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Musical bridges across Palestinian diaspora

Some of the 80 players in the Palestine Youth Orchestra, a product of the Edward Said Conservatory.

Palestine Youth Orchestra: A Bridge to the World

By Tariq Shadid, Palestine Chronicle
Mar 21 2013

It must already be obvious that the struggle for Palestinian liberation and independence does not benefit in any way from isolationism. On the contrary, reaching out to the peoples of the world is an important method of creating worldwide understanding and recognition for our aspirations as a nation. Of course we would love to see people everywhere giving their unconditional blessings to those among our people who protest against the Israeli occupation in the streets, but this is difficult to achieve if there is little awareness of who we really are as a people. In more simple terms: people who are only known for their anger, no matter how justified that anger is, do not easily make friends.

In the face of an intense campaign of dehumanization in Western mainstream media, where efforts are made to mendaciously depict Palestinians as ‘terrorists’ incapable of displaying any behavior above the level of violent barbarism, there is a real and significant need to counter this distorted image. For people to see the Palestinians as they really are, a sophisticated, proud and ambitious nation that attaches a high value to education, culture and refinement, the audience must be brought into contact with Palestinians who engage in ordinary societal activities.

These activities cannot be caught within some limited definition. Rather, they entail any activities that bring people together, which automatically includes all forms of artistic, intellectual or physical expression such as music, sports, literature, acting, film-making and dance, to mention only a few. Whenever people from outside of Palestine see Palestinians engaging in such activities, their one-dimensional image of the angry Palestinian resistance fighter suffers a major blow, and they discover that Palestinians are a people just like any other, with hopes, dreams and ambitions indistinguishable from their own.

When such bridges of identification are built, demonization efforts as undertaken by the Zionist-influenced media and entertainment industry of the West become thwarted in a way that poses a significant challenge to their otherwise overwhelming clout. The Palestine Youth Orchestra provides an excellent way to build these bridges, not only between East and West but also between Palestinians within Palestine and those in the diaspora. These latter bridges are of at least equal importance as the former, since they counteract the continuous attempts of the Israelis to drive as many wedges as possible between Palestinians who have been driven apart by geographical separation.

In this role, the Palestine Youth Orchestra functions as a mesmerizing ambassador for our people, with more bridge-building potential than any political ambassador could ever have. This can be illustrated by examples: in recognition of Palestine being its most recent member, and in respect of Palestine’s recent cultural landmark achievements, the Palestine Youth Orchestra received patronage from the Italian National Commission of UNESCO in 2012 for its tour of Italy. The Palestine Youth Orchestra has also performed in Jordan, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Bahrain and Palestine. Plans for 2013 include performances in Palestinian towns and cities, before continuing its tour in Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Busan (South Korea).

The 75 musicians participating in the Palestine Youth Orchestra comprise of male and female students of music between 13 – 26 years of age, some of whom study in and outside of Palestine, and some having recently graduated and standing at the beginning of their musical careers. They include Palestinians from the diaspora, from countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria and Egypt, as well as from countries outside of the Middle East. Not only does the Orchestra strengthen the ties between the various communities of our people, but it also serves to protect, maintain, and further develop our cultural heritage and collective identity.

The Edward Said National Conservatory was founded in 1993, and named after the late intellectual giant and music lover Prof. Edward Said in 2004. It currently has five branches located in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Gaza, with over 1000 students altogether. The institution lives up to the vision of its namesake by providing a solid basis for Palestinian musical education. In doing so, it pays due respect to Arabic classical music as much as it does to the widely established tradition of Western classical music, with its worldwide cosmopolitan appeal and recognition. Besides this, it has an eye for the preservation and continuation of Palestinian traditional music as well, and also reaches out to more modern forms of musical expression.

The fact that my musical project, the Musical Intifada, which encompasses many different styles of contemporary music and often merges them with traditional Palestinian influences, recently received a statement of recognition from the Edward Said National Conservatory, illustrates the broad vision that rules this prominent institution. My music has a modern sound with a strong emphasis on the Palestinian struggle in its themes, which is a far stretch from the Palestine Youth Orchestra performing Beethoven or Brahms in a concert hall in Europe. Still, the Edward Said National Conservatory clearly has the broadness of vision to realize and express that this is all part and parcel of what Palestine has to offer, and that comprehensiveness is the key that opens the door to the world, and invites it to meet the Palestinian people through their music.

It should come as no surprise that considering the dire situation of the occupation, which besides the hardships of its Apartheid politics continues to pose a severe economical burden upon the Palestinian people, it can never be easy for an institution like the Edward Said National Conservatory to make ends meet.

Hopefully, people all over the world realize how important it is for the Palestinians to have and cherish such institutions of musical education. I believe that whoever supports such endeavors is helping our people realize their aspirations and ambitions in a very significant way, and I therefore call upon all who read this to reach out to the Conservatory and at least lend their moral support to it, and if possible also their financial support. Every donation, no matter how small, helps in making a difference, and maintaining an educational institution that has grown to become one of the main pillars of our cultural identity and development.
(To support the Palestine Youth Orchestra, please click here.)

Tariq Shadid is a surgeon living in the Arab Gulf who has been contributing articles to the Palestine Chronicle for many years. Some of these essays have been bundled in the book ‘Understanding Palestine’, which is available on He also is the founder of the website ‘Musical Intifada’ featuring his songs about the Palestinian cause, on 

The Palestine Youth Orchestra

From the PYO website

The Palestine Youth Orchestra is the flagship orchestra of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. It was created in 2004 with the vision of bringing together young Palestinian musicians from around the world. Today, the PYO membership consists of eighty young Palestinian musicians residing across the world, creating a quality national youth orchestra on a par with similar groups worldwide. Over the past six years, the PYO has performed in Jordan, Germany, Syria, Bahrain and Lebanon, and this year will perform in Greece. In 2008, the orchestra realised its dream of performing in Palestine, alongside young musicians from the Collegium Musicum Bonn, who took the place of several young Palestinian musicians unable to enter Palestine due to entry restrictions imposed by the occupation. These concerts were given in Haifa, Ramallah, Amman and Damascus, with repertoire including Khatchaturian’s ‘Gayane Suite’ and Brahms Symphony No. 1, alongside songs celebrating the city of Jerusalem by Stephen Adams, Rima Tarazi, Rim Banna, Suhail Khoury and the Rahbani Brothers, with Reem Talhami, Rim Banna and Dima Bawab as soloists.

PYO students meet once or twice a year for a 10-day residential course followed by a concert tour. Individual sections of the orchestra are coached by leading professionals from the classical music world. The most recent workshop, held in Jordan, was coached by musicians who regularly play as principals of the world’s top orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, Amman Symphony Orchestra, English National Opera, Stockholm Philharmonic and Paris Conservatoire, and was directed by the English conductor Sian Edwards, who regularly works with many of the world’s best classical ensembles and orchestras, and guided the PYO musicians through music by Gershwin, Haydn, and specially commissioned works by leading Palestinian composers. The PYO occasionally invites a small number of guest music students to participate in the orchestra, most recently from Greece, Italy and Spain, as well as neighbouring Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This provides a wonderful insight into contemporary Palestinian culture as well as a rewarding musical experience.

In addition to performing the classics of the symphonic repertoire, the PYO makes a special effort to promote the work of Palestinian and Arab composers, with recent concerts including the music Marcel Khalife, Issa Boulos, John Bisharat, Ahmed al-Khatib and Salvador Arnita. Core symphonic repertoire performed by the orchestra has included Dvořák Symphony No. 5, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Leonore Overture No. 3, Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta and excerpts from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This unique approach to repertoire is reflected in what the orchestra conveys to the Palestinian society and to the different communities and people abroad who have the opportunity to attend its performances; it caries with it a taste of Palestine signed by the fingers of the young musicians. The PYO in fact, is a reflection of young Palestine, and our PYO members are our ambassadors to the world.

The PYO team is always keen to hear from young Palestinian musicians residing around the world. If you are of Palestinian origin, between 13 and 26 years of age and have reached a standard of at least grade 7 (ABRSM) on an orchestral instrument, please visit the PYO website and click on the ‘join the orchestra’ link.

All enquiries regarding performances, collaborations and exchanges with other musical institutions, or participation in the PYO either as a student or teacher should be directed to the orchestra manager Tim Pottier,, tel: +972–5-46957447

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