Canaan Ghoul stood tall and proud on the roof of the Salehiyah family home as it awaited demolition by the Israelis recently. He played traditional Palestinian folk songs on his oud while residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied Jerusalem sang along. It was a sight for sore eyes, albeit heavy with heartache mixed with hope.
Ghoul sang "Ana Ibn Al-Quds" ("I am the son of Jerusalem") like it mattered to him, full of warmth from the beautiful lyrics. "The lyrics of this traditional song are about us telling the world that we will not leave our land; that God is protecting us and Jerusalem, the city and heart of Palestine. We will not be going anywhere," he explained.
The 30-year-old musician is a leading exponent of the oud, one of the world's oldest stringed instruments and a fundamental part of the Arab world's musical heritage. Born in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan and raised in a family passionate about keeping traditions alive, he received his first oud lesson at the age of eight and later graduated from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in 2012. He then majored in the oud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he studied for two years.
"My family, especially my mother, inspired and encouraged me to develop my musical talent from a young age," he told me. "I've been training and playing for at least two hours every day without fail. Now that it's a daily habit, I cannot abandon the oud for even one day. It's a special instrument that has its own sentiments and is capable of translating everything inside you."
This is true. Bodies swayed, hands clapped and fingers snapped as Ghoul plucked — apparently effortlessly — the strings. His music transformed even the most distressed members of the Salehiyah family as they faced imminent eviction from their home.
In 2017, an Israeli court ruled in favour of the eviction and gave the land to settlers to build a school. Local residents gathered in front of the Salehiyah family home in a show of solidarity, and were overcome with emotion as they sang with powerful voices that rang throughout the neighbourhood.
Along with the oud player on the roof, the crowd sang the old Palestinian national anthem "Mawtini". It is based on a poem written by iconic Palestinian poet Ibrahim Tuqan shortly before the Great Revolt of 1936. "My homeland, my homeland. Glory and beauty are in your hills; pleasure and hope are in your air. Will I see you?"
The Salehiyah family are not alone in their predicament. Hundreds of Palestinians are facing eviction from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and other East Jerusalem neighbourhoods.
"In these difficult days," said Ghoul, "music is like a painkiller." He regularly braves the harassment of the Israeli soldiers and threats on the streets to stand in solidarity with those forced out of their homes, always with his beloved oud in his hands. "I have to take that risk to help the people endure their reality."
In his opinion based on years of experience, an oud has the same versatility as a guitar or a violin. "It's an instrument that can add deeply spiritual sounds to the music," he said. "I don't like it to be treated as an old-fashioned instrument. You don't have to just play classical music. We can create music that is popular with the people today like rap and electro; it can all be done on the oud too."
The oud has been called "the king, sultan or emir" of musical instruments. It is indeed a gorgeous thing, crafted from a range of woods, including maple, walnut, palisander and mahogany.
"The rhythm of the oud reaches inside the body and soul. The music I play has a positive effect on those around me. The lyrics of the songs encourage people to resist the abuse of the occupation that helps us Palestinians get through it all, especially right now in Sheikh Jarrah."
The Palestinians, he pointed out, don't have heavy machinery and guns like the Israeli soldiers. "But we have our own ways, and we use what we're good at, like art and writing. Most importantly, though, we have our voices to chant and sing. I know that my music can't return the people to their homes, but I can help them get through the torment that they face."
Canaan Ghoul's passion for music was born from his passion for his people. "And there's no better instrument than the oud to express my feelings."