Music Lives in Palestine

5:30 on a Wednesday in late November. Our Ramallah master-class at The National Conservatory of Music (Palestine) has just ended and ten-year-old Taher, a young flute-player, is practically jumping up and down, his face glowing with hope: “Oh! please let me play, too!” Will’s and my jazz-improvisation demonstrations–I on piano, he on alto-sax, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet–drew inspired playing from Tariq, the little 14-year-old frame-drum-player with the punk hair-cut, also from a stocky 12-year-old flautist. We invited both of them to play a piece with us at our Friday concert. Now Taher is mad to join us. “But Taher,” I say, “you need to rehearse with us! Can you do it now?” “I’ll go ask my father!” He bolts down the Conservatory’s narrow stone stairs. Dad peers out of the car, looking puzzled and irritated–it’s Ramadan, nerves fray at the end of the day. “He’s been fasting all day, he needs to go home to eat!” “I don’t NEED to eat!” Dad’s resistance crumbles; he trudges up the stairs, and we proceed to rehearse. Finally we light on something Taher plays well–a simple piece he wrote himself. “OK,” I say, “You’ll play with us,” and the little boy throws his arms around my neck.

For two weeks I taught master classes with Will Connell, a New York-based reed-player, at Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music. Founded in 1993 as an affiliate of Birzeit (pron. Beer-zate) University, the school is dedicated to fostering excellence on a wide variety of instruments–piano, violin, flute, ney, clarinet, saxophone, oud, guitar, qanoon (a zither-like insrument with complex tuning), and many percussion instruments including the tabla. The curriculum revolves around European and Oriental classical music.

According to Suheil Khoury, the school’s General Director and one of its five founders, before the Conservatory Palestinian music education was limited to short-term workshops. Mere months of training could earn you a certificate of proficiency on your instrument. The result: pervasive mediocrity. For decades the human voice has been the centerpiece of Oriental music with instruments playing a poor second-best accompaniment. So Khoury is emphatic about a proper–a European, if you will–emphasis on instruments (there are no voice teachers here.) My impression is that he’d like the Conservatory to be a Palestinian Julliard.

Besides the regular faculty musicians have been recruited from overseas to visit, perform and give workshops. Daniel Barenboim played and taught in 1999. I arrived in the middle of veteran flautist Wissam Boustany’s master-classes and concerts–he teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge; his East Jerusalem concert drew a crowd of over 100. (The Palestinian professional and business classes are culture-vultures: when they can, they flock to events like Boustany’s concert, or like the East Jerusalem showing, the first night of my stay, of “Jenin, Jenin”–a film banned in Israel.)

Since Israel’s re-occupation of the West Bank, the Conservatory has established regional campuses in Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. There are days and weeks on end when curfews prevent anyone’s getting from one town to another. Thus this improvised solution: splitting the school’s resources geographically. Overall, Palestinian education has been severely impacted by Israel’s savage crackdown on the second Intifada: schools pervasively damaged; Ministry of Education records destroyed; permanent roadblocks prevent regular travel between urban centers; curfews interrupt any and every schedule. A small individual example of the occupation’s impact: US-educated Dalia Habash, the Conservatory’s public relations director, worked earlier in the Birzeit University administration. Arriving at work one day over a year ago she and a friend found the college blocked by Israeli soldiers. They begged the soldiers to let them enter; one of the men hurled a sound grenade at them, breaking Dalia’s leg. On her recovery she found herself nearly paralyzed with fear every time she had to go to work: the trauma was so great that she finally quit. Multiply this small incident thousands of times, adding to it far greater enormities (in 2001-2002 alone, 216 students were killed by the Israeli army, 2,514 wounded) and you have some idea of the tragic impact Israel’s warlike policies have had on Palestinian education.

The Conservatory and its faculty suffered the ravages of last spring’s incursion. The Ramallah seat of the school was invaded, the main door forced open with explosives causing major damage to the building; inner doors kicked open and broken, drawers emptied and their contents; floppy discs and music CDs were strewn on the floor. A cello was broken. In one classroom the word “Death” was scrawled on a blackboard; in another, all the books were thrown on the floor and trampled.wo senior administrators were arrested and detained without charge. The Conservatory’s survival under such circumstances–400 students attend its classes after their regular elementary and high-school hours; its administration and faculty work with great efficiency even in such extremities–represents a triumph of nonviolent resistance to the occupation and the war of attrition Israel has waged since the start of the second Intifada.

Like pianist Daniel Barenboim, flautist Wissam Boustany who performed during our stay, and other musician-visitors, we went to contribute to the life of this singular educational institution. While the Conservatory is enthusiastic about promoting such visits, Khoury’s emphasis is the long-term employment of highly qualified musicians. Its permanent faculty includes stellar talents with impressive recording and touring histories for example master tabla-player Yusuf Hubeisch, oud-player Habib Shihadeh and qanoon-player Ibrahim Atari. The young people show the effects of their training by such teachers. Ranging in age from 8 to 18, even the youngest knew basics of reading and technical execution; all of them seemed to have a sense of musical purpose. Some, including 14-year-old Tariq, 18-year-old Nadia Aruri, a pianist who performed with Barenboim when he visited, and Abed Sabah, a Hubeisch percussion student who accompanied us during our East Jerusalem concert, were very gifted. In our workshops nearly all the young people were as eager to participate as Taher. Our home-base was East Jerusalem’s YWCA where the Jerusalem division of the school is located. Evenings in one of the buildings big foyers there were always students jamming on oud and percussion, often with their teachers.


Will and I gave our scheduled concert in East Jerusalem. But the one in Ramallah, so eagerly awaited by Taher, the Conservatory faculty, and the large audience everyone expected, never happened. Israel levied a three-day curfew on the city, preventing any travel to or from the city. (“Curfew” is a somewhat deceptive term for American ears: in occupied Palestine, curfews shut down whole towns, cities and regions. Within any given place, no one is allowed on the streets–sometimes for days on end–save for the few hours permitted by the military.) There’d been no suicide bombing linked to a Ramallah resident, no threats, no disorder. Earlier that week I awakened in my Ramallah hotel and looked out my window to see school-children crossing the street with their back-packs, adults walking to work, the caf?-owner down the street opening up for the morning. In the center of town sidewalk peddlers laid out their wares, people flocked to stores to shop; patients waited in the opthamologist’s office where I went to get treated for a minor eye infection. No disorder, just people trying to get through their days. “Curfew is an extraordinary measure,” said Raja Shehadeh, a Ramallah-based novelist and lawyer who for years has written on occupation law. “It is supposed to be used only when the situation is out of control, and nothing is out of control in Ramallah. There is no threat to the settlements, it is quiet. There used to be legal protests against such measures; a legal protest might make them think twice, but there is none. So curfews are imposed and lifted arbitrarily.”

Harassment at the airport; being on the wrong bus at the wrong time inside Israel; being caught by a stray Israeli army bullet at a checkpoint; getting attacked by settlers–all of these worst-case scenarios intruded fitfully on my fantasy life before I arrived. I hadn’t thought about how the more banal evils of occupation would affect me. The most insidious got into my pores from the start of my stay–the wretched condition of the streets around the Y: leaving and returning to the hotel I passed heaps of rubble, navigating unpaved stretches of sidewalk while cars skidded around me. The same bleak landscape seemed to punctuate the rest of East Jerusalem. Israel is responsible for trash collection here; it simply lets things run amok. Jews in West Jerusalem would instantly complain, observed an Israeli friend: the trash and rubble would be cleared away instantly.

Checkpoints and roadblocks separate every city, town and village from every other. Kalandia, just beyond Jerusalem, is one of the largest. Everyone entering the West Bank must pass through it. Nothing could have prepared me for its actual physical impact — a huge, larger-than-football-field stretch of rubble and trash interlaced with razor wire and cement dividers. The dividers track cars and people relentlessly towards the actual check-points: several desk-like concrete blocks where Israeli flags wave and soldiers stand, all armed with machine guns. If you’re lucky you get an older, sympathetic soldier; if you’re unlucky you get a young, arrogant and insulting hot-head. Ambulances are halted by soldiers, their drivers forced to dismount at machine-gunpoint and to open the backs of the vehicles. Meanwhile hundreds of people drive or trudge across the rubble towards the checkpoints. No matter whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, sick or well, lame or a marathoner, you must run this gauntlet. On the Ramallah side of the checkpoint there’s a wretched line of tacky little shops that sell soft drinks and other convenience items. Anything that can be sold or peddled is up for grabs: my eye was caught, on my return trip from Ramallah through Kalandia, by the saddest-looking turkey I’ve ever seen, lame in one foot, with yellowed, sodden feathers, caged for sale but ignored by the trudging crowd intent only on getting past the soldiers. Children run about peddling anything they can–knick-knacks, chiclets and the like: from the modestly prosperous region I’d known from 1979 through 1988, the West Bank has become the Third World. Meantime the settlements, the reason for all this hardship, flourish. Modern oases that sprawl across the West Bank’s hills, they sport swimming pools and shopping malls, use most of the West Bank’s water, and are insulated by the Army and Jewish-only “bypass roads” from all the trouble their presence causes.

When Will arrived at Kalandia several nights after me, wind was blowing across the hills of rubble, dust was everywhere, it was bone-cold. It’s common to stand here for hours in the chill or snow or rain watching soldiers smugly chatting, smoking cigarettes, taking their time while you wait. You can’t protest: defiance courts harassment or worse. And you do well not to drive through the checkpoint; instead, get someone to drive you; dismount from your group taxi or car, then trudge over the hundreds of yards of rubble and trash, pass the checkpoint, and take a group taxi or have a friend pick you up on the other side. The whole checkpoint process could take you a half-hour, making your trip from Jerusalem maybe an hour-long (Jerusalem to Ramallah used to take me 20 minutes in the 1980s, but “normal life” doesn’t exist anymore)–this is lots better than getting stuck in the checkpoint traffic-jam for an hour or more. Americans and foreign nationals can circumvent the crowds of Palestinians but Will and I found ourselves in a Palestinian line and decided to experience the wait. It was like being at New York’s 42nd Street at rush hour with added physical discomforts, fear of the military, and the humiliation of having to submit to military authority. Around us were old women, mothers with their infants, teenagers, workers and professionals. A young woman who couldn’t have been more than 22 was waved contemptuously back to Ramallah by a woman soldier no older than she: the Palestinian woman begged to be allowed to go to Jenin, the young Israeli shouted “Yalla!” (“Let’s go! Get out!”) leaving the young Palestinian to stand sobbing while the rest of us filed by her, filled with pity. One tall, distinguished-looking gray-haired man in a suit turned out to be a Palestinian Authority youth affairs administrator. “Now you see,” he said, his eyes flashing with anger, “what we have to go through every day. And people wonder why some of our young people blow themselves up!”

Zero-level in occupation life is the constant disruption of your plans by checkpoint delays and curfews; nothing can be scheduled with any certainty. I was supposed to teach in Bethlehem early in my stay, but a curfew was levied: classes cancelled. When I passed Suheil Khoury’s office and expressed my disappointment I got only an impassive shrug: “That’s the situation,” he said, turning back to his computer.

“The Situation” is a classic Palestinian understatement that describes everything from the destruction of Jenin through checkpoints, curfews, delayed and cancelled events and appointments. An impassive expression and little shrug often go along with the phrase. I was never quite sure whether the shrug expressed bitter resignation or just determination to get through the ordeals of occupation with one’s sanity intact. An omnipresent adaptation to “The Situation” is cell phones: everyone carries them, adult and child, in the occupied territories as well as in Israel. At one point during our Ramallah teaching a cell phone rang. “All you guys have cell phones,” I said. “How come?” “Because when the bombs come,” shrugged Tariq, the little frame-drummer, “our mothers want to know where we are.” I made an appointment with Tariq and several of his friends to discuss “The Situation’s” impact on their young lives, but the curfew intervened: meeting cancelled.


Over the course of my stay I grew friendly with Ibrahim Atari, the Conservatory’s master qanoon-player, a large man with huge shoulders and a sweet, serene expression. From Ramallah he commutes daily to the Conservatory’s seat in East Jerusalem. His wife, an Israeli-Arab, just gave birth to their first child. Because of the uncertainty of life under the war and occupation, she stays inside Israel. Because his pass is stamped “Arab” and “Ramallah,” he can’t travel inside Israel; he hasn’t seen her or his newborn daughter for weeks. During the Ramallah curfew, both our plans disrupted, we spent two evenings playing together; he introduced me to Oriental music’s complicated 7/4. 9/8 and 10/8 rhythms. When, during a break, I expressed my dismay about his forced separation from his wife and infant daughter, I was rewarded with a shrug and Ibrahim’s serene smile: “It’s the situation.” The last day of my stay I found him sitting in front of the Y’s large TV set watching American troops massed in Qatar. I began venting my anger at Bush’s war plans, and Ibrahim turned his gentle gaze on me: “So: do you remember 7? 9? 10?”

In a diary fragment published in THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS Raja Shehadeh describes last spring’s “incursion”–the invasion of his brother’s house by soldiers; the IDF’s killing of the son of a man who had worked in Shehadeh’s law office–and then, finally, the sight of a shopkeeper during a curfew break, sunning himself, to all appearances impervious to three tanks parked opposite: “Most of the Palestinians in the territories resemble these men,” he writes. “When we can, we sun ourselves in direct view of the Israeli tanks, acting as if they were not there. This is how we have been able to survive these past 35 years. What these soldiers destroy we repair, when they close roads we find detours, what they deny us we find alternatives for.”


CLOSING NOTE: This essay’s title is taken from an exuberant e-mail I sent to friends early in my stay. I’d expected to be depressed by the occupation and its effects on the lives of my hosts: instead, I found myself uplifted by everyone’s resilience, their musicianship, their stoicism and good humor. In the end, they helped us at least as much as we helped them.

ELLEN CANTAROW plays jazz piano professionally in Boston and New England. She can be reached at:


Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.