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Gaza artists not allowed to leave Strip: 'We just want to sing for love'

Israeli authorities did not permit Palestine Sings choir and Dawaween band to pass through Erez crossing despite having official invitations
Al-Sununu Institution, which was established in 2010, focuses on songs from Palestinian and Arab heritage (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza - In the past few months, the Gaza Strip has witnessed a burgeoning arts scene. The number of bands has skyrocketed, large concerts have taken place on a regular basis, and musicians have been invited to perform outside the densely populated, besieged area.

However, much to the dismay of the musicians, which of late included a children’s choir, Israel has routinely refused to give permits, most often without explanation.

Inexplicable Israeli rejection

The Palestine Sings children's chorus, which is a part of the UNICEF-funded Al-Sununu Institution for Culture and Arts, was recently invited to perform in the Palestine Choral Festival in the West Bank from 15-20 August. They planned to have workshops in Jenin and Jerusalem, in addition to holding two concerts in Bethlehem and Ramallah.

But after months of training and preparation, they were not permitted to leave Gaza by Israeli authorities only two days before their first concert was due to take place.

"We received the rejection letter on 15 August, two days before our first concert. All the names [of the participants] were rejected, including twenty-five children and five teachers,” said Haytham al-Mughanni, the choir’s coordinator. “We didn’t receive any explanation from the Israeli side, and we don’t know the reasons behind this rejection.”

Female members of the Palestine Sings children chorus look beyond the gate at Erez crossing (MEE/Mohammmed Asad)

Mughanni said they were granted permission to perform by the Palestinian General Authority for Civil Affairs in the West Bank, but that Israel overrode that decision.

“We applied to have the permissions by the General Authority for Civil Affairs in the West Bank, which is responsible for such official applications,” al-Mughanni added. “As usual, it was impossible to predict when the Israeli answer would arrive. After receiving the rejection, the General Authority for Civil Affairs tried hard to help us but without answers from the Israeli side.”

The choir decided to protest their rejection at the Beit Hanoun border crossing, which connects the Gaza Strip with Israel. On 21 August, the chorus group arrived at the border in their uniforms and the Keffiyeh, the Palestinian traditional scarf, and demonstrated staged a demonstration by singing a number of songs.

“We are very disappointed,” said Medo al-Ashi, a 15-year-old oud player and singer. “We are here to show the world that we don’t have weapons. We just want to sing for love and peace.”

'It’s more than a dream'

Al-Sununu Institution, which was established in 2010, focused on teaching children how to sing traditional Arab and Palestinian songs, but this year, they also began to teach them how to play music.

Most of the children joined the choir at Al-Sununu in 2011, and have sung together since then, making for a highly tight-knit group.

With 530 children distributed into choir teams and 80 students learning how to play music, Al-Sununu Institution plays an integral role in spreading arts and culture in Palestinian society. The Gaza Sings choir, which includes 25 children between the ages of 10-16, has been performing in the strip since 2011. In addition, they have regularly participated, via video conference, with some other choirs in Syria, the West Bank, Lebanon and Jordan.

Gada Nofal, a 14-year-old singer, told Middle East Eye: “I’ve never visited the West Bank,” she added. “Seeing Jerusalem, Jenin, Bethlehem, Ramallah for the first time is more than a dream for me, especially since I was going to sing on a national stage for the first time. On the other hand, I wanted to paint a good picture of Gaza's children and its talents.”

Gada Nofal, 14, said she has never visited the West Bank (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

Choir members say that participating in the choir has had a positive effect on their lives.

“It’s my fifth year in Al-Sununu. In fact, my musical experience here changed me,” said Bilal Saleh, a 15-year-old singer and oud player.

“It taught me to listen to others’ opinions and to respect their points of view. Furthermore, it inspired me not just to have unlimited dreams, but also to work hard to achieve them.” 

“After months of hard work, the only thing a musician can dream of is to perform on a stage and to see people’s positive reactions. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to experience this. I’m wondering why we were rejected and I really don’t have a logical answer,” he said.

According to one of the singers, 14-year-old Mariam Abu Hashish, the choir has been denied from leaving Gaza in the past.

“In 2011 and 2013, we had two opportunities to perform in France, and the two were denied in the same way,” she said.

However, despite this, the group has remained close.

“We are a real family,” said Hashish while taking selfies with her friends.

“We won’t give up. Being deprived of visiting our land in [the] West Bank will make us stronger and will inspire us to keep on trying, and to believe in our message,” she added.

Dawaween and modern music in Gaza

Last December, a group of four musicians decided to play music together, not knowing they would go on to create the most popular band in Gaza. The group calls itself Dawaween, which now has ballooned to 13 musicians, and they performed for the first time last January.

“Our first step was to create the band, then after our great success, we started to play in poetry events. Nowadays, we are looking forward to participating in events related to theatre,” said Adel Abed Alrahman, the band’s coordinator and founder. 

During the past eight months, Dawaween band has performed in seventeen concerts (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

During the past eight months, the Dawaween band has performed in seventeen concerts, among them the Palestine International Festival, wherein local and international bands play throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The number of concerts has markedly affected the general musical taste of Gazans and raised public awareness towards concerts and music.

Since Hamas’ took control of Gaza in 2007, musicians have faced many difficulties due to government interventions. Permits to hold concerts were difficult to obtain, and even those with permits were often cancelled. Strict religious adherence in Gaza has also stunted the proliferation of music in the Strip.

“We made a musical revolution in Gaza,” said Abed Alrahman. “Nowadays, it’s much easier to get a permit for a concert, and people have started to accept music.”

“Our message is to show how music can be a peaceful resistance tool and a perfect cure to people’s sufferings,” Adel Abed Alrahman said.

Dawaween adds moderns flairs to traditional Palestinian music by using Western musical instruments like drums and guitars.

Saeed Shahin, the 23-year-old percussionist of Dawaween explained, “We have different types of percussions in our band. This variety helped us re-arrange our traditional songs.”

“I feel that I’m in the right place. I’m very positive and productive here.”

“We strongly believe in our national and humanitarian goal. We want to reach all the Palestinian people inside and outside Palestine through our traditional songs,” Shahin added.  

Dawaween distinguished themselves by singing pure Palestinian songs with modern touch by adding Western musical instruments like drums and guitars (MEE/Mohameed Asad)

The thirteen musicians from Dawaween were scheduled to have their “dream concert” at the Palestinian National Theatre “Al-Hakawaty” in Jerusalem on 6 August as part of the Palestine International Festival. However, Israeli authorities denied permits for 11 of the 13 musicians.

“Although we predicted that this would happen, we still felt bitter at the injustice,” said Shahin.

As a result, the band decided to protest near the Beit Hanoun crossing at the same time that their concert was slated to take place.

“The Israeli violations against artists won’t break our will. We will keep on exposing their crimes by our art and music,” he ended.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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