The conflicted role of music in Gaza


Naem Nasir in his early days of performing

"When music is suppressed within a society, there is something wrong within its history, ideology, mind and—of course—spirit," says Naem Nasir, a former music teacher and now a well-known director of plays produced in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Visitors to Gaza very quickly notice a strained relationship between local social norms and one of the most important facets of any culture—music. The practice and presence of music is limited, neglected and sometimes not even welcomed. Due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and the conservative, Islamic government and social norms, there are no music majors in secondary school or university, for example, and most of the few private teachers have left the Strip. The only music funded or otherwise supported to any significant degree is that which exalts Islam or a narrow definition of Palestinian heritage. (Hip hop music, for example, is frowned upon; the rapper known as "McGaza" moved to Tunisia a few months ago for greater freedom of expression. However, there still are a few Gaza rappers who persist.)

Once visitors pick up on this characteristic of culture in Gaza (and to a much lesser extent, the West Bank), they often ask, “Why did it evolve this way and when?” Naem Nasir is a music historian of sorts in Gaza—but he also speaks from painful personal experience about what he calls “the loss of our musical heritage.” 

Nasir is a Palestinian born in the Gaza Strip and now a theater director. But his original vocation was as a music teacher, both in Lybia and Gaza. Twice he has been imprisoned in Israel for protesting the occupation—the first time for two years while in high school and the second for six months during the First Intifada. It was during his first imprisonment that he composed two of his first musicals.

Nasir today

Over the course of his career, Nasir has produced and wrote more than 50 plays, musical scores and short poems—appearing in several short films along the way after he got his certification in drama and music from Ashtar Art School in Ramallah. The school sent foreign teachers to Gaza periodically and he was one of the fortunate few to be allowed to study with them for three years.

Nasir went on to participate in many Arabic and European festivals, which enriched his development as a composer and director—a benefit today’s Palestinian artists don’t have. Toward the end of the 1990s, he founded both the Masafat Theater Group and the Palestine Orchestra for Arabic Music in Gaza; however, Nasir was forced to shut both down less than a year later due to lack of funding. Nasir is still producing plays, but not music.

"My heart deteriorated after I had to close the orchestra,” he recalls. “I become really emotional whenever I remember the loss; the government couldn’t even afford a place for my musicians to rehearse."

Impact of occupation

Palestine had a rich and a very varied musical heritage (before 1948),” he says. “Every village had its own musical taste and style, different from other villages, and this gave birth to many unique, traditional songs. But that all changed when Israel was created and its forces occupied our land, tearing all this apart."

The displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians disrupted the social fabric, destroying along with it much of their cultural and musical heritage. Instruments typically weren’t among the items seized when people are in a rush to leave a house under siege, and living in squalid conditions in refugee camps is not conducive to a “luxury” like making music.

This destruction of a society, thought at first to be short-term but proven to be as good as permanent, had inevitable consequences that persist today. Every generation since 1948 evolves further away from its cultural roots. Moreover, notes Nasir, the cultures of the countries into which the refugees moved (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt) “invaded” over time what remains of Palestinian identity.

"I feel sick when I attend wedding parties in Gaza and don’t hear a single Palestinian wedding song played there, as we used to do years ago,” Nasir says. “Instead, we have these Egyptian songs and music styles, as if we do not have wedding songs of our own."

He adds, however, that the music of many of neighboring countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan, borrowed heavily from the original Palestinian music.

There also has been a push over the years to revive and nurture Palestinian heritage. And some Palestinian youths listen and feel an affinity to what now is called Palestinian music, with its themes related to patriotism, wars and lost land. But this, says Nasir, is not representative of the rich breadth of the original Palestinian music.

"Over time, the occupation narrowed Palestinian music to specific niches,” he explains. “It’s like the occupation of the land is now also an occupation of our culture and our minds. We focus almost exclusively on the need to uplift the spirit of Palestinians, free our land and honor the martyrs and their mothers.”

Still another layer of occupation that has affected musical expression among Palestinians, especially in Gaza, is the Israeli blockade, which prevents most musical instruments, as well as performers and teachers, from entering.

The Edward Said Conservatory is Gaza's only music school

For example, Khamis Abushaban, of the Edward Said Conservatory of Music in Gaza, recently told The Independent that, “We had a cello teacher who was living here since 1997 but this year she had to go back to Romania for personal reasons. We had a Russian colleague who taught guitar and trumpet, but unfortunately, she left in October too. Of course, here we have no replacement. So those lessons are gone.”

Nasir observes, "The siege has doubled the problem! In my youth, I used to be able to travel to Europe and interact with other musicians from different nationalities who play other genres of music from all over the world. Thus, I was able to develop my own, unique style of music, as a Palestinian, by seeing how different or similar it was to others'. I could learn from other techniques, while protecting it from being confused with neighboring musical styles, especially Arabic, Egyptian, Turkish or what is called Israeli music."

The characteristics that make Palestinian music unique now have become so vague, says Nasir, that Palestinian youth today often do not recognize the music or songs that originated in their own culture, other than those with patriotic themes.

Impact of religious trends

Another limiting force on music in Gaza today is what Nasir labels false religious beliefs.

Most sheikhs (religious scholars) in Gaza regard music as haram (prohibited) except those related to motherhood, patriotism and Islam, which they call anasheed rather than "songs" (meaning they are halal, or accepted).

"Music is haram because it distracts the self from its main goal in life, which—for any Palestinian Muslim—is whatever benefits his religion or frees his holy land, Jerusalem,” explains Gaza sheikh Majdi Ibrahim. “So, if music talks about topics like love or other trivialities, it is haram. And learning how to play a musical instrument is devilish."

Nasir responds that this is an extreme interpretation of Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia, and is not, and should not be, universal. And, in fact, many Gazans do not believe in such a strict interpretation. For example, Mohammad Assaf, the first Gazan Palestinian to win the Arab Idol competition, performed many Western pop songs and was encouraged by his friends and family. That’s not to deny that he had his detractors; he remains a controversial figure in Gaza.

Several youths in Gaza interviewed for this piece, but who did not want to be named, said they would be afraid to publicly embrace other types of music. “Society, as well as our parents, believes that ‘music is only for partiers and losers, who have not been guided by Allah to the righteous path’,” said one. "It is not the image they want for us in front of society and relatives; they want us to be doctors, engineers and 'religious' people."

This strict “Wahhabi” (Saudi) interpretation of Islam first began becoming prominent in Gaza in the 1970s and then accelerated when Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. As a result, most Gazan adults—who are today's parents—lost any deeper connection with music.

A cumulative oppression

As a result of all of these dynamics, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found in 2015 that only 39.2 percent of Gazans listen to music, compared to 71.2 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Gaza's new music store

However, there are some early signs of resurgence: A store that sells musical instruments  opened in Gaza in 2017. And in October, diploma programs in drama and music opened at Gaza University, the first of their kinds. (Note, however, that the university’s website cautions that the programs will be offered for only a year, until the need for these professions decreases. In addition, no actual instruction with instruments will be offered; the focus is viewed as more technical than “fine arts”—preparing people to work in radio and TV, for instance.

Finding instructors for those programs will be a challenge. There is no government funding for teaching or reviving Palestinian musical heritage and fewer than five centers/institutions that teach music in all of the Gaza Strip.

Is all of this important, given the dire economic conditions in Gaza? Music doesn’t put food on the table, after all. Nasir says “yes.” When there is a destruction of any aspect of culture, he says, it is easier for Israel and other colonial powers to fill the gap with their own inventions—and thus destroy the very existence of a Palestinian identity.

This feature originally was published in the Washington Report for Middle East Affairs. Note that since then, We Are Not Numbers sponsored Gazavision, an online song contest, to support musicians in Gaza.

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