- Published on Wednesday, 18 April 2012 13:51
IMEU: By K.Khatib
Last week was the culmination of the Edward Said National Conservatory's annual Palestinian music competition. The program was broadcasted live from Ramallah and included performances from some of the Arab worlds' finest musicians. Awards were given to the top three musicians of each instrumental category and the top singers.
Beginning on March 16th, the competition brought judges from all over the world to Jerusalem to evaluate students from all over Palestine. Each day a different instrument was focused on: piano, guitar, trumpet, woodwinds, strings, voice, kanoun, oud, and flute. Students performed in both Western and Eastern classical music. This is an account from March 22nd, the day of the piano competition, of students from Gaza who participated in the competition.
Sarah Aqel is one of Gaza's brightest young piano students. She is 12 years old. Today she is competing in the Palestinian National Music Competition. The competition is taking place in Jerusalem. Sarah and the other Gazan contestants are competing via videoconference from the Gaza Music School (GMS) in Gaza City.
The room in Gaza is tightly packed. Parents, teachers, fellow students, and onlookers have crammed into the small room to support the competitors. The director of the competition appears on the screen from Jerusalem. They signal for Sarah to go-ahead and begin.
Sarah takes a deep breath and bursts into Kabalevsky's Sonatina No.2. The piece is challenging, but Sarah is deeply focused and skillfully makes her way through the piece's difficult passages.
Elena El-Liddawi, her piano teacher, sits behind her. With silent fury, Elena ghost conducts and mouths the accents of each note, coaching her pupil through the movements. Sarah nails the finale. The room upends in applause. Elena concedes her approval with a smile.
This is an important day for Elena. Her top three students are competing. Amongst the competitors is her eight-year-old son, Marcel El-Liddawi. He is performing a duet for two pianos. His mother accompanies him.
Elena and Marcel sit side by side at the two pianos in the room. Elena's fatigue is evident. Less than 24 hours before, she was in the delivery room giving birth to her second son, Kamiil.
Three hours after giving birth she returned home. As is the case on many nights, the electricity had been cut and the elevator could not be used. She climbed five flights of stairs to get to her apartment.
Against the wishes of her family doctor and colleagues, Elena attends the competition. "This is special day for my students. They have worked hard and I feel I must be here."
Elena was born in Russia and moved to Gaza twelve years ago. She, like the three other Eastern European teachers at the school, married a Gazan man studying abroad and returned to Palestine with him.
I sit next to Elena's husband, Dr. Alaa El-Liddawi, the proud father of Marcel and now Kamiil. I ask Dr. Alaa about their newborn son. Baby Kamiil he tells me, was born the day before with severe Spina biphida. The baby is being monitored at the hospital. He may not survive.
Elena's husband is a doctor at Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital. His colleagues told him if the baby survives he would only live to be three years old. Elena and Alaa are hopeful and prepared to face these challenges with their newborn.
Elena's husband tells me that many citizens in Gaza blame birth defects on the weapons used by Israel during the 2006 and 2008-9 invasions of Gaza.
During the 2009 invasion, the Israeli army exploded toxic substances such as white phosphorous in Elena's neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa , the same neighborhood that houses the new music school. The old music school, around the corner from the new one, was demolished during the bombing.
Another doctor from Al-Shifa Hospital says that "toxic substances leftover from weapons used in the invasion are still present everywhere in Gaza. We didn't have access to new construction materials after the war. The siege restricted it. We ground up the bombed rubble to make cement. When we rebuilt our houses, the chemicals stayed in our homes."
The New Weapons Research Group (NWRG), an independent committee of scientists and experts who have published studies on the effects of non-conventional weapons on Gaza's residents, found "abnormal concentrations of toxic metals in the craters" left by the 2006 and 2008-9 Israeli bombings of Gaza.
Their studies also showed "unusually high concentration of metals in the hair" of Gazan children from the bombed areas, and suggests that the "possible contamination of soil...might cause [pathogenic] exposure via inhalation and through food."
Recent research reported by a Gazan team with the support of an Italian geneticist at the Lancet Palestinian Health Alliance showed that "more than tenfold times the percent of children born with birth defects in Gaza are from families with exposure to white phosphorous, in comparison to families without exposure."
Elena's husband covers his face with one hand, making an effort to hold back tears. "Of course we can't say exactly why this happened. But there is no such thing as a safe pregnancy here anymore."
Birth defects are off the mind of Elena for the moment, as she and Marcel have their full focus on Berkovich's concerto No. 2 in A minor. It's another brilliant performance, and both Jerusalem and Gaza erupt in applause at the finale.
After a few minutes of deliberating, the results are ready in Jerusalem. The head judge reads the names of the advancing contestants. As he announces the first name, the electricity cuts and the video feed is lost. The room in Gaza heaves a collective sigh at the now blank television screen.
The Gaza Music School video-conferencing with the judges in Jerusalem.
An hour passes in the dark. As suddenly as it left, the electricity, the curse of every Gazan tongue, returns. Jerusalem reappears. The director resumes listing names. All three of Gaza's students proceed to the final round. Each spectator in the room beams with pride.
Next, the students perform the competition's required piece. Not a single mistake. All three of Elena's students move to the final round. Seven national contestants left.
The students now repeat their selected pieces. Sarah's performance is even more precise than her first one. Marcel and Elena execute their duet masterfully once again.
The announcer appears on-screen to deliver the final results. "And the third place goes to..." The power cuts. One teacher gives me a look of dismay.
Electricity cuts are definitely good for suspense. And cigarette breaks. The parents and teachers rush outside to steal a quick cigarette before the power returns. Because of the power cutting in and out, the competition has taken over five hours. Electricity cuts interrupt students mid-performance. This is the status quo in Gaza.
The school's director turns on the generator, which runs on gasoline, and is the lifeline of any electricity-related operation in Gaza. Now it's a race against fuel. Most of the gasoline feeds into Gaza in small and expensive doses through the tunnels under Rafah. The school has secured just enough gas tonight to hear the results...insha'allah.
Running on nicotine and gasoline, the room at the GMS tunes into the final results once more. Sarah earns second place. The crowd collapses in joy. A few show tears.
Sarah stands next to the videoconference screen for a piecemeal photograph with the judges and winning contestants on stage in Jerusalem. For Gazan citizens, the iron grip of Gaza's two exits, the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing and the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing, make leaving Gaza a mission impossible. Most students in the room have never in their lives been outside the 140 square miles of the Gaza Strip.
The Gazans aren't the only ones competing via videoconference. Because of checkpoints and border-closings, many competitors from the West Bank music school branches of Ramallah, Nablus, Khalil, and Bethlehem video-in their performances as well.
A national competition assembled live from Gaza, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. Here is Palestine: a state by videoconference.
Elena, Dr. El-Liddawi, and Marcel leave the school to go directly to the hospital, where their newborn will soon begin the first of many surgeries. The judges said Marcel had the best performance of the competition, but was marked off in the finals because his piece exceeded the time limit. The eight year old is in tears.
The mix of pride and frustration burns in the atmosphere. As he closes the school, Ibrahim Najjar, the director of the GMS, looks at me and says simply "what a night." It's hard to say anything else.
K. Khatib is an American musician and composer volunteering at the Gaza Music School