Gaza needs music too

Alexander Billet tell the story of how Gaza Music School was destroyed by Israeli bombs--and how it will be rebuilt.

Inside the destroyed Gaza Music School (Francesco Rigamonti)Inside the destroyed Gaza Music School (Francesco Rigamonti)

IN TIMES of war, the importance of music and art may be easy to forget. When the dust finally settles, however, we are reminded that life should be about more than mere survival. This is why places like the Gaza Music School (GMS) are so important. In the midst of daily degradation, the GMS was a place where kids came to learn and young creativity was allowed to flourish. It's hard to believe, then, that it was almost completely wiped off the map.

Prior to the foundation of the GMS, there were practically no institutions that taught music in Gaza. With Israel systematically depriving the region of resources, even basics like medicine were hard to come by. The arts might seem an unaffordable luxury.

But as the saying goes, "We want bread, and roses too." This was just as true for the children who attend the Qattan Center for the Child (QCC) in Gaza City. According to the Ramallah-based Qattan Foundation (which administers the center), "with each musical activity held at the QCC, whether a performance or a workshop, children were demanding more, including training to play musical instruments."

It was only a matter of time until the QCC decided, who are we to deny them? Support wasn't hard to come by. International nongovernmental organizations helped fund the project. The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem provided support too. In July 2008, a space was rented out in the building of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in the Tel Al-Hawwa area of Gaza.

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To learn more about the Gaza Music School, visit the Qattan Foundation Web site.

When the GMS began classes, it had five teachers and 31 students. A modest beginning, but its importance can't be overstated. "Many parents sat in on the theory lessons so they could better support their kids' homework," says Ziad Khalaf, director of the Qattan Foundation.

And even though the picture painted of Hamas might lead one to believe that the school would have faced constant harassment from the Islamic administration, the fact is that the GMS went unhindered by the government in its development. Though several Web sites denounced it as in violation of Sharia law, the school was given free rein to operate as it saw fit. Of the 31 original students, the majority were girls.

On December 23, the Gaza Music School held its first public performance at the PRCS. Four days later, it was under attack by the Israel Defense Forces. While it didn't suffer a direct hit, the impact of the bomb across the street took out doors, windows, whole sections of wall and several instruments.

Thankfully, no children were in the building during the attack. The only person in the building was Ibrahim Annajjar, the GMS program coordinator, who sustained only minor injuries. Two days later, he returned to the building to store the remaining instruments in what he thought would be a safe place.

On January 14, the remaining building was reduced to rubble. Almost every musical instrument and resource of the fledgling Gaza Music School was wiped out in Israel's brutal bombardment.

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AS WE know, the leveling of the GMS was barely a fraction of the destruction wrought in Gaza. An estimated 1,400 people were killed in the recent invasion, the majority civilians. Israel has also created a humanitarian crisis. There is infrastructure and health care to get up and running, countless homes to rebuild. In the face of all this, the Gaza Music School might seem trivial. But music is as fundamental to human existence as any of these things.

"[P]rojects such as the GMS," said Qattan, "are a vital part of helping to protect Gazan society from collapse and particularly to ensure that children are able to recover from the brutal psychological impact of the invasion."

In this spirit, the Qattan Foundation has undertaken the task of rebuilding the GMS, brick by brick, until the kids of Gaza have their music back. And as word spread about the project, the global solidarity it provoked has revealed it to be anything but trivial.

"We've had unprecedented response concerning the reopening effort of the GMS from individuals and organizations from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu and many spots in between," said Khalaf. The list of international groups he gives is impressive. The Edward Said Conservatory pitched in once again by playing concerts in Washington, D.C., and New York. He also mentioned Gunilla Ronnberg, the owner of a small music school in Sweden who embarked on a series of concerts to draw attention to the GMS.

And in the midst of the large marches in response to Israel's bombardment, British antiwar groups found it important to pitch in. Khalaf points to several events held by the London-based Stop the War Coalition and Palestine Solidarity Campaign in conjunction with Musicians Against Nuclear War.

Progress made on the new school has been quick. Though the original Red Crescent building was damaged beyond repair, the PRCS was quick to donate a new space to the GMS. Though this space was also damaged, its rehabilitation is underway, and according to Khalaf, classes will resume by the end of April!

The Gaza Music School came dangerously close to extinction. Its story could have easily ended up another casualty of Israel's barbaric, decades-long occupation. Instead, it became a testament to the power of solidarity and the importance of music in our daily lives. The GMS inspired people from all over the globe to help out a group of children they had never met. If that can happen, then it's worth asking what else is possible when people bond together.

Alexander Billet's music blog is Rebel Frequencies.