On Sunday morning Israeli soldiers entered Ramallah’s main shopping street searching for “wanted men” and randomly shot live bullets injuring five people, including my neighbour’s son Shadi, who was opening his shop. At the time, his parents were walking to church. They are from the small Christian Palestinian community in Ramallah, once a majority that has generally enjoyed excellent relations with Muslims. It may seem irrelevant to write about a choir given such events here or Israel’s continuing violent assault on Rafah in southern Gaza, which has taken a shocking toll in lives, injuries and destroyed houses. Indeed two weeks earlier on 18 April when shops in Ramallah closed out of respect for the 14 people killed that morning in Rafah, I wondered whether the Jerusalem choir would meet that evening to rehearse. A stupid thought really, as the choir is another form of Palestinian “Sumud” – steadfastness.
My introduction two years ago to the Jerusalem choir was in a large school hall. At one end, about 15 Palestinians and “internationals” of all ages sat facing a tiny woman next to a zimmer frame. After noisy welcomes, and enquiries about what “voice” I sang, the pianist Nadia clapped her hands and everyone launched into “la la la” up the scales. Scores of Mozart’s Coronation Mass were handed round and the conductor Salwa coaxed us through it. When the sopranos faltered, she chided: “You sound like strangled chickens” to peals of laughter. It was an immensely warm, unruly affair, conducted in Arabic and English and punctuated with jokes.
Since 1955, the choir’s chequered life has been inextricably bound up with political events here. For its Palestinian members mainly from the Christian Arab community, keeping it alive is a way of surviving and resisting the occupation.
Gabby Baramki started the choir in 1955 while teaching at Birzeit Junior College (now Birzeit University near Ramallah). He and his friends wanted to widen the appreciation and performance of classical music, since in Palestine there was virtually no such musical tradition, apart from lessons at the Quaker boys” and girls” schools in Ramallah (founded over 100 years ago).
Until 1967, it was easy to travel the short distances between Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron, so in 1956 the choir started rehearsing in St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. In the early 1960s it began performing at Easter and Christmas in the cathedral. Gabby recalls: “The choir was performing for a community which had never experienced such musical performances. We had our own following, including many from foreign consulates.”
Following the Israeli occupation in 1967 the choir stopped for three years. The first year of occupation was a tremendous shock for the whole of Palestinian society, physically, practically and psychologically; people were just surviving what was happening. In 1970 it restarted, with support from the Jerusalem YMCA and in 1972 Salwa Tabri joined as conductor and Nadia Abboushi as pianist. Nadia had known about the choir since childhood. “Classical music was not part of popular Palestinian culture, but at that time there was a larger middle class in Ramallah that enjoyed classical music and we were hungry for it.”
Although of different generations Nadia and Salwa have similar backgrounds. Both were raised in Ramallah, attended the Quaker Friends Girls” School and studied music abroad before returning to Ramallah to teach music. In 1993 they helped establish the National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah.
In 1987 political events again intervened. The choir stopped meeting for five years during the first Intifada, a time of great political activity and disruption. In the first year schools were closed for six months, Israeli soldiers were on the streets and there were constant curfews. By 1991 Israel initiated its policy of “closure”: the “pass” system of permits to control Palestinian movement in and out of Israel and within the occupied Palestinian territories.
But members were determined to revive the choir and in 1992 it regrouped, first in Ramallah but then in 1993 in Jerusalem after the signing of the first Oslo Accords (the negotiations that led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority and divided the occupied territories into different zones). The next years were, as Nadia puts it, “a time of benevolent occupation”. The choir travelled each week to Jerusalem in a hired van, more internationals joined and members returned from Bethlehem and Hebron. But the closure policies intensified during this period of “peace”. Population centres were separated by growing numbers of army checkpoints, the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and a vast network of Israeli highways. The choir’s performances in other West Bank towns aimed to break the isolation and separation between communities
Eventually frustrations with the Oslo process, deteriorating economic conditions and the tightening occupation control led to the current Intifada in September 2000. Again the shrunken choir retreated to Ramallah. Since then it has only performed once outside Ramallah, in December 2001 in Beit Jala refugee camp (outside Bethlehem) in a church that was hit by Israeli gunfire as they sang. Members recall the risky journey with “internationals” packed at the front of the bus, which erupted into “Hallelujah” as it passed the checkpoint. When it could not travel to Bethlehem in December 2002, the choir performed secular songs of protest in the mud at the Qalandia checkpoint south of Ramallah.
The choir is more than an enjoyable musical activity.. It expresses different identities and political realities. Concerts always include one or two national songs sung in Arabic. The classical music performed often has a particular resonance. Salwa recalls: “My first concert was Haydn’s ‘In Time of War’, so appropriate as we sang it during the October 1973 Israeli-Egyptian war.”
It is a way of carrying on life as normally as possible. People attend rehearsals even under curfew, or as last week during violent incursions elsewhere. Christo Bursheh, a dentist who joined in his 20s, and active in the movement for normal communal activities here, is totally committed. “Even if I come late because of other meetings, I never miss a rehearsal – it is part of keeping things going and staying here.”
Its name is no misnomer. The choir is determined to rehearse and perform in Jerusalem again.