Teaching music in Palestine
Eoghan Ó hArgáin and his violin have spent the summer so far in Nablus, sharing his passion for music with local children
Eoghan Ó hArgáin
I am seated on the back seat of a shared taxi travelling to Asirah al-Qibliya, a small rural village of approximately 3,500 inhabitants located outside the ancient city of Nablus in the occupied Palestinian Territory. My violin is squashed between my legs, as I look out at the sun-scorched countryside covered in olive trees as far as the eye can see.
The taxi follows a winding route up a hill leading up to my destination, perched on the side of a valley. As I step outside into the street I am surrounded by several curious children. A lady named Hakima ushers me and my translator Baha into a walled courtyard shaded by vines. We gratefully accept an icy cold drink before entering a low darkened doorway at the end of the courtyard.
It is my first lesson as a music teacher with Music Harvest, an Irish organisation that recruits international volunteers to teach music in under-resourced communities in the Middle East. Having been taught how to play the violin and piano at an early age, I am keenly aware of how beneficial learning music is for children, as a means of communication, as a social outlet, and as a means of reflection and relaxation.
The tiny dimly lit room has a low dome-shaped ceiling. Natural light filters through a solitary tiny caged window. Several dusty plastic chairs are placed randomly around the doorway. Propped in the corner is an old broken blackboard. Slowly, a trickle of apprehensive looking children aged between four and 12 enter, and fill the seats at the back.
After taking the attendance, I start the lesson by playing a relaxing piece of classical music through a set of speakers I have brought with me. As a means of focusing everyone’s attention on the lesson, both I and the children rotate our heads, arms and shoulders. We shake our legs and hands before one final stretch.
The room shakes as a number of large trucks rumble by outside in quick succession, their deafening engines struggling on the steep incline. That explains the thick layer of dust covering the floor and chairs. I later learn that there are a number of ongoing infrastructure projects in the village, the foremost being the digging of a well to provide a sustainable source of water.
I am curious as to the level of musical knowledge of the children so I ask them to sing me a song. They are shy at first, but growing in confidence and led by the eldest student Fadi, they sing a powerful rendition of the Italian partisan song, Bella Ciao. Encouraged by their own performance, they instantly break into a chorus of two other songs, I like the Flowers and Row, Row, Row your Boat. Excellent, I tell them.
Satisfied now that the children are aware of basic rhythm and harmony, I next move onto rhythm and clapping exercises, and then sol-fa and harmony. The children’s enthusiasm for the exercises grows when I turn them into competitions amongst the class.
When the children’s concentration starts to wane, I play them a tune on my violin and, though my full-sized instrument dwarfs them in size and many struggle to lift it, they all want to have a try. At this point, Hakima, who has been observing quietly at the back, asks whether I play the guitar, telling me that the previous music teacher taught the guitar. I regretfully inform her that I do not. She notes that there are a total of three guitars to share between the children of the village and asks me whether I know of any organizations which might provide funding for the purchasing of some more.
The final exercise is a game of musical chairs to the sound of a popular Egyptian song – leading to the children excitedly running around with massive smiles on their faces. Afterwards they run out of the classroom shouting “Masalama” – goodbye. Before leaving, Fadi approaches me and tells me that he too is going to be a music teacher in the future.
Sitting in the courtyard after my lesson, Hakima explains why learning music is so important for the children of Asirah al-Qibliya. Amongst the many fears she has for these children, she discusses some that many parents in under-resourced communities in the Western world might relate to. She tells me there is nothing for children in Asirah al-Qibliya to do when school finishes. If they wish to play outdoors the only place they can gather is in the street, often with negative consequences. In the previous year, three of the village children were knocked down on the road outside the classroom.
With no activities, tension often builds, and the previous week Hakima had to bring a child to the hospital following a violent fight with another child from the village. If children remain indoors, the only outlet they have is to go on Facebook. Hakima worries about the impact the internet is having on the children, believing it often encourages children merely to receive information and not to think for themselves. Hakima tells me that since music lessons started in Asirah al-Qibliya some of this pressure on the village children has eased. Children enjoy learning music. They have learnt songs in English, Italian, French and Swahili. But what they have appreciated the most from taking music lessons is the cultural exchange.
I depart from Asirah al-Qibliya in the shared taxi, reflecting on my visit to the village. My time there has also been a lesson to me. I imagine the weeks ahead and what songs I will teach. With their impressive initial performance earlier, the children have given me a challenge which I will have to meet.
Eoghan Ó hArgáin is a musician and solicitor. He is teaching music in Nabulus in Palestine with the Irish charity Music Harvest, www.musicharvest.org