On the morning of Friday 3 June, four young Palestinian musicians left the Gaza Strip for the first time in their lives, heading for Brighton to perform classical and contemporary Middle Eastern music.
The group consists of Najlaa Humaid, the band's singer, guitarist Mohammed Shoman, oud player Mohannad Abu Safia and Farouk Abu Ramadan playing the qanun, an ancient Arab instrument similar to a zither. Accompanied by their teacher, Ismail Dawoud, the four children arrived in the United Kingdom on Saturday, only a couple of hours ahead of their planned concert in Brighton.
Having not slept at all, the children only had two hours to rest before they went to perform their first concert in the UK. "We spent those two hours preparing for the concert," Shoman told MEMO.
"Even though they had not slept since they left Gaza on Friday morning, their performance on Saturday earned them a standing ovation," Agnes Baetens, the visit's coordinator from Brighton and Palestinian Artists Together, told MEMO.
"It was the dream of Ahmed Khatib, an accomplished oud player, to perform with children from Gaza," Baetens said. She was first exposed to Palestinian musicians and became involved in organising concerts through her son who used to work with the Palestine Youth Orchestra in the UK. After organising a number of very successful concerts for Palestinians in the UK over the past couple of years, Brighton and Palestinian Artists Together set up a crowdfunding page hoping to be able to bring children from Gaza to perform in Brighton. Within a few days, they exceeded their target and began working on the logistics of organising the trip.
During their short stay in the UK, the children performed in Brighton, London and Worthing. "This visit has been fantastic; like a dream," Shoman said enthusiastically. "It is the first time we represent Palestine in concerts abroad, and I hope there will many more such opportunities to come."
Shoman was eager to tell me about their long journey from Gaza. After crossing from Erez, he said, the group took a taxi through the West Bank and Jericho and for the first time, they crossed the Allenby Bridge crossing, also known as the King Hussein Bridge. After much delay at the bridge, they arrived in Amman, Jordan, where they took their flight to London.
"When we landed, it was such an overwhelming feeling that words cannot describe," Shoman added.
The four children are students at the Gaza Music School, the only music school in the besieged territory founded in 2008 at the Palestinian Red Crescent premises in Gaza City, with funding from the A. M. Qattan Foundation and the Swedish government.
The school, where these young musicians have honed their skills for the past few years, was forced to relocate to new premises during its first year of existence after it was extensively damaged and had many of its instruments destroyed during Israel's operation Cast Lead of 2008-2009. Now running as part of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, the school continues to nurture a young musical generation against all odds, offering eight years of study with basic and intermediate certificates that allow the students to pursue music at international universities.
In addition to the restrictions on the entry of musical instruments and equipment, musicians are aso restricted by their inability to travel freely and exchange expertise as a result of the Israeli siege on Gaza's musicians and its only music school.
Describing the many obstacles they faced in trying to get to the UK, the children's music teacher Ismail Dawoud said their visit was a challenge to the Israeli siege that has, for so long, restricted their movement.
"The Edward Said Institute's administration in Palestine and our hosts here went through a lot to get us out of Gaza," he said. "We were rejected for the visa and then the permits, but the decision was thankfully reversed after much hard work on the part of our hosts."
Baetens said they had to involve MPs, MEPs, and bishops in order to get the visa decision reversed. Gisha, an Israeli Human Rights Organisation, also got involved and helped the group get Israeli permits to pass through the Erez crossing.
"It was a struggle," Dawoud added, "but despite all the obstacles we managed to come and the efforts of everyone who has been working for the past two years to make this happen did not go in vain."
The reaction and excitement of these young musicians took me back to Gaza, when I interviewed Firas Al-Shrafi, one of the youngest students at the Gaza Music School. At the time, Firas was telling me of his ambitions and dreams of going abroad and performing alongside other musicians.
Despite all they have endured, Shoman and his peers managed to accomplish what Firas and many others in Gaza have dreamed of. The children played alongside other musicians and schools in Brighton with an artistic distinction that may conflict with Gaza's stereotypical image, demonstrating Gaza's hunger for harmony and life. "One of those schools," Baetens told MEMO, "has chosen their topic for next year to be on music from Palestine."
Humaid, the group's singer, said her family has always supported her. "Now I feel accomplished and I have made my family proud," she continued.
"I wish my sister was here with me," Shoman added, "but she is still happy for me and I am achieving both of our dreams." Mohammed and his sister Ghada are known in Gaza as the Shoman Duo. While Mohammed plays the guitar, Ghada acts as the singer in their mini band.
Gaza's children have found in music more than a mere distraction from Gaza's troubles. They have found a way to call for peace and freedom.
"I hope the Israeli siege of Gaza will end soon, and the borders will be open so that we can have a wider music culture and more openness to the world," Shoman continued.
Images courtesy of Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign.