Bringing People Together Through Music in Gaza

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In many ways the concert was similar to others that Burlington-based violinist Michael Dabroski has performed: a church full of eager faces, engaged by Michael’s animated play, enthralled with the symmetrical beauty of Bach’s chamber music. Only this December concert was in the Gaza Strip, a highly populated war-sieged strip of land, currently under flood conditions with unemployment exceeding 70 percent, attended by a people of Muslim and Christian faiths starved for art and music and freedom.

It was no easy task getting into (and out of) Gaza and included a chauffeured armored escort with the French consulate and a six-hour wait through a Hamas checkpoint. Currently the United States does not recognize the government of Gaza, and warns its citizens about enteringentry into the area.

But when asked why this concert was so important for him to perform, Michael replied, “simply because they don’t get to hear this music, ever, and I have trained a lifetime for this moment! It is about bringing Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Gaza. It is a powerful way to connect with people across culture, language and politics — and a tremendous gift to people who are suffering.” Truly appreciative of the concert afterwards, Dabroski was impressed by the universal message from the people of Gaza: “We are like you; we want to do things — create, make music, travel — but we cannot go there.”

Michael arrived in Ramallah the day before a historic blizzard dropped 18 inches of snow, the likes of which have not been seen in this desert town in over a hundred years. His goal included performing in a two weeklong Baroque Music Festival presented by Ramzi Aburedwan, a violist, co-artistic director and founder of Al Kamandjati (”The Violinist”) in Palestine, and to better understand the people and dynamics of this walled land. Ramzi grew up in this Israeli occupied territory of the West Bank, “I used to throw stones,” he said, “but now I make music. Instruments not guns.” Through music, Ramzi theorizes, he has learned tolerance and balance, and through music Palestinians can hold on to an ancient and fading culture.

Ramzi began the festival eight years ago with the intent to engage Palestinian youth to play music, many who cannot afford lessons and do not have access to instruments. Ramallah’s population is largely youth—by some estimates over 65 percent are under age 18, and they are a handsome, strong, energetic population — with nothing to do. There is a simmering energy evident in this growing, occupied population and music (both classical and middle eastern styles) harnesses this energy into a creative flow that satisfies both listener and performer. The festival brings music to several cities in the West Bank, including Jerusalem.

“I cannot go there,” said Munjed Alhusseini of Ramallah, the director of the Episcopal Technological and Vocational Training Center (Evangelical School) who hosted the festival’s musicians. “I was born there, but I cannot go there, because I am not Israeli and need a visa.” In fact, most Ramallahn’s cannot leave the West Bank, the occupied territory that includes several refugee camps.”

Despite the weather, which included several days without electricity (and therefore no heat) Al Kamandjati festival musicians rehearsed for hours, huddled around battery-powered lights and a propane gas stove. Musicians gathered from all around the world: Belgium, England, France, Italy and included an entire chorus from Worcester, Mass. along with two Burlington singers. The festival culminated in a production of Handel’s “Messiah” performed in Bethlehem and Ramallah, and the magnificent church of St. Ann in Jerusalem, along with several concerts in smaller Palestinian towns.

Bethlehem itself is surrounded by a 28-foot concrete wall, topped with barbed wire and interrupted by guard towers, built by the Israelis to “protect their people,” it is a sight to see — and no denying the prison this wall signifies. The wall extends around much of the West Bank, separating Palestinians from their neighbors, olive orchards, water supply and sometimes, their livelihood. Palestinian artwork covers the wall — heart-wrenching paintings describe their loss of hope and need for resistance — seeking a way to “go there.”

Our fair city of Burlington has a “Sister City” relationship with Bethlehem, and in this capacity Michael delivered a kind message of seasonal good wishes from Mayor Miro Weinberger, to Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Baboun. At Mayor Baboun’s request, Michael performed a spontaneous “Gloria” melody solo, in her office overlooking the Church of Nativity, built in 329 AD on the site where the star of Bethlehem marks the place where Jesus was born.

Luca Franzetti, Italian cellist who has taught and performed with Al Kamanjadti these last three festival years says, “Music is all about acceptance — you blend one instrument along with another, just like that — and you must accept and adapt or there is no music.” Luca treated the audience to an inspired performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major. These musicians seem to understand implicitly the need for compromise, for ideas to co-exist and blend in a way that supports both and benefits all. This was evident as side-by-side Palestinians and westerners performed together in a transcendent Handel’s Messiah: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things.” 

Michael's travels taught him much about the day-to-day, personal nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are Israeli roads and “the Arab way.” Palestinians, limited by a green license plates, are not allowed on the larger roads that are well maintained and provide faster transport. Israelis, with their yellow license plates, may not be ticketed by Palestinian police. Palestinians are subject to “check points” where armed Israeli soldiers decide who can pass between gates. It is difficult to watch the humiliation of this proud people.

No matter where he went, Michael found a people engaged in improvement, looking for solutions, and desiring nothing more than to be able to have their own state, and to go where they’d like to go.