The Balata refugee camp near Nablus is not known for its cultural life. Yet, despite the poverty and ruin there - thousands of families survive on food stipends and hundreds live in shacks - residents of the camp find solutions to their hunger for culture and art. There are programs in community centers for women and youth and in schools to meet this need. Now, a new program has been added to the curriculum: music education, including instruction in musical instruments.
This week 11 children from the camp, ages 7-13, are visiting the French city of Lille. During the first days of their visit, they received intensive musical training from Ictus, a contemporary music ensemble, and today they will appear in a festive concert in the city's opera house. The concert will be the culmination of an extraordinary effort to collect instruments for Palestinian and Israeli children. Ictus leader Lukas Pairon, who founded the complex project, may now gaze in satisfaction at the realization of his dream - a dream many of his friends considered absolutely unrealistic.
Two or three times a year, for more than three years, Pairon has been coming to Israel with members of his ensemble to work with Tel Aviv University students and children from Nazareth and major cities in the West Bank. Their determination to stay with friends rather than in hotels made Israel and the territories their second home. Refusing to settle for one-off expressions of identification, they devote themselves to continuous field work, which produces intimate ties with local musicians.
"We are neither peace-minded politicians nor promoters of an ideology of coexistence," Pairon says. "We are working within the context of independence on both sides. Thus, when peace comes, we will be at a better starting point than others."
On one of their visits, Pairon came up with the idea of collecting instruments. "I mentioned, during a Belgian radio interview, that Palestinian children lack instruments and asked for donations. Within a short time I received dozens of instruments at my private address," he says. "That encouraged me to found a special non-profit organization devoted to this."
Leading Belgian musicians supported Pairon's Music Fund, and the first collection campaign yielded hundreds of instruments. "Donating an instrument is unlike any other donation: It is highly personal and very emotional," Pairon says. "There is a story behind every instrument. The donor imagines the child who will play the instrument, and thus people take an imaginary trip from Belgium to Palestine and Israel to bond with the children."
Pairon decided to escort personally the instruments to their destination. He learned to drive a truck and embarked last winter: He crossed the frigid European continent, hopped on a ferry from Italy to Greece, sailed all the way down to Piraeus, and from there boarded a ship that docked in Haifa in January.
People watched the enormous truck emblazoned with the message "Give Music a Chance" traveling the length and breadth of the nation to unload its bounty: flutes, clarinets, percussion instruments, string instruments of all sizes, five pianos and guitars. All were handed to outstretched hands to the resounding echoes of the truck's message.
"I was afraid of what I would find here after Hamas rose to power and elections were held in the territories and Israel, but I do not believe our projects are in any danger," Pairon says, on his latest visit to Israel. In addition to musicians from his ensemble, two experts in instrument repair joined him to conduct workshops in the territories, "so that a league of instrument builders and restorers will evolve there independent of Europe," Pairon explains. Pairon also inspected the level of music education during this visit - particularly in the Balata refugee camp, where four music teachers arrived from Lille.
The mood in Nablus has deteriorated following arrests and funerals. Won't your musicians be affected by that?
"To tell you the truth, yes," Pairon admits. "They are worried, depressed and irritable. We want to work at a high musical level, and under current conditions I can't blame them if they fall apart."
A visit to the Nablus casbah with Pairon reveals a determined, fearless man disturbed only by the posters of martyrs in every corner of the city. "I decided to express my shock in response to this, and repeated over and over that the immortalization of these suicide bombers makes me sick," he says. "I was happy to discover, among the Palestinians, wonderful people who also oppose this and support only non-violent protest."
On the way back to the Green Line we pass through Ramallah, where Pairon's colleagues repair instruments with pupils at the Al-Kamandjati School of Music. Back in Nazareth, Pairon is thrilled by progress made there by students at the Al-Mutran School since he and the ensemble began teaching.
Why don't you introduce them to students in Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem?
"We intended to do exactly that," Pairon sighs. "The plan was to have Arab-Israeli pupils join the current trip to France so that both sides could meet for the first time. But the school canceled at the last minute."
Making Gaza history
A year ago, a few months before the instruments arrived, Pairon first visited Gaza to prepare for his project. His hosts' requests appeared reasonable, in European terms: Meet with everyone involved in music education in the Gaza Strip in order to distribute the instruments best. It sounds simple - but given Gaza's harsh socioeconomic situation, it is extraordinarily difficult to promote music education. Pairon stood firm and for the first time in the costal strip's history, musical figures from all four corners of Gaza assembled to discuss music.
"We need much more than musical instruments: We need teachers to instill the population with a sense of the significance of music," one of the participants said. "Give us [fishing] rods - not fish. If you want to help, bring us people to teach us how to teach."
Controversy surrounded the issue of who would take responsibility for the project in Gaza, and one of the teachers suggested the Ministry of Education, in line with a Western conservatory model. Pairon opposed the idea and presented the example of Belgium, a nation that permits bureaucracy and clerks to interfere with music despite their lack of understanding, he says.
"We established an association of musicians first, and only later turned to the government," he says, making it clear that the Music Fund would only provide instruments to institutions where it had direct supervision. Finally, they decided to house the instruments in two main institutions: The Al-Qattan cultural center and the Gaza Broadcasting Service, which sponsors an orchestra and a choir.
The musical instruments arrived a few months later. Pairon was not permitted to enter Gaza with the Give Music a Chance truck, and the instruments were unloaded and packed into vehicles at the Karni crossing. At their destinations, the vehicles were greeted with tears of excitement: Guitars were pulled from cases, wind instruments were polished, and the piano was rolled to a place of honor on the auditorium stage of the Al-Qattan Center for the Child - a cultural center that serves a fifth of the 750,000 children in the Gaza Strip under the age of 15. The center provides them with books, audiovisual and reading rooms, an extensive garden, a theater and musical performances. The Gaza Broadcasting Service's own Arabic orchestra, accompanied by eight male and female singers, welcomed the instruments in a moving concert in a densely packed room, where classic Arabic music rang in a professional, stirring, emotive performance.
Despite deteriorating conditions in Gaza, Pairon does not surrender: While Gaza does not appear on his current itinerary he continues collecting instruments in Europe at an avid clip, and he will return in December to distribute them. "We will not give up on Gaza," he says. "There is still a lot of work there." Meanwhile, he continues to meeting with the mayor of Ramallah, local Belgian Embassy officials and Israel Embassy officials in Brussels, among others. All of them, except Israeli security figures, go out of their way to help him and the diplomatic and institutional front he has established here appears steadfast.
As someone who works on both sides, aren't you disturbed that the instruments are mainly given to Palestinians? There are certainly needy Jewish Israeli children who lack them.
"I do not oppose also giving to Jews. Our job is to help musicians and if there are those in Israel who make a request [for instruments], we will certainly provide. The instruments are intended for anyone who needs them.