Young Palestinian musicians challenge ‘system of oppression’

The Palestine Youth Orchestra is touring Europe, having conducted rehearsals via Skype because of travel restrictions.

When Nai Barghouti was 11 years old, she was trying to get from her home in the occupied West Bank to a music lesson in Jerusalem, a journey she made every week.

She was stopped at a checkpoint, and told that she had the wrong papers; she always carried a photocopy of her birth certificate, but this time the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint demanded the original.

Barghouti kept repeating that she came every week, but the soldier was intransigent.

In tears, Barghouti called her father, who came to collect her. He asked if she wanted to go home, or to try another route to get to Jerusalem.

“I said, ‘no, I’m not going home, because that’s what they want’,” Barghouti recalls. “Even now, it means a lot to me to go to my music lessons. It’s my right. And in Palestine, art has become a privilege, not a right.”

Today, Barghouti is a flute player and singer with the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO), which is currently touring in Europe.

The orchestra was founded in 2004 by Suhail Khoury, the general director of the Edward Said Music Conservatory at Birzeit University in the West Bank, with the aim of bringing together young Palestinian musicians and helping them to develop.

“I realised that going around in the area, there were lots of very talented young Palestinian musicians, but as with all the Palestinian people, they were dispersed in different places of the earth,” says Khoury.

“I decided to bring them together and one in one cultural project. I wanted to say that, wherever you are, whatever generation you’re coming from, you are still Palestinian, and if you are a musician, this is your address. The PYO is the group that will bring you all together.”

When the orchestra was first founded, applications were open to people from Palestine and throughout the diaspora.

Musicians from around the world applied to join. It has since changed its entry requirements, and now accepts young musicians (aged 14-26) from across the Arab world.

Over the years, PYO has played concerts around the Middle East, within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in Europe.

The current tour includes concerts in Oslo, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

“Usually, when people speak about Palestinians, it’s about occupation and being underprivileged,” says Barghouti. “PYO shows the powerful, the beautiful, the creative side that is so present in Palestine.”

Although a youth orchestra may on the surface appear to be a simple proposition, in the Palestinian context it is fraught with difficulty.

“It is very challenging because people cannot get to each other easily,” says Khoury.

Musicians based in the Gaza Strip have repeatedly had travel permits denied by the Israeli authorities, even when their visas to travel overseas have been granted. Palestinian musicians living in Lebanon or Syria are often unable to get permission to travel to the West Bank to perform. Rehearsals sometimes have to take place via Skype.

Usually, the group meets for a week before the tour, in a neutral locale, to intensively rehearse – this year, this took place in Norway.

These tight restrictions on movement reflect a broader pattern; a survey conducted in July 2018 recorded 705 permanent obstacles across the West Bank restricting or controlling Palestinian vehicular and pedestrian movement.

“This is in conjunction with the denial of the right of return to Palestinian refugees, who continue to be the majority of the Palestinian people. Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem also face distinctive forms of control over their lives and movement,” says Rafeef Ziadah, lecturer in politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“This makes it difficult for Palestinians to meet across those barriers, to form collectives and to travel. That’s why a project like PYO is very important – its very existence challenges in fundamental ways this system of oppression that segregates Palestinians from one another and from the rest of the world.”

Music, specifically, has faced serious obstacles.

The Edward Said Music Conservatory relies in part on foreign teachers, many of whom have had visas refused by Israeli authorities in recent years.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, four international faculty members out of 20 were denied visas or entry; and in 2018-2019, eight international faculty members out of 19 were denied visas or entry.

“Israel’s assault on the Palestinian people has not only included land theft and military occupation, but an assault on Palestinian culture in its entirety,” says Ziadah.

“Cultural projects continue to be at the heart of Palestinian resistance. They don’t operate alone of course, but they are a crucial part of movements for freedom, bringing people together in struggle, challenging negative perceptions and stereotypes, while affirming life against the organised brutality of Israel’s military.”

This is certainly how Lyan Najim feels.

A viola player with PYO, she grew up in Ramallah and, like Barghouti, first studied music at the Edward Said Music Conservatory.

“Being a musician in Palestine means having limited opportunities and possibilities. Not because of a lack of potential, but because of travel problems and other obstacles,” she says.

“People sometimes say that PYO shows the ‘other’ side of being Palestinian, but I think it shows the main image of being Palestinian: We are open-minded, we have dreams, we have potential, and we aspire to be equal.”

Khoury says that his primary aim for PYO is simply to keep it going; between funding constraints and the constant battle over visas and travel permits, this is a significant task in itself.

Fundamentally, PYO seeks to do two things: to give young musicians an opportunity to develop their talents and showcase it on the international stage, and to culturally and politically unify Palestinians.

“It has also made an impact I had not thought of at the beginning: it has become a source of pride,” says Khoury. “This is very important for Palestinians, with how things are going. People are very down with the political situation. This gives people hope and pride. These children are their children, and we have all seen them grow.”