Galilee Quartet: Playing for peace, love and humanity

From Beethoven symphonies to songs by legendary Arab singers such as Fairuz and Um Kalthoum, the Saad siblings’ exceptional performances have captivated crowds in Europe and in the Middle East

Omar Saad, the viola player who made headlines in 2013 for refusing to serve in the Israeli army, his two violinist brothers, Mostafa and Gandhi, and their cellist sister Tibah make up a classical string quartet – the Galilee Quartet.

From Beethoven symphonies to songs by legendary Arab singers such as Fairuz and Um Kalthoum, the siblings’ exceptional performances have captivated crowds in Europe and in the Middle East. Their political and social struggles have also put them under the spotlight.

The siblings, from the village of Maghar near Nazareth, played their first tunes at a young age. Art and the passion for art runs in the family, Tibah says. “Our parents both shared the same goal of teaching us and giving us this opportunity,” she continues.

The Saad siblings are all members of the Palestine Youth Orchestra, which was established in 2004 by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. Last year, they played with the orchestra in venues across the UK, concluding the tour with a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall where they received a full standing ovation.

 Unforgettable performances

That wasn’t the first time the siblings played in the UK. Omar’s first concert in the country was in 2015, when Amnesty International organised a tour following his release from military prison for refusing the draft seven times. The family quartet has since toured in the UK several times.

In 2013, the three brothers played with the BBC Proms monumental concert with Nigel Kennedy and the Palestine Strings in London’s Royal Albert Hall, winning the hearts of millions in Britain who tuned in for the live broadcast. Their performance was described by the Independent newspaper as “hauntingly beautiful”, while BBC Music Magazine praised their “mesmerising Arabic style”.

Mostafa, who was only 16 years old at the time, went back to play a duet solo with Nigel Kennedy, who hailed him as “a name for the future”, at the Last Night of the Proms.

The quartet’s most recent UK tour was in June 2017. Organised by Palmusic in collaboration with Amos Trust, the quartet held concerts in London and in Oxford. In each they played a number of classical western and Arabic pieces including some by Beethoven, Fairuz, Mohammed Abdel Wahab as well as their own compositions.

It’s nice to see people look at us in a loving way, in a kind of very nice gentle way while we’re playing,” Tibah says, “because they see three brothers and a sister connecting together through music.”

Political struggle

When Mostafa returned to the UK in 2014 to play with Nigel Kennedy once more during Bethlehem Unwrapped, Omar was in military prison.

Like other Druze born with Israeli citizenship, the Saad brothers are eligible for conscription at the age of 18 as per a 1956 Israeli law requiring all Druze males to serve three years of compulsory military service. “We identify ourselves as a part of the Arab, Palestinian nation,” Omar says.

As part of the Palestinian nation, as part of the youth orchestra, I couldn’t see myself replacing my musical instrument with a rifle, and denying my fellow brothers and sisters from entering their cities Jerusalem, Nazareth, Tiberias and Galilee.

His refusal was inspired by similar action taken by his father in the past, and his brother, Mostafa, has now also gained an exemption from military service.

Omar’s open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012 explaining why he was a conscientious objector, declaring, “I will not be the fuel to the fire of your war”, went viral. “I declare that I will refuse to serve in the army even if I’m jailed 60 times,” he wrote on Facebook.

“It was a very difficult experience,” Omar explains, describing his struggle inside prison after contracting a liver infection. “Because of the medical negligence I arrived at the hospital in the last moments and after 11 days in the Intensive Care Unit, I was released and sent back home for 40 days.” Upon his recovery, Omar had to go back to complete a total of nine months in prison before being exempt from military service.

“The only thing that kept me going were my family and my friends and also my will to continue in music,” he continues.

“Music is a way of resistance,” Tibah adds. “You need to give the best image of you as a human, and I think music is the best and purest way to do so because music is expression of feelings.”

With the support of Palmusic, Omar and Tibah are now gearing up to study music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow this September. However, their dreams do not stop there.

Omar hopes to one day join a renowned orchestra. “Maybe first viola in a very important orchestra in order to ask for people to come to Palestine and create together a Palestinian institute for higher musical education and arts education,” he explains.

“I hope and I dream that we will be the group that will teach chamber music and viola, violin and cello there,” Omar adds.

Gandhi, the quartet’s youngest member, also dreams of becoming a prominent soloist; “a violin soloist with a great orchestra,” as well as travelling the world with the quartet “to play for peace and love and for humanity.”


Lost in Palestine: A quest for identity

Palestinian filmmaker Alaa Ashkar investigates his heritage and that of his family who live within the Green Line.

An intimate account of the filmmaker’s quest for identity, “You reap what you sow” is Alaa Ashkar’s second film.

The simple storyline takes the audience along a journey with a Palestinian filmmaker who is living in France and wants to start a documentary on Palestinian memory in Israel. During a trip to his family’s home in Galilee, relatives expressed their concern about the film and the life choices made by the director, adding a further dimension to the production.

Ashkar’s first offering, “Route 60” showed an awareness of the policy of global Israeli colonisation and its effects on the land and people’s minds; however he now questions his family to better understand himself. Through this journey from childhood within his protective family to adulthood through his travels, we accompany the narrator into historical Palestine.

From the very beginning Ashkar tells MEMO: “Please make it clear that I am a Palestinian filmmaker who is a citizen of Israel and not an Israeli Arab filmmaker or an Israeli Palestinian.”

I refuse to call myself an Israeli Arab because Israeli Arab is an Israeli invention whose purpose is to make our Palestinian identity meaningless.

“For some of us, we are Arab Israelis, but is it the same as being Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian? For them, our references are the official authority. This is Israel, so they feel like Israeli Arabs. I am a Palestinian of Israeli citizenship. I am Arab because I belong to an Arab nation, but I am Palestinian… We must not deny who we are.”

Ashkar says of the film: “Some people expect to see different Palestinians, resistant, suffering from the occupation. But this film shifts away from that. This may come as a surprise. I wanted to give a different perspective on the Palestinians as they are seen in France. It’s not a militant film in the sense that it’s not going to speak directly about occupation, conflict, resistance,” Ashkar adds.

Though it does not tackle the question of occupation heads-on, it raises the issue of identity, memory and how Palestinians who remained in what became Israel in 1948’s Nakba are portrayed. Does this make it a film about militants?

If it’s in the sense of memory, then yes, my film is militant and resistant in the sense that I’m trying to maintain a memory. I am talking about the 1948 Palestinian question. We look a lot at the West Bank or Gaza, but we do not know this other Palestinian reality.

Palestinians represent 20 per cent of the population in Israel, most often marginalised in Israeli society. For the new generations, 1948, when Israel was created and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled, is a page of history – rewritten by the Israeli state – learned at school. Some families choose to forget their Palestinian identity to better help their children integrate. Double culture, double language, but finally a single identity, surrounded by silence.

Throughout the film Ashkar asks: “What is our identity?” The answers are all the more surprising and lead to an in-depth reflection of what it means to be a Palestinian in Israel. If the Palestinian memory is very much alive and well maintained in the West Bank, there seems to be a deficit of memory for Israeli Palestinians of 1948, those who are of Israeli citizenship and of “Arab” nationality.

We are not refugees. We have become Israeli citizens. We lived in Palestine and then suddenly we lived in Israel. The refugees have been ripped out of their homes; that’s the difference.

Ashkar’s young niece, who pops up throughout the film, highlights more questions of identity; that of today’s generation. Through her innocent and often childish questions she too is learning about her history, stories in which she doesn’t appear.

She is seen asking Ashkar which football team he would support, “his country France’s team”?

“The scene where she asks me why I do not support my country, France, shows that she is not aware of her identity either, like many Palestinian children in Israel. For her, Palestine is something else, it’s the West Bank. This is not our concern. She’s still small, 13 years old. As she grows up, she will do as others do: either she will proudly claim her Palestinian identity or she’ll be ashamed of it and hide it,” Ashkar explains.

The filmmaker describes daily life in Israel as being one that denies identity and creates discrimination. A citizenship that does not grant full equality of rights:

We are home and we are considered immigrants. It is a state considered to be made for the Jews. What is non-Jewish is considered to be inferior, individually and collectively.

“It’s all about military service. We are exempt from it. Only Jews are obliged to do it. Military service then gives us the right to benefits, access to housing, to study… We do not have the same rights, so there is a form of segregation. Many rights are conditioned to this military service. Even those who decide to volunteer in the army [they are very few among the Israeli Palestinians] remain collectively discriminated against. Arab localities do not have the same aid and advantages as Jewish localities.”

“Our parent’s generation lived in fear. The word Palestine or Nakba was forbidden, for example. Then there was an entire Israeli political process that wanted to erase this memory. Some young people of the new generation do not know much about their history. Their parents don’t want them to be interested in politics because it’s scary. There are similarities with the Algerians growing up in France who are cut off from their memory and history.”

The Israeli education system reinforces this, Ashkar explains, by erasing Palestinian memory. “At school we are not taught our history. There is a whole political, educational and media strategy to erase the memory of Palestine in general, but also of these Israeli Palestinians. For we are at the heart of the subject of memory.”

But is there still only one Palestinian memory left, or has it broken up into three parts: Gaza, the West Bank and the 1948 Palestinians? Land dispossession in the West Bank, confinement in Gaza, dispossession of the memory of the Ashkar family and so many others. All Palestinians are being besieged by a slow process of dispossession of their lands, homes and identities. Beyond that, according to Ashkar, is there still a Palestinian nation? “Yes, there is a Palestinian nation. But we are in a region where the stakes are so high that we sometimes feel cursed. We are also in a mosaic of identities that marks the political issue. The European nation-state is not the possible model in this region. The question of Palestinian identity is part of the Arab nation’s question. The only question that can be asked is: is there an Arab nation? The answer is yes. If there are tensions between the political groups, at the individual level, we are all Palestinians, despite different contexts. We are all Palestinians because we share the same history, the same memory and the same hopes.”

“I’m looking for the ideal Palestine through this film too. I want to sow the memory to reap the peace and quiet. In Israel, fear is sown to harvest walls. I wanted to sow honesty in order to reap the benefits of openness,” Ashkar concludes.


Palestinian artist gives voice to unrecognized villages

GAZA STRIP, Gaza City — Six children sit amid the leafless branches of a tree in an arid, barren landscape, a small weary-looking shed in the distance. The image, a photograph by Mohamed Badarne, is part of “Unrecognized Games,” a series featuring children from the 45 unrecognized villages in Israel’s Negev Desert, where more than 75,000 Bedouin live. Badarne told Al-Monitor that he wants to pose one key question through his work on the Bedouin: “Why is Israel destroying Negev villages?” Answering his own question, he replied, “Israel wants to eliminate the Palestinian presence from the pre-1948 territories.”

The term “unrecognized village” stems from Israel’s refusal to recognize Bedouin ownership of the land on which they have settled in the Negev, where they have had a presence since the seventh century, well before Israel’s establishment. As the Bedouin lack deeds or documentation of ownership, Israel refuses to provide their settlements with public services — that is, water, electricity, waste disposal and education and health facilities. In addition, the Bedouins’ homes are under the constant threat of demolition, because Israel considers them to have been illegally built. For instance, on Aug. 31, Israeli authorities used bulldozers to destroy containers used for storage as well as olive trees in several villages.

In 2011, the Israeli government approved the Prawer Plan, which aimed to move thousands of Bedouins, against their will, from their villages and resettle them in urban communities. The Bedouin, who live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, opposed the plan, emphasizing their historical ownership of the land. The United Nations has been calling on Israel to “recognize and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims.”

Life in the Negev, given the absence of public services and the state’s destruction of personal property, is insecure and tough, but the children Badarne has photographed have nonetheless managed to turn their surroundings into a playground: They climb trees; they play with the remains of broken or discarded objects; they run around on the sandy stretches of land and amuse themselves in front of a broken television set.

“Children make toys out of nothing. They create their own heaven among the rubble,” Badarne remarked. “I watched children playing atop power generators, knowing that they have no electricity to begin with.”

Badarne visited the Negev on numerous occasions between 2013 and 2015 and built relationships with the people he photographed. “The photos focus on Negev children and aim to show the struggle to survive despite the difficult living [conditions],” Badarne said. “These candid shots are to try to create local and global awareness about the situation in the Negev.”

“Unrecognized Games” was shown in Gaza City in March 2015, shortly after Badarne finished working on the series. “The same Israeli hand is destroying Gaza and Negev,” is how he described the aim of the exhibit there. In June 2016, the work was mounted in Berlin as part of the opening of Palestinian Days, an annual festival organized by the Committee for Solidarity with Palestinians. The artist also displayed the photographs this April during Israeli Apartheid Week in Doha. The series will travel to Belgium for an exhibition, beginning Oct. 2, organized by the Committee for Solidarity of Palestinians and the Municipality of Brussels.

Badarne was born in 1978 in the village of Arraba, in the Galilee. He has volunteered in refugee camps in the West Bank, where he organized a human rights movement with the young Palestinians living there. Until 2012, he earned a living as a high school teacher and as a project coordinator for a nongovernmental organization in the region. He then decided to devote his time to photography, offering workshops to aspiring photographers as well as taking photos of his own.

Badarne has assembled a large portfolio of images of the many aspects of Palestinian life, from children who work on the streets to the daily life of construction workers. Badarne remarked, “My aim is not to [just] take photos, but to create a narrative with them and use photography to cast an eye on the unseen, under the slogan of ‘art for change.’”

Displaying his photographs abroad, Badarne said, has helped raise awareness of the Palestinian cause, and he hopes that it has increased support for it. “This is what it means to mobilize art and use it to serve national interests,” he said, adding that such shows inform people that the Palestinians are not only concentrated in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also living in Israel, including the Negev. “My aim is to ensure that humanity, rather than injustice, dominates Palestinian lands.”

Hussam Salem, a Palestinian photographer from Gaza who has worked with Badarne, praised his work in “depicting reality through his photos and helping Palestine.” He told al-Monitor, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Salem believes that Badarne’s images, like those of other Palestinian photographers, show that life is worthwhile despite all its attendant difficulties. “A simple photo with a human touch satisfies you and reflects the concerns, happiness and sadness of that forgotten person in an unrecognized village. It gives them a voice.”