrict their wives. They would say that the women couldn't go out of the house, that they would take the embroidery to Jerusalem, things like that."

But Zakarian notes the changes that have occurred since the center was established. In the last few years, unemployment has skyrocketed in the West Bank as former job opportunities in Israel were closed off due to new restrictions on travel. As a result, women in villages now have the new role of being primary income earners for their families, which has come with new social liberties. "The women have gone so far forward you wouldn't believe it. Their dress, their confidence, their attitude, it's progressed so much."

But also importantly the Union has become a place where women, across economic and religious lines, can gather and talk freely about issues in their lives. "They are all very comfortable here talking with other women. There is no division between Muslim and Christian between us."

note- While this is not directly about classical music, it is about cultural development. And I couldn't pass a story like this.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Parade through Downtown Ramallah

Al-Kamandjati recently put on a parade through downtown Ramallah to garner publicity for its upcoming concerts that it is doing with collaboration with an Italian music association. The idea of the parade was interesting to me because the dynamics are much different from a concert; a parade stops traffic, interrupts work, and basically throws music into the community's face. I was kind of interested to see the reaction.

Unsurprisingly to me at this point, the Ramallah community really seemed to enjoy the interruption. People stepped out of work to see the parade, fathers lifted their children onto their shoulders so they could get a better look, people were even dancing to the music. Here are a few pictures.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Birth of a Palestinian Violin

Shehade Shalade's road to becoming the first Palestinian violinmaker is maybe an unlikely one. Living in a region where classical music is small but rapidly growing, Shehade, 18, was fortunate to have the al-Kamandjati music school established next door to his house in Ramallah in the West Bank. "I had always been interested in fixing things, like doors, windows and chairs," he says. Ramzi Aburedwan, the founder of al-Kamandjati, saw Shehade's potential and asked him if he would like to work with musical instruments.

Shehade was at first interested in the oud, a Arabic plucked instrument similar to the guitar, and later moved to violin. He concurrently started working in the workshop that al-Kamandjati set up for instrument repair a few meters away from the school. Al-Kamandjati is fortunate to have a large amount of foreign expertise coming to assist the school, and Shehade was able to study with technicians who taught him how to repair string instruments and bows.

In 2008 his teacher, Gianlucco Negroponte, advised him to study in Italy in order to learn the art of violinmaking. Shehade began studying in Italy in July and by September had finished his first violin, which he uses himself. "It was difficult but I was so happy when I finished. Palestine has never had a violin-maker before."

Shehade has recently been working on a second violin, which he will give to Ramzi to showcase around Europe. He has been working on this model for a month, and will need about two more weeks before it is completed.

In September Shehade will be going to London to study instrument making for three years. Afterward he plans to come back to Palestine and teach children here violinmaking and instrument repair.

I asked him what the community around him thinks of his work. "At first they were hesitant. Nobody does something like this here, doing this type of job. I told them that I want to try, because it is something I love."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"We have a deep role in the evolution of the community and its coherence"- Palestinian Ministry of Culture


I was able to go to the Ministry of Culture of the Palestinian Authority and speak with Muawia Tahboub, spokesman for the ministry.

What is the cultural infrastructure for Palestinians currently like?

MoC: Palestine is an emerging state. The Palestinian community lacks an extensive infrastructure for the arts, and it is one of our priorities is to build an arts infrastructure, especially in remote areas. We have projects to build cultural compounds in all Palestinian governerates, including Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Gaza, and Hebron. We do this in partnership with local governerates and village councils, who donate the land to us and take responsibilities of covering running costs. These communities have all been very cooperative in building this infrastructure. Running these centers require training, so recently we have been taking in experts from abroad and sending Palestinians abroad to learn these management skills.

What resources does the Ministry offer to the Palestinian community?

MoC: We offer scholarships in music, cultural administration, technical aspects, really all artistic aspects. They are available to all Palestinians and we announce them through newspapers. We also have the Palestinian Cultural Fund, which aims to support all cultural and artistic initiatives by submitted by institutes or individual here in Palestine. One of the major goals of the Fund is to build an institutional relationship with artistic NGOs in Palestine.

This year we had about 100 cultural projects being supported by the Ministry, including the Edward Said Conservatory, the al-Housh center in Jerusalem, which works with plastic arts. We also supported cultural activities in the Gaza Municipality and worked with building libraries and community centers in rural areas of the West Bank. We supported dance groups, theater plays, singing activities, a wide variety of fields in all governates.

We also featured an international book fair in October, in which all countries are invited to take part. It embodies our goal to build strong ties and cultural exchange with friendly countries.

What are some difficulties currently facing the Ministry?

MoC: As a new emerging state, the financial situation is very difficult. We get a little money from the Palestinian Authority. We recently had large donations from Norway, which donated 1.5 million dollars to us, and Sweden which is partnering with us in a major project with children's literature.

What is the situation like in Gaza for the Ministry?

MoC: In Gaza our resources were confiscated by Hamas. Our work is still continuing there, but on a smaller scale. We are still able to fund activities through the Palestinian Cultural Fund, which Hamas has let continue until the current time.

Does the MoC have a particular perspective on the Israeli occupation?

MoC: As a part of the Cabinet of the Palestinian government, we all wish to reach a peaceful end to this occupation through negotiation. It is true for everyone that we suffer a lot of difficulties; not just cultural, but daily troubles.

Continuity between all geographic places in Palestine is the major difficulty. For example now we have the cultural event "Jerusalem Our Capital- 2009." We cannot implement major events in East Jerusalem, maybe a few events here and there, but for the major events the Israeli soldiers and policemen forbid anyone to be even in the location of the event. It is the Israeli belief that all of Jerusalem is united under their rule.

How does the MoC support classical music in Palestine?

MoC: We had a meeting with an Italian group last month and we agreed that the Palestinian music field lacks for classical music teachers. I think we will reach an agreement to have Italian university scholarships for Palestinians to study classical music in order to teach here in Palestine. The program aims to create classical music teachers. The MoC and the arts directorate are really interested in this field of music.

It's a matter of putting this type of music in this country and getting them familiar with it; this is the first step. We feel that in Palestine there should be a significant knowledge of all arts of the world, including classical music. Along with the NGOs like al-Kamandjati and the Edward Said Conservatory we are trying to build the audience here, and the audence is growing.

What is the Ministry's vision for the next few years and beyond?

MoC: In the last three or four months we have been involved in a capacity building project with Birzeit University, in which we drafted a strategy for growth in the next five years with the assistance of the other ministries and intellectuals from the Palestinian cultural sector. These strategies say that in order to have coherence- to have a role in development in economic and social development in the Palestinian community we need to widen our role so we can avoid what happened in Gaza. One of our major priorities is to support and strengthen our shared cultural identity, to avoid these kinds of conflicts within the community.

Our major belief is that we have a deep role in the evolution of the community; in the coherence between all parts of it. And we have a role in supporting their cultural identity in view of an openness with all peoples in all the world.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Premiere Opera in Ramallah- "The Story Behind the Tale"

The newly adapted opera "The Story Behind the Tale" premiered this week in Ramallah. The opera was a production of the Barenboim-Said Foundation, one of the three major music foundations in Ramallah and the West Bank as a whole. In making the opera they adapted music from various works by J.C Arriaga and set it to a brand new libretto in Arabic. It was quite an elaborate setting and production, and was free of charge to the public. Here are some pictures.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"We are Muslims. God created us to have good lives, not to stop it." Wafa Younis, music teacher and conductor


I was in the Jenin Refugee Camp sitting with a group of children, waiting for the arrival of their music teacher, Wafa Younis. As the taxi pulled up the children sprang up and ran towards it, yelling and laughing, waiting for their turn to hug and greet her. "This is my family, here in the Jenin Camp," Wafa explained to me. "I love them so much and they love me back."

Wafa was recently a reluctant star in the international news after her group from Jenin gave a short performance to a group of elderly Holocaust survivors in Holon, Israel. The performance caused turmoil in the Jenin Camp that resulted in the local leadership temporarily shutting down her student group. "When a newswriter from Jenin called me to tell me that there was a problem I laughed," she said. "I made no mistake. They are old people we played for. I am not playing music for (Israeli defense minister) Ehud Barak or (Israeli President) Shimon Peres. But I am ready to play music for people in pain."

Wafa grew up in Israel in the Arab village of 'Ara, and went to high school in Haifa, where she was the only Arab studying amongst Jews. After graduating she became a music teacher, the first in the Wadi 'Ara (the area surrounding the village). During the early years she worked with 40 children in a class for eight hours a day. "My head hurt a lot," she says.

In March 2003, a suicide bombing in the Haifa restaurant "Mattsa" took the life of the husband of a Jewish friend, Paula Yeroshalmy. "I can't tell you how strong the relationship between me and her is. It was such a tragedy."

Wafa learned that the suicide bomber came from the Jenin Camp, and decided that she would begin building a school here. "We are Muslims. God created us to have good lives, not to stop it. It wasn't like this in all the history of Islam."

"We Palestinians want our country. We have to fight for it, but not by taking lives. We can do it through music, talks, meetings, but not bombing."

She spent 40,000 dollars of her own money on the project after receiving no help from either the Israelis or Palestinians. After building the orchestra and putting on concerts inside Israel she received more attention and was able to receive donations of violins from private donors and universities. She now teaches 40 children in the Jenin Refugee Camp as part of her orchestra, "Strings of Freedom." Continuing to run the group is a difficult task, as she explains, given the difficulties of funding for renting space for rehearsals and acquiring new violins in addition. There is little money left, she says.

Wafa has also been working on three books for children. One of them, "Children for Peace," interviews 60 children, including Palestinian children in Israeli jails, about their thoughts on peace in the region. Another is a book of songs in Hebrew and Arabic, and she was able to get permission from Yoko Ono to use a Beatles song in it. The last contains musical settings of poetry written by Palestinian poets, "None of the poetry talks badly about Israel," she says. "They just reflect on their sadness on losing their homes and land."

Her immediate plans for the future involve building up the orchestra, which she needs new violins for. In the long-term she hopes to build a music academy in Jenin. "I want these children to be the first Palestinian music teachers in the West Bank," she says. Convincing the PA Minister of Education to mandate music teaching in Palestinian schools is a part of her mission.

"It bothers me so much that Israel says that the Palestinians are terrorists. I have been here in Jenin for seven years. I want to tell the world that the truth is not being told. Jenin isn't just Kalishnakovs. It is music as well."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Al-Kamandjati Summer Camp 2009, al-Fara'a, the West Bank (part 2)


The al-Kamandjati Summer Music Days camp came to a close a few days ago. As the camp went on we got a chance to see more and more of the students performing, which was wonderful.

I had a chance to interview Peter Sulski, the artistic director of the summer camp. Sulski started coming to the Middle East with the Apple Hill Chamber Players in 1996 and became Ramzi Aburedwan's teacher and friend. "It's been an incredible ride," he says about the experience.

"I think the summer camp is an incredible social opportunity to be around each other and to have lots of role models even for five full days.. to experience a real bump up in their growth. It's a chance for them to feel really legitimate in the field of music. As a student even in america you can feel outside the culture of music."

The first picture here is one of the students performing Dowland's "Flow my Teares".

One of the popular workshops was the oriental percussion workshop, which had 10-15 children performing on native Arab drums.

Ramzi Aburedwan, the founder of al-Kamandjati, plays oud and drums in addition to the viola; here is him performing for the children.

Robert "Dobbs" Hartshone has been coming to the West Bank for the last twenty years giving performances for children here, as he does around the world in other places like Afghanistan. He performed a Bach cello suite and a narrated piece in Arabic about a beaver that falls in love with a tree. The kids loved it.

The final concert was very long and had performances by nearly every child. The orchestra performed a arrangement of the slow movement from Beethoven's 7th Symphony.

The last piece was a song from Pink Floyd's album "The Wall."

The experience was very educational for the teachers as well. Drew Balch, a native of London and the viola teacher, talked about his experiences with the people here. "It's the one thing you can't really be told in stories in the media. Now I've met these people face to face, heard their stories and I've become involved in their stories now, and it's just so much more real."