It's 4 p.m. on a sweltering June Saturday at Bourj al-Shamali. That means it is time for bagpipe practice at this Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Lined up two by two, 14 young men and women advance up the stage steps in the peach-colored community center's rehearsal room, the bleating of their bagpipes drowning out the muezzin call for afternoon prayers.
They march with sharp military precision, in marked contrast to the chaos and tumultuous unpredictability that life in the refugee camp brings.
The pipe and drum corps, named Guirab, teaches children as young as 8 not only music, but self-esteem. Since launching in 1996, Guirab has grown to 40 members. Under often unspeakably harsh living conditions, the budding musicians learn self-reliance, pride, and responsibility. Discipline is stressed – practice starts sharply at the top of the hour. No stragglers allowed.
The bagpipe band has played throughout much of Europe, including in Norway and a 17-city Italian tour. Guirab was the only Arab music group tapped to participate in France's Interceltic Festival of Lorient, a celebration of all things Celtic that draws more than 650,000 visitors each year. In October, they will return to Italy.
Guirab's mission is simple: to break down stereotypes through music by creating a bond that words often cannot. "If you make a speech, maybe people don't care who's talking, but the international language is the music," says Mahmoud Aljoma, who runs the social care and vocational training center that houses the bagpipe band.
"There are bad things in the media outside," Mr. Aljoma says. "Sometimes, they think you are Palestinian, you are living in the camps, you are a terrorist. They think like this, and this is not true."
The band resurrects the music that some believe the Palestinians may have played as early as the 12th century. What is known for sure is that the Palestinians were reintroduced to the bagpipe while under British rule from 1920 to 1948.
Guirab plays British bagpipe melodies, but often throws in Arabic rhythms as well, using a traditional Arabic goblet-shaped hand drum, called a dorbaki, alongside the snare drums. There are no kilts here: The women in Guirab perform in brightly colored hijabs; men wear kaffiyehs and embroidered vests. Today, they all rehearse in modified sailor suits with intricate stitching on their lapels.
Aljoma, who has lived in Bourj al-Shamali since 1960, has run the center since 1986. It is supported by Beit Atfal Assumoud, a nongovernmental organization that operates similar centers for children, many of them orphaned, in 10 of the 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
"Their life is closed in front of them, so I started thinking how to make some program to [help] the [children] to feel they are human," Aljoma says of the refugees. Although Palestinians aren't permitted to own property in Lebanon, are barred from at least 70 professions, and don't qualify for any of the country's social services, "it is possible to give hope to the people," he says.
Established in 1956 following the 1948 displacement of the Palestinians after the establishment of Israel, Bourj al-Shamali lies on the outskirts of Tyre, the fourth largest city in Lebanon, located less than 25 miles from the Israeli border. Fields of lush banana plants and lemon trees, as well as beautifully preserved Roman ruins, nestle up against the Mediterranean in the town once conquered by Alexander the Great. The camp's original 7,000 refugees have swelled to 20,000 in roughly the same space as when it opened.
With funding coming primarily from private donations and international non- governmental organizations (NGOs), the four-floor Bourj al-Shamali center is an oasis – colorful drawings of Winnie the Pooh and Papa Smurf highlight the kindergarten class walls – amid a makeshift city of dilapidated concrete buildings. Metal rods stick up from crumbling plaster slabs due to lack of building materials in what Beit Atfal Assumoud calls the poorest refugee camp. Many apartments, some of which house up to 11 people in 650-square-foot apartments, have leaking, corrugated zinc roofs and broken windows. Power cables and drying laundry are strung up haphazardly between buildings across narrow passageways.
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."
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."