Band practice for refugees
Young Palestinians gain self-esteem – and find a welcome precision – in a camp-based bagpipe band in southern Lebanon.
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One of Guirab's leaders, 29-year-old Ahmad Mhouad al-Joumah was 13 when he started coming to the center as a refuge from the camp's abject conditions. "I found this place was like a protection for me," he says. "Protection from violence; from many things in our society."Skip to next paragraph
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Even in a refuge, every step can be a struggle. Guirab bought its first bagpipes from families in Lebanon. They were old and in disrepair. Chanters were broken and mouthpieces so misshapen that the musicians' lips often bled during practice. Mr. Joumah laughs when he recalls those early days: "In the beginning, it was very difficult. You need a lot of pushing air and energy."
After years of well-meaning, but often misguided, self-instruction, a trained musician taught the students the correct way to play. Then, after performing in Lorient in 2006, came another, more tangible gift: The mayor of Brittany in France promised 10 new bagpipes at the cost of 2,000 euros each.
Traveling to Europe and the exposure to a way of life far beyond most Palestinians' reach can be painful. "I cry when I see places very nice and quiet and a place for children to play and nice streets and houses," Joumah says. "I feel sad because I think of the people in the camp and how we are living and how I grew up in this very bad condition and like a refugee. For us it's like a war."
But the rewards are also great. The music provides "a peaceful language between me and the other people," Joumah says. "We went to France. I never know these people in France, but they like me and they clap and they smile in my face."
The trips are paid for primarily by NGOs, which also help secure the visas. Additionally, each of the 250 children, called scouts, who use the center, pays 1,000 Lebanese pounds (70 cents) each month. This teaches them "to respect the regime in their life, build the character for the young," Aljoma says. "One important law for the scout: Do a good thing every day ... that helps to face the troubles [and] to build your character."
When a bagpipe player reaches 20, he or she becomes an instructor to the younger children in the program as a way to not only give back, but, more practically, to sustain the band. The older members, "they are getting married and having to go to work," Aljoma says. "So I think during any moment, they are unable to play bagpipes because they have another life."
Guirab avoids aligning itself with either Islamic militant Hamas or secular rival Fatah. "We do not belong to any party; we belong to our people," Aljoma says, although he hints at some troubles with the highly conservative Hamas. "They hated us to play music [and that] the two genders sit with each other," he says.
"This is the reason I love the bagpipe musical group – because we are equal," says 25-year-old Katia Abo Kharoub, who has been playing the bagpipes for more than a decade.
That feeling is what keeps Joumah coming back as well. But for him, it is the sense of equality he feels with the rest of the world when he plays music.
Ask Joumah what he receives from playing in the band and his answer is simple: "For us, from these bad conditions we want to show the people and to give a very good message about Palestinians: that we are like you; we can play music like you; we can smile; we can be like other people."
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