Playing for Peace: The Rise of Classical Music in Occupied Palestine

Playing instruments in the bathroom isn’t quite what you expect when you think of classical musicians, but this is exactly what Palestinian flute player Dalia Moukarker does to snatch a few moments of peace in her busy household. At 20, Dalia grew up in the village of Beit Jala, near to Bethlehem, as one of four siblings. From her bedroom window she can see part of the separation wall built by Israel, a constant reminder that travel restrictions are part of everyday life in the West Bank.

A budding musician, in autumn Dalia may be able to move beyond these limits. She has been offered a place at Karlsruhe music school in Germany and if her German visa materialises she will be one of a very small group of Palestinian musicians ever to have studied music in the West. Dalia is part of Palestine’s growing cohort of classical musicians who are finding their focus in Bach and Beethoven compositions.

Deep within the occupied West Bank, amongst the roadblocks and checkpoints, music associations are flourishing, which are all part of the blooming scene. In 1993 the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music was created, followed by the Al Kamandjati Association in 2002, and in 2010 the Palestine National Orchestra.

Dalia herself studies at the Barenboim-Said Foundation in Ramallah, a creation of Israeli (Argentinean born) Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-American Edward Said. The foundation supports peace throughout the Middle East, through the medium of music.

It is not that classical music within the West Bank is new; it is simply that it is being revived. Jaffa, before the nakba, was a buzzing cultural hub, teeming with musicians from across the Arab world. Tel Aviv hosted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, compiled of Arab and Jewish musicians. But 1948 saw the death of this scene, and 1967 certainly did nothing to improve it.

Its resurrection is not entirely straightforward. Financial problems ripple through the West Bank, and buying an instrument is an expensive pursuit. Kind acts of human nature have allowed Dalia to defeat this obstacle – Katharina Pistor, a Professor at Columbia Law School, sent her two flutes after she read a 2009 article in the New York Times which featured Dalia.

Like all young women, Dalia has role models and inspirations.

Encouraged by a German lady living in the West Bank, Dalia travelled with her to Germany in 2011 to look at music academies. Her walls are adorned with posters of French-Swiss flute player Emmanuel Pahud, from who she once received a master class.

For some, classical music carries traces of unorthodoxy, or collaborating with the enemy and they oppose its existence. Music lessons in Jenin have been banned and a school subject to arson attacks, leaving locals to speculate as to who was responsible. Yet for others it is a way to resist the occupation, to build bridges with other cultures outside its restricting borders, or to escape to a more beautiful place. Let’s hope Dalia’s success inspires thousands and more to fulfil their dreams, in spite of their restrictions.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor