A room in Gaza’s only music school fills with the sound of the qanun, a traditional Middle Eastern instrument, transporting listeners far from the impoverished territory.
Seven-year-old Zeina Al-Hamamra confidently picks out a melody on the instrument, a kind of zither, leaning forward to pluck the farthest strings with tiny fingers strapped with silver picks.
She smiles triumphantly as she finishes the piece, showing the fruits of the year of lessons she has taken at the Gaza Music School.
Here, the sounds of the bustling city outside give way to a different cacophony, where trumpet blasts compete with the low drone of a bow being drawn across the strings of a cello.
It’s a far cry from Gaza’s usual sonic landscape of car horns and vendors’ cries, the sudden crack as Israeli jets break the sound barrier, or the shattering crash of an air strike.
The school is the brainchild of Ibrahim Al-Najjar, a 64-year-old musician who sits down to join them, strumming the oud, or the Arabic lute, as Hamamra and another girl play the qanun, and a young boy beats out a rhythm on the traditional drum or tabla.
"Music is the centre of civilization, and we want these children to have access to that," he says, seated in his small office as the sound of a violin lesson next door trickles in.
Najjar, a Gaza-native, studied music in Cairo in the late 1960s, and taught in Kuwait and Romania before returning home in 1997, when he began working with Gaza’s education ministry to train music teachers.
During his 10 years with the ministry, he trained 37 teachers and developed a curriculum for teaching music, before leaving to set up his own music school for children in 2007.
But the venture was short-lived because he ran out of money.
A year later, he was approached by the AM Qattan Foundation, a London-based charity active in the Palestinian territories, which offered to fund a new music school, paying for lessons and instruments.
When it opened in October 2008, the school was an instant success, attracting 300 applicants for the 35 places then available.
No music in Gaza
But less than three months later, the school was leveled when Israel launched a devastating 22-day operation in Gaza, which destroyed much of the enclave’s infrastructure and killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.
"I was in my office when the war started. I was nearly killed because I was inside, alone," he says quietly. "All the instruments were destroyed, the entire building was destroyed in the war."
His students were devastated.
"They thought that there would be no more music after this war. I told them to think differently, that we would rebuild," he says.
"There was a need to play music to forget the war, to give the children a chance to be happy again."
With Qattan’s help, the school reopened five months later in a new 10-room building with 13 music teachers, most of them Palestinians but among them a number of Russian and Romanian women married to local Gazans.
It is open for four hours a day, six days a week and now has 126 young students who study any one of eight instruments: piano, violin, cello, trumpet, nayy (oriental flute), qanun, oud or guitar.
It also has a 40-strong choir and a small orchestra.
The school’s hallways are lined with pictures of musicians and composers, with Chopin hanging next to Syrian-Egyptian legend Farid Al-Atrash, in keeping with the school’s emphasis on both Western and Oriental music.
In one room, Ahmed Abu Amsha coaxes his eight-year-old student through a guitar piece, patiently stopping and restarting when she stumbles.
"There’s no music in Gaza, so the children don’t understand anything about it," he says. "But music is so important.
"It’s more important now than ever," he says.
"After the war, the children were in really bad shape, they suffered a lot. Learning to play… makes them feel they can be special and it allows them to be children again. This really makes me happy."
Liliane Al-Madhun, a confident 13-year-old with dimples, wanted to play the piano when she started at the school — a common choice, Najjar says, simply because it’s the only instrument most students have heard of.
She was encouraged to try the qanun instead, and now happily demonstrates her proficiency.
"I love it so much. When I play, I feel happy, I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but I feel different, I’m in a different place," she says.
But she confesses three years of lessons haven’t changed her perspective on the traditional Arabic music to which the qanun is central.
"I hate Arabic music! It’s so boring and sad. I love Justin Bieber!" she says enthusiastically, showing off a picture of 17-year-old Canadian pop idol on her mobile phone.
While Bieber might not be to Najjar’s taste, he’s happy to be cultivating a passion for music among his students.
"I think music is in our lives whether we want it or not. When our hearts beat — boom, boom, boom — it’s music, it’s a rhythm," he says.
"A bird, the wind, the trees, they all make music.
"And music changes the behavior of the children. It helps them become more normal. In Gaza we need music."
A total of 126 students study any one of eight instruments: piano, violin, cello, trumpet, nayy (oriental flute), qanun, oud or guitar. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)