Stuck in Gaza: young Palestinian musician on British Council bursary scheme misses out

- 5 August 2014

Rosenna East had hoped to talk to young musicians from Palestine when they were in the UK for a bursary scheme run by the Choir of London. As the war in Gaza continues, however, one has been left behind

Sara is a talented 14-year-old music student, who'd like to play her piano more often. But she lives in Gaza City.

From Gaza with love: a photo posted by Sara on social media

Sara is a talented 14-year-old music student, who’d like to play her piano more often. But she lives in Gaza City.

‘I haven’t been able to play very much since this war started,’ she tells me sadly, because my piano is placed beside the window in my bedroom, which is quite dangerous. If they bombed near our building, the glass might fall and hurt me.’

‘You know Gaza gets bombed every now and then, and whenever they bomb anywhere, you can hear it really well. You feel like you’re the one getting bombed. Sometimes you end up having to check whether the building you live in was the one that was bombed or not. It’s horrible.’

Sara and her family have been confined to their house for three weeks when we speak and, as I write, it is still too dangerous for them to venture out under the Israeli bombardment. At this intensely difficult time, music provides them with some comfort. ‘I sometimes manage to move the keyboard away from the window. It’s heavy, but I do it so that I can play a little bit. My family love to hear me play!’

As if things weren’t bad enough, the timing of this war has an extra cruel twist for Sara. In July, she had been meant to travel to the UK for the first time in her life, to participate in the Choir of London Bursary Scheme. Supported by the British Council, this scheme is designed to enable Palestinian teenagers to experience musical life in the UK through an intensive two week summer music residency. Sara was one of only five teenagers to win a coveted place this scheme, beating off competition from across the Occupied Palestinian Territories. And she was the only student chosen from Gaza.

Instead of checking her building for bomb damage, Sara should have spent July playing music with other talented teenagers. Her counterparts on the Bursary scheme were able to join British teenagers on a Pro Corda Chamber Orchestra course in Sussex, learning and performing Beethoven’s seventh symphony together. They also received masterclasses at the Royal Academy of Music on their chosen instruments, percussion workshops, Alexander Technique lessons, and chamber music sessions with London professionals. And at the end of all this, they performed a public showcase concert at the Mosaic Rooms in Earls Court, where they were joined on stage by top UK professionals, including British tenor Allan Clayton.

Lamar, another 14-year-old musician, travelled from Bethlehem after winning a place on the Bursary scheme. Although Lamar is a violinist now, she plans to become a conductor. ‘There are no conductors in Palestine – to be the first conductor in Palestine, that would be good!’

She received a masterclass in conducting with Graham Ross, Director of Music at Clare College Cambridge, and also had the chance to conduct the Choir of London during their final showcase concert. ‘It was an amazing feeling,’ enthused Lamar afterwards, ‘a very good experience and chance to have. I learned many many things and met many people who specialise in conducting. My biggest dream came true through this amazing chance.’

Dismayed that Sara was not able to join them in London, Lamar says, ‘You see how they are stopping her from her dreams? It’s really sad.’

But despite being stuck in Gaza with the violence continuing, Sara continues to dream. ‘I was eight when I started to learn the piano, and that was really when I knew that maybe we have to figure out a new way to deal with our conflict, to let the world know who we really are, despite what we live in. We’re still humans who have dreams, and we’re striving to make them come true.’

‘I guess music is a really great way to tell our story – the language that everyone relates to and understands. Music in general means a lot to me, to everyone here actually. I don’t know how to express all the feelings that come to me when I am playing those [piano] keys. But I really do believe that music can change people, and people can change the world.’

Rosenna East is a professional violinist who has worked in post-conflict zones in Bosnia, Croatia and Sri Lanka, with children suffering from war trauma.

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