‘There aren’t many outlets for entertainment’: Gaza’s arts hub bringing music to life | Gaza
OAfaa Al-Najili’s voice, ardent and luminous, enchants the group of young people gathered around an audio workstation at the Delia arts center in Gaza City. Together they brainstorm how to blend her vocals with the other tracks on their latest project, a new recording of a traditional choral song.
Outside, the neighborhood still bears the scars of last year’s fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. The joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade that isolates Gaza from the rest of the world means reconstruction efforts have been slow.
But, in the darkness of the recording studio, these young musicians could be anywhere in the world.
“There aren’t many outlets for having fun and expressing yourself in Gaza,” said Ayman Mghamis, the centre’s project manager, himself a rapper with a burgeoning international career, which was cut short after the takeover of the region by Hamas in 2007.
“We don’t just want to give that to young people, we want to make the music business here something that people make a career out of.”
Palestinian musical traditions have been under threat since the Israeli occupation, but artistic and cultural endeavors in Gaza have also suffered greatly under the rule of strictly conservative Hamas. Concerts have been banned for 15 years. Even Mohammed Assaf, the hugely popular Arab Idol winner in a Gaza refugee camp, couldn’t perform in public.
The blockade also led to a shortage of instruments and other equipment, making music an unaffordable hobby for most ordinary people. The music programs, which started at Gaza University in 2015, were closed soon after. At present, there is only one instrument store to service the band’s entire population of two million, and few rehearsal and recording spaces.
While the impact of these obstacles is difficult to measure, in 2015 the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found that only 39% of Gazans listen to music as a hobby, compared to 71% of Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Delia Arts Center aims to address some of these issues. Plans for a Gaza branch of the Athens-based company Delia Arts Foundation began in 2018, after founder John Keating, music producer and founder of RNT Records, visited the band.
Despite a slow start due to the obstacles imposed by the blockade and additional delays caused by the pandemic, the center now offers four programs a week. Three in-person classes and one online course allow Gazans to learn music theory, production and sound engineering, and some classes are reserved for women and girls to encourage them to participate.
The center is now attended by around 80 people a week, mostly in their late teens and early twenties.
“Especially since the last series of fights [in May 2021], I have seen changes in the young people I work with,” said Mghamis. “Obviously we were all affected. But I also see how the center helps them find happiness and creativity.
For Najili, the center is a lifeline: a place where she can experience her favorite tunes and original songs, as well as pass on her passion to a new generation of Gazan girls eager to explore the world of music.
The 30-year-old from Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip grew up in a family that loved music. She and her siblings learned from their father, who sang and played the oud at weddings.
Despite her talent, however, Najili had no opportunity to pursue music in the blocked Gaza Strip, so she trained as a nurse. “Working in nursing was the only way for me to make money in the tough economic conditions we live in,” she said.
“I continued to sing over the years, but it caused problems. As a girl who sings and has relatively liberal tendencies in a conservative society, many relatives and neighbors have complained about me to my parents, which led my father to ask me to quit.I left Khan Yunis and lived with my aunt in Gaza City for several years.
At the Delia Arts Center, Najli was able to take part in professional recording sessions and stream her work to the public on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, including an Arabic cover of The Beatles’ Blackbird. In the accompanying music video, Najili glides through the choppy waters of the Mediterranean off the coast of Gaza on a paddleboard, her gorgeous white dress billowing like a sail as the sun sets.
“I was very frustrated [before I started at the Delia centre], and at certain times in the past, I had begun to lose hope. After training as a singing teacher there, I found the desire to sing again. In a small way, I’m helping other girls, and I have to continue too,” she said.
“I still haven’t been on a big stage to sing in front of an audience, because there are no public concerts in Gaza. But it’s still my biggest dream.