The suppression of musical culture in Gaza
The practice and presence of music in Gaza is limited, neglected and sometimes not even welcomed. Due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and the current highly conservative government and social norms, there are no music majors in secondary school or university, for example, and most (if not all) of the few private teachers have left Gaza.
Salsabeel H Hamdan
‘WHEN music is suppressed within a society, there is something wrong within its history, ideology, mind and – of course – spirit,’ says Naem Nasir, a former music teacher and now a well-known director of plays produced in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Visitors to Gaza very quickly notice a strained relationship between local social norms and one of the most important facets of any culture – music. The practice and presence of music is limited, neglected and sometimes not even welcomed. Due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and the current highly conservative government and social norms, there are no music majors in secondary school or university, for example, and most (if not all) of the few private teachers have left the Strip. The only music funded or otherwise supported to any significant degree is that which exalts Islam or adheres to a narrow definition of Palestinian heritage.
Once visitors pick up on this characteristic of culture in Gaza (and to a much lesser extent, the West Bank), they often ask, ‘Why did it evolve this way and when?’ Naem Nasir is a music historian of sorts in Gaza – but he also speaks from painful personal experience about what he calls ‘the loss of our musical heritage’.
Nasir is a Palestinian born in the Gaza Strip and is now a theatre director. But his original vocation was as a music teacher, both in Libya and Gaza. Twice he has been imprisoned in Israel for protesting the occupation – the first time for two years while in high school and the second for six months during the First Intifada. It was during his first imprisonment that he composed two of his first musicals.
Over the course of his career, Nasir produced and wrote more than 50 plays, musical scores and short poems, appearing in several short films along the way after he got his certification in drama and music from Ashtar Art School in Ramallah. The school sent foreign teachers to Gaza periodically and he was one of the fortunate few to be allowed to study with them for three years.
Nasir went on to participate in many Arabic and European festivals, which enriched his development as a composer and director – a benefit today’s Palestinian artists from Gaza don’t have. Towards the end of the 1990s, he founded both the Masafat Theatre Group and the Palestine Orchestra for Arabic Music in Gaza; however, Nasir was forced to shut both down less than a year later due to lack of funding. Nasir is still producing plays, but not music.
‘My heart deteriorated after I had to close the orchestra,’ he recalls. ‘I become really emotional whenever I remember the loss; the government couldn’t even afford a place for my musicians to rehearse.’
Impact of occupation
Palestine had a rich and a very varied musical heritage before 1948, Nasir says. ‘Every village had its own musical taste and style, different from other villages, and this gave birth to many unique, traditional songs. But that all changed when Israel was created and its forces occupied our land, tearing all this apart.’
The displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians disrupted the social fabric, destroying along with it much of their cultural and musical heritage. Instruments typically aren’t among the items seized when people are in a rush to leave a house under siege, and living in squalid conditions in refugee camps is not conducive to a ‘luxury’ like making music.
This destruction of a society, thought at first to be short-term but later proven to be as good as permanent, had inevitable consequences that persist today. Every generation since 1948 evolves further away from its cultural roots. Moreover, notes Nasir, the cultures of the countries to which the refugees moved (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt) ‘invaded’ over time what remains of Palestinian identity.
‘I feel sick when I attend wedding parties in Gaza and don’t hear a single Palestinian wedding song played there, as we used to years ago,’ Nasir says. ‘Instead, we have these Egyptian songs and music styles, as if we do not have wedding songs of our own.’
He adds, however, that the music of many neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan, heavily borrowed from the original Palestinian music.
There also has been a push over the years to revive and nurture Palestinian heritage. And some Palestinian youth listen and feel an affinity to what is now called Palestinian music, with its themes related to patriotism, wars and lost land. But this, says Nasir, is not representative of the rich breadth of the original Palestinian music.
‘Over time, the occupation narrowed Palestinian music to specific niches,’ he explains. ‘It’s like the occupation of the land is now also an occupation of our culture and our minds. We focus almost exclusively on the need to uplift the spirit of Palestinians, free our land and honour the martyrs and their mothers.’
Still another layer of occupation that has affected musical expression among Palestinians, especially in Gaza, is the Israeli blockade, which prevents most musical instruments, as well as performers and teachers, from entering.
For example, Khamis Abushaban, of the Edward Said Conservatory of Music in Gaza, recently told The Independent, ‘We had a cello teacher who was living here since 1997 but this year she had to go back to Romania for personal reasons. We had a Russian colleague who taught guitar and trumpet, but unfortunately, she left in October too. Of course, here we have no replacement. So those lessons are gone.’
Nasir observes, ‘The siege has doubled the problem! In my youth, I used to be able to travel to Europe and interact with other musicians from different nationalities who played other genres of music from all over the world. Thus, I was able to develop my own, unique style of music, as a Palestinian, by seeing how different or similar it was to others’. I could learn from other techniques, while protecting it from being confused with neighbouring musical styles, especially Arabic, Egyptian, Turkish or what is called Israeli music.’
The characteristics that make Palestinian music unique have now become so vague, says Nasir, that Palestinian youth today often do not recognise the music or songs that originated in their own culture, other than those with patriotic themes.
Impact of religious trends
Another limiting force on music in Gaza today is what Nasir labels false religious beliefs. Some religious scholars regard music as trivial or even haram (prohibited) unless it relates to motherhood, patriotism or Islam.
Nasir responds that this is an extreme interpretation of Islam and, in fact, many Gazans do not believe in such a strict interpretation. For example, Mohammad Assaf, the first Gazan Palestinian to win the Arab Idol competition, performed many Western pop songs and was encouraged by his friends and family. That’s not to deny that he had his detractors; he remains a controversial figure in Gaza.
Several youths in Gaza who were interviewed for this piece, but did not want to be named, said they would be afraid to publicly embrace other types of music. ‘Society, as well as our parents, believe that music is only for partiers and losers, who have not been guided by Allah to the righteous path,’ said one. ‘It is not the image they want for us in front of society and relatives; they want us to be doctors, engineers and “religious” people.’
A cumulative oppression
As a result of all these dynamics, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found in 2015 that only 39.2% of Gazans listen to music, compared with 71.2% of Palestinians in the West Bank.
However, there are some early signs of resurgence: A store that sells musical instruments opened in Gaza in 2017 and, last October, diploma programmes in drama and music opened at Gaza University, the first of their kind. (Note, however, that the university’s website cautions that the programmes will be offered for only a year, until the need for these professions decreases. In addition, no actual instruction with instruments will be offered; the focus is viewed as more technical than ‘fine arts’ – preparing people to work in radio and TV, for instance.)
Finding instructors for those programmes will be a challenge. There is no government funding for teaching or reviving Palestinian musical heritage, and there are fewer than five centres/institutions that teach music in the entire Gaza Strip.
Is all of this important, given the dire economic conditions in Gaza? Music doesn’t put food on the table, after all. Nasir says ‘yes’. When there is a destruction of any aspect of culture, he says, ‘it is easier for Israel and other colonial powers to fill the gap with their own inventions – and thus destroy the very existence of a Palestinian identity’.
Salsabeel Hamdan is a Gaza-based writer for WeAreNotNumbers.org, a youth project that pairs international mentor-authors with youth in the Strip to share the human stories behind the numbers in the news. This article is reproduced from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (June/July 2019).
*Third World Resurgence No. 339/340, 2019, pp 58-59