Palestinian flutist Nai Barghouti: Art has become a privilege and not a right

When Nai’s mum was pregnant with her second daughter she asked her neighbours to help think of a name. “If I had a third daughter I would call her Nai,” replied her neighbour, and the name stuck. In Arabic Nai translates as wooden flute, the instrument that often features in Middle Eastern music. The meaning would take on great significance when – at the age of seven – Nai’s parents enrolled her in the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music where she learnt to play the flute for eight years.

Twelve years on and Nai Barghouti is now a rising star in Arabic music and has arrived in the UK to play the flute and sing alongside the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO), another initiative to come out of the conservatory. The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music was established to bring together Palestinian musicians across the world, both those living in Occupied Palestinian Territories and in the diaspora. It has branches in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Gaza and was named after the late Edward Said who, as well as being an accomplished academic, was a classical pianist. Said has been credited with inspiring musical development in the occupied territories.

The PYO and its conductor Sian Edwards will begin its first ever UK tour, with six performances in six cities across the UK, on 25 July in Perth, Scotland, with a final performance on 1 August at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The 85 musicians, aged between 14 and 26 and ranging from students to high-level amateurs, met in Glasgow yesterday to begin rehearsing, something which is difficult to do in Palestine.

“There are many obstacles to playing music in and out of Palestine. In Palestine, the horrible procedure of having to pass through checkpoints, and to be humiliated by the treatment we receive, makes it so hard to move from one place to another,” Nai tells me. “Palestinians from the West Bank must obtain an occupational permit by the Israeli government in order to travel to various cities. This makes it so hard to find one place for all Palestinian musicians in the PYO to practise together in peace. The segregation wall that Israel surrounded the West Bank and East Jerusalem with also makes it extremely hard and dangerous for Palestinians of all ages and sexes to pass through.”

It’s not just finding a rehearsal space within Palestine that has proved difficult – musicians travelling to the UK face obstacles at the border, whether it’s at the Allenby Bridge or in Tel Aviv airport. “The level of security checks really highlights the discrimination against Arab people,” she says.

Nineteen-year-old Nai is from the northern port city of Acre, close to the Lebanese border. Nai comes from a musical family and recalls evenings spent listening to music and eating good food by candlelight. Her mother, Safa Tamish, started teaching her classical Arabic music songs at the age of five, whilst her older sister Jenna inspired her to play a musical instrument: “I could see how important the violin was in her life and I wanted to have that special bond she had with her violin,” she says.

Growing up surrounded by music meant that Nai has had heroes from a young age. “My role models ever since I was five years old have been Umm Kulthum, Sayed Darwish, Zakariyah Ahmad, Abd Al-Wahab, Ziyad Rahbani, the Rahbani Brothers and Fairuz,” she says. “As my taste in music developed with age, I developed more appreciation for Fairuz. The diversity, the purity and the beauty she carries in every song she sings are just pure magic.” Nai will bring these inspirations to life when she plays in the UK – the orchestra will perform works by Fairuz and Umm Kulthum as well as Beethoven, Graham Fitkin and Mussorgsky.

Before the Nakba, Palestine was a hub for classical music and attracted musicians from across the Arab world, but 1948 damaged the music scene. Nai says initiatives like the Palestine Youth Orchestra and the emergence of music associations and foundations bring hope to young Palestinian musicians that classical music is being revived. But bringing music back into people’s homes “is not an easy job,” she warns, adding that the political decline in the years since 1948 “has had a tremendous effect on the social, economic and cultural aspects in Palestine. Unfortunately, art has become a privilege and not a right.”

Despite the setbacks, Nai says she is excited about singing with the PYO as part of their debut UK tour: “It means a lot to me to sing with the Palestine Youth Orchestra and to be a part of this incredible tour mostly because it gives me hope. It reminds me, and so many other people from all around the world, of the beauty, the talent, the musical level, the commitment and the [dedication] of these passionate young Palestinian musicians… Not only are we carrying our musical instruments to resist and fight for our freedom and human rights, but we are also… playing at such a high level and with so much integrity.”

Nai says she would like the audience to watch the orchestra first because of “the strength of the cause we carry”. Then she would like them to return and watch the orchestra again, because of how gifted they are as musicians. “I definitely see the Palestine Youth Orchestra as a way to represent Palestine and offer a different image of the country from what is often presented by the UK press,” she says. “The media tends to present a negative image of young Palestinians, who are regularly portrayed as violent or uneducated. The music we play shows courage, intelligence, beauty, talent, strength and unstoppable passion. Our dreams are what lead us and our cause is what keeps us going. We are Palestinian first and musicians second, but we play for both. We play because music is our strongest language, and because we are people with talent and bright futures.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor