ABU DIS, July 14 (JMCC) - Despite a love of music, Palestinians are lagging behind in its formal study.
Struggling with cultural biases and taboos, as well as the burden of years of occupation, musicologists are only now developing academic programs. Al-Quds University seeks to be the first institution of higher learning to offer a major in musical study. Birzeit University is developing an undergraduate degree.
“In Palestine, through the period of Israeli occupation and the British Mandate before that, we had very good musicians,” says associate professor of ethnomusicology at al-Quds University, Mutasem Adeeleh. “What we don’t have is degrees.”
To be accredited by the Palestinian ministry of education, each program demands three or more professors. That is a challenge for a community where the study of music is looked at with ambivalence.
“The problem is with the understanding of the arts in general,” says Adeeleh. “For parents, it is better if their children are doctors or lawyers.”
Adeeleh says that his own parent encouraged him to play the classical guitar from age six, but without their support and his own perseverance, he might not have gone on to a career in higher education.
The growth of radical Islam among Palestinians is another challenge. At one training college, a music teacher complains of being side-lined by fundamentalist politics, and Adeeleh acknowledges that fine arts programs here and in the Arab world are targets for Islamists.
But what exactly Islamists object to is difficult to nail down. The driving drum rhythms of Hamas
anthems were hits in the Gaza Strip
after Israel’s 2009 assault
there. On the other hand, authorities shut down the Strip’s first rap concert in April, saying the event was held without a permit.
“God made us a beautiful symphony – the song of the bird, the running of water – all this is a beautiful chorus,” says Sheikh Saleh Naytan in a telephone interview. Naytan is famous for appearing on a Ramallah radio program that answers callers’ questions about Islamic law: the radio station plays pop music most other hours of the day.
“Sometimes one feels that the creator of the music is not handling it in a proper way – for example sometimes it is played alongside drink, or in a loud manner,” he continues. “But we have to differentiate between the good and the bad.”
Adeeleh, the ethnomusicologist, responds to critics that art and faith are intertwined.
“In Christianity, they pray in church with music,” says Adeeleh. “In Islam, the tajweed [the recitation of the Quran] is close to singing. Religion is never against music and the arts – it uses music and the arts.”
Sometimes, this debate is more about nationalism than religion. In the West Bank
, the annual summer festival season often renews tensions between those who view such events as too frivolous, and art aficionados who see the events as part and parcel of the Palestinian cause.
Adeeleh echoes the sentiments of the latter group, saying “I want to show that Palestinians are standing beside other nations, not behind them.”
And so, despite the challenges, al-Quds University is committed to supporting its budding arts programs.
“It has been a priority – not only music, but fine arts,” says Said Zeedani, acting vice-president for academic affairs. “but because we are short of people, we have to plan it carefully.”
The major will be 51 credit hours and include theory classes, music appreciation, introduction to ethnomusicology and the requirement of playing both the piano and another instrument. The courses require a great deal of resources – music labs, practice rooms and instruments.
To obtain the needed staff to run its music major, al-Quds sent one of its staff members to Moscow for extra study. If granted accreditation, the university expects 15 to 25 students to fill the program in the second semester of next year.
“We have to build a bridge between us and the Palestinian community,” says Adeeleh. “In five or ten years, our students will be parents.”