The Palestine National Orchestra: a view from the violin section

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Palestine National Orchestra, 2010. (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

The Palestine National Orchestra, Palestine’s flagship symphonic ensemble, is the brainchild of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Palestine’s preeminent institution for both Western and Arabic music. When the Conservatory’s Michele Cantoni asked me to join the PNO for their March 2012 series, I eagerly accepted. What follow are my own personal reflections.
The Belgian-British composer Tim Pottier manages the orchestra, its repertoire, musicians, programming, and tirelessly navigates the Orwellian realities of Israeli occupation. Generous individuals, organizations, businesses, and even local restaurants make the concert series financially possible and demonstrate a deep community involvement.

Typical of major symphony orchestras, the PNO is international in its composition. In addition to its core of Palestinian musicians and extranationals who, ever-subject to Israel’s tri-monthly permit renewal, have made Palestine their home, the PNO taps musicians from elsewhere in the Middle East, from Europe, and the Americas. Many teach at the Said Conservatory (branches in Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nablus), or the highly regarded Al Kamandjati in Ramallah, founded by the Palestinian violist Ramzi Aburedwan. English is the one language understood by all PNO members, and so serves as the lingua franca during rehearsals. At meals and over coffee, Arabic and European languages intermingle.

We performed concerts in both Amman (Jordan) and Ramallah (Occupied Palestine), all under the direction of Matthew Coorey (Khoury), an Australian conductor of Lebanese descent who is based in the UK. In keeping with welcome trends toward more correct performance practice, the second violins were opposite the first violins, where the ‘celli are more commonly seen. Communication between the two violin sections is more difficult with this arrangement, but it is effective: their separate lines become clearer and the ‘celli are angled to project forward.
Coorey landed his opening downbeat to the Coriolan Overture of Beethoven without a moment’s pause, giving the work’s arresting opening a special urgency. Beethoven allows little relief from the violence, conflict, and ultimate suicide of the Roman general who lived in the 5th century BC, and Coorey made full use of the ending’s prolonged dissonance between the bassoon and ‘celli that keeps the painful tension all the way to three closing pizzicati.

The PNO’s first clarinetist, the brilliant young Syrian clarinet Kinan Azmeh, performed one of his own compositions dating from 2007. Written in the unusual meter of 21/16, the intriguing “November 22” juxtaposes the semi-improvisational solo clarinet against a steady rhythmic figure from the bass and sustained lines from the upper strings. Azmeh explains that it depicts “homesickness while away from home,” in which the rhythmic figure is “how the slow and steady rhythm of life keeps moving regardless of one’s emotions,” while the clarinet intones familiarity, childhood, homesickness. The piece begins quietly with a gradual buildup to great commotion, and then ebbs, very gradually, to quite literally nothing, heightening the audience’s already rapt attention.

Alexander Suleiman performed the Schumann cello concerto with both virtuosity and intelligence, and his playing of the concerto’s slow movement was among the most beautifully crafted I have heard. Suleiman’s musical experience is broad, championing new music as well as early music performance practice. He is professor of cello at the University of Southern California, and was recently appointed artistic director of the Art Conquers Borders Academy in Bremen.
Coorey’s energetic approach to Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony captured the excitement, humanity, and humor of the work, and his fast tempi were particularly demanding of the strings, for whom Mozart is always acrobatics on eggshells. The new urtext parts the PNO wisely used caught my curiosity, as they differed in small detail from the older editions I was familiar with.

The final work was Stravinsky’s colorful and hilarious Pulcinella Suite, from the commedia dell’arte ballet about three couples’ jealousies and flirtations. A string quintet formed by Nabih Bulos and Basel Theodory (violin), Aidan Pendleton (viola), Alexander Suleiman (‘cello), and Priscila Vela Vico (bass) intermingles with wind solos by principal flute Ahmed Qatamesh, oboe Andrea Shaheen, bassoon Maher Farkouh, horn Yousef Assi, trumpet Rani Elias, and trombone Riccardo Benetti, deftly showcasing Stravinsky’s transparently scored adaptation of music traditionally, if tenuously, ascribed to Pergolesi.

Two encores— the “Fire Dance” from Manual de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, and the Palestinian nationalist song Mawtini, proved insufficient, one audience satisfied only after we repeated the last movement of the Mozart symphony.

The PNO faces the logistical and funding challenges common to all orchestras. But in addition it confronts something far more impenetrable: an ever-present military occupation and crippling apartheid laws. Sold to the West as self-defense, Israel’s hold on daily Palestinian life seeks to destroy what its tanks and F-16s can’t. Thus the PNO is an act of defiant normalcy, a refusal to be defined by the 64 years of neo-colonial oppression that is the reality of everyday existence in Palestine.
This refusal of victimhood is powerful—indeed so powerful that it lay beyond the comprehension of the BBC and the popular Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The venerable BBC couldn’t even get past the orchestra’s name, with its implicit statement of sovereign identity. In its report about the ensemble’s debut, the BBC erroneously called it the “Palestinian” National Orchestra.[1]

Both it and Haaretz seized upon the PNO’s 2011 programming of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc to re-explain the PNO in harmony with the Israeli narrative. According to Haaretz,[2] the Palestinian musicians purposefully chose Ligeti, a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor, as their way of “conceding the tragic refugee history of [Israeli] society” and to say “we are brothers” in tragedy. Yet again, the Holocaust is exploited to empower more terror, and the “left-wing” Haaretz cries tears of commiseration with the very people its nation is brutalizing, as though “the conflict” were the doing of some Other Force to which Israel, too, is victim. Implicitly, Haaretz has the PNO agreeing that the apartheid Israeli state was the answer to Europe’s displaced Jews, and that the fascism it imposes upon Palestinians is the inevitable result of this. Thus the Concert Romanesc served to have Israeli mythology vindicated by its victims.

The truth—that the Ligeti had been an independent Palestinian artistic decision made by Tim Pottier, without any thought to Israel—lay outside the Israeli narrative. Yet in a final twist to sooth its liberal audience, Haaretz jubilantly concluded that the music “managed to get through the checkpoints and the walls as though they never existed.” Forgetting, for the present purpose, the question of why Israel has checkpoints and walls on other people’s land in the first place, let’s take a brief look at how Palestinian musicians do, and don’t, get through the three ghettos into which it has dissected Palestine—Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.
To start, one must first acknowledge that one and a half million Palestinians are automatically erased from our story, as they are severed from the world by the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip. Israel even blocks music from Gaza for its “security”.[3] String broke? Bad reed? Need music? You’ll have to get someone to smuggle them through the tunnels from Egypt. Rare exceptions that Israel may cite are meaningless: one cannot commit musicians, venue, travel, and audience on the remote chance that Israel will not sabotage the project.

This writer’s personal experience will suffice to illustrate. I was among a group of people invited to a professional event in Gaza City sponsored by the World Health Organization and the European Union. Applications to Israel were made well in advance by these international agencies, all to Israel’s specifications. But shortly before the event, despite a year of planning and prior approval, and despite Israel’s claim not to be occupying Gaza, it blocked our entry without explanation. When I refused to leave the gate to the Erez crossing, IDF soldiers physically removed me.
Musicians in the West Bank can travel across their own border to Jordan, though the crossing is unpredictable, expensive, and sometimes much worse. Within the West Bank, Palestinians are impeded by Israel’s ever-increasing settlements, and walls that splice villages and families in two. Normal endeavors that musicians elsewhere take for granted—getting to a routine rehearsal in a neighboring town—can be risky and humiliating, and is always unpredictable.

East Jerusalem has different problems. Unlike the West Bank, in which Israel maintains a military occupation, or Gaza, which remains sealed like a massive internment camp, Israel claims to have actually annexed East Jerusalem. The annexation is illegal (not even the ever-compliant U.S. recognizes it), and thus Israel’s ethnically predicated laws have no legal jurisdiction there. But they are, by military force, the laws that control.

“Residency” is the coveted status in East Jerusalem for non-Jews. A Palestinian whose family has lived there for centuries lives in fear of ethnicity-based expulsion on arcane technicalities manufactured for the purpose. Simply leaving East Jerusalem—concert tour, study—can be used as an abdication of residence. Other families become “illegal” when Israel expands the border of Jerusalem to include parts of the West Bank.

The arcane apartheid laws that de facto (not legally) rule occupied East Jerusalem change with neither notice nor transparency. This past January, the Jerusalem Children’s Orchestra, another initiative of the Said Conservatory, was to perform at the National Theatre in East Jerusalem. But suddenly and without notice, Israel lowered the age at which Palestinian children need special permits to enter East Jerusalem, which until then had been fifteen. In this case, Israel’s sabotage of Palestinian achievement succeeded—the new regulations could not be met in time, and so many of the young musicians would be prevented from performing. The concert was cancelled.

Israel was only partially successful when the Palestine Youth Orchestra prepared to perform in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus. The French authorities, holding more clout than Palestinians, helped the orchestra apply for the permits Israel mandates. Permission was granted and arrangements were made. Israel then arbitrarily changed the permissible dates, but the Said Conservatory, not to be stopped, rescheduled concerts, rehearsals, travel, and housing. But then Israel changed the permits’ dates a second time. When even that failed to sabotage the project, Israel refused either to approve or deny permission for an oud player whose participation was crucial. This new obstacle was thwarted only when the resourceful Tim Pottier masterminded a media coup that would have caused the Israeli authorities more embarrassment than the issue was worth to them. In the end, the double rescheduling put the event into Ramadan, and fifteen children were stopped from participating until the last few days.

At this point, it is worth reminding the reader that nothing here involves Israeli permission to enter Israel; it is Israeli “permission” for Palestinians to enter Palestine.

The Oslo Accords simultaneously allowed the Palestinian Authority a facade of sovereignty, placards on office doors boasting the Palestinian Ministry of This-&-That, while actually tightening Israel’s yoke around their land. One dressing of make-believe sovereignty was the issuance of Palestinian passports, but passports of a nation that doesn’t exist have little meaning. Nor are Palestinian refugees outside Palestine eligible; they hold travel documents that are valid for a short period of time and afford limited privileges. Travel is especially difficult for them, and merely changing planes on an unbroken flight can require special visas and expense.

The PNO operated with the Said Conservatory’s accumulated savvy about Israel bureaucracy, and all the permits Israel requires for the orchestra’s Palestinians had been meticulously secured for our March 15th concert in the West Bank. Israel, however, made two of the permits valid only for April 5th. For three weeks, Tim tried to get the Israeli authorities to correct the dates, but was met with the traditional stonewalling, and two days before the Ramallah concert he had to fly in an oboist from Spain and get a bassoonist from Jordan.

One must remember that Palestinians are refugees only because Israel has for six and a half decades defied United Nations’ demands that it allow those it had ethnically cleansed to return to their homes, broken the explicit promises upon which it was admitted to the UN, violated the UN Partition agreement which facilitated the creation of the state itself, and indeed violated the 1917 Balfour Declaration which Israel cites as a precedent.

But instead of Israel being held accountable, we set out for the West Bank leaving our two colleagues, oboist Haneen Hamadeh and bassoonist Iyad Hafez, behind. Haneen, whose roots are in Nablus (West Bank), lives in Amman. Iyad, the son of Palestinian refugee from Acre, lives Apolid (stateless) in Italy, and had flown to Amman to join us. They had played all the rehearsals for the concerts.

Tom Suarez at the Erez crossing, 2008. (Photo: ActiveStills)

The roughly 40 km from Amman, through the Jordan Valley, over the Allenby Bridge, and west to Ramallah took the six hours we expected, most of it at the Israeli-controlled border facility. The Israeli “processing” is an arduous and often demeaning affair, especially for Palestinians, and one must work around its limited weekend hours. Israel collects a punitive exit tax at the Palestine-Jordan crossing which it does not impose on the Tel Aviv airport (which Palestinians are forbidden from using).

Bringing instruments and equipment through Israeli control of Palestine’s border is also problematic and expensive. Musical instruments are detained, refused entry, and sometimes damaged by the Israeli authorities. In our case, we were assisted by the French government: they provided a government vehicle that enjoys diplomatic immunity from search. With it, the PNO transported its timpani and basses between Jordan and the West Bank.

After the first couple of security checks, I and two Palestinians were pulled aside for special screening, then released to the interminable wait at the holding facility with the rest of the orchestra. As time passed with our entrance to Palestine uncertain, musicians began unpacking their instruments and doodling. Soon we risked the first movement of the Haffner symphony from memory, and then turned to the Schumann ‘cello concerto with one part per section propped up on chairs. (Someone videoed part of this, and it can be found on Youtube.) Israeli officials approached and reacted with differing body language, some baffled, others annoyed or bemused, or even visible touched.

Israeli control of the movement of Palestinian and foreign musicians, and the havoc wreaked by its military occupation, make reliable planning impossible. If this presents the PNO with daunting challenges and significantly higher expenses for a limited concert series close to home, it makes a more ambitious and international schedule for a Palestinian ensemble all but impossible.

Viewed thus, calls one hears for the boycott of Israeli cultural institutions are nothing more than calls for simply fair play, for a host country to insist that no guest block another guest.

And it is this that we, citizens of nations that empower the so-called “conflict” in Israel-Palestine, must face. The war against Palestinian culture is not the unfortunate side-effect of bureaucracy intended, if perhaps over-zealously, to “defend Israel”. That war is, rather, the explicit purpose of that bureaucracy. The occupation is much more than colonies and tanks, more than its blocking the return of displaced persons, more than its campaigns of expropriation and ethnic cleansing. It is even more than Israel’s core MO: that, like the Orwell novel written in the year of its founding, it must forever manufacture an ever-present external threat in order to justify its actions.

The occupation is, most insidiously, the occupation of a people—the systematic destruction or theft of their history, culture, arts, and self-worth. And as with past regimes predicated on racial supremacy, it has maintained a theatre of integrity through a system of laws that is internally consistent.[4] There are checks and balances, precedent, courts, systems for redress, and all the other trappings of legal procedure, enabling the state to claim that theirs is a system based on justice and democracy.

But the PNO is vivid proof that Israel’s efforts to define Palestinians will fail. My time with the PNO was musically and intellectually exhilarating, one of camaraderie and solidarity of purpose. The musicians are sophisticated, with wide interests and diverse experiences, all determined to work together to produce a Palestinian orchestra that would be at home on any concert stage the world over.

Thanks to Tim Pottier for help clarifying details of bureaucracy and legal status.

1. “Palestinian orchestra to hold debut concert in Ramallah,” BBC, 31 Dec 2010.
2. Ben, Noam Zeev, “In Israel, Palestinian orchestra produces sounds of independence,” Haaretz. 14 Jan. 2011.
3. There is no transparency to the laws of Israel’s siege, but on musical instruments see, e.g., Hass, Amira, “Israel bans books, music and clothes from entering Gaza,” Haaretz. 17 May 2009.
4. For a good analysis of this, see Baker, Abeer and Matar, Anat (eds), Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel. Pluto Press. 2011.

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I am an amateur ‘cellist and filled with pleasure at the thought of this orchestra playing the music I have grown old on (and Palestinian music I don’t know). As a propaganda measure, the PNO and ESNCM might try to perform the music which was composed and first performed in the 1940s by prisoners in German concentration camps by Jewish prisoners. The idea of Palestinians living in permanent prisons (Gaza and WB) ruled over by… Read more »

this is a fantastic article. Haaretz cries tears of commiseration with the very people its nation is brutalizing, as though “the conflict” were the doing of some Other Force to which Israel, too, is victim. Implicitly, Haaretz has the PNO agreeing that the apartheid Israeli state was the answer to Europe’s displaced Jews, and that the fascism it imposes upon Palestinians is the inevitable result of this. Thus the Concert Romanesc served to have Israeli… Read more »

BBC distorting the Palestininan story. Who would have thought that?

it is worth reminding the reader that nothing here involves Israeli permission to enter Israel; it is Israeli “permission” for Palestinians to enter Palestine.

It is also worth reminding readers that the PNO has played in Israel – in Haifa and Jerusalem as far as I am aware.
So convenient to leave this out of the story.