The ten-year-old — we’ll call her Bisan — got off the choir bus at France’s Dieppe coast and ran over the sandy beach toward the gray North Atlantic. After wading excitedly, but cautiously, into the chilly waves, she turned around and ran back to the bus to grab her sweater. Newly confident, Bisan raced back to the water and plunged in, only to discover that sweaters do not keep you warm in the ocean.
Bisan grew up in the Palestinian city of Hebron, perhaps an hour’s drive from her country’s gorgeous Mediterranean beaches. But she had never seen the ocean until reaching France, which, in turn, she could not get to except by way of Jordan. Like everything else in her young life, her ability to reach her own country’s beaches was dictated by a foreign government in Tel Aviv in which her parents have no vote and over which international law has no power.
Imagine Parisians blocked by a neighboring country from going to the English Channel or Mediterranean coast… The world would not (and decades past did not) tolerate foreign occupation in France; in Palestine, we support it and pay for it. Bisan was luckier than most of her peers — she got to experience the ocean because she had joined a children’s choir created by a musician from France, Dr. Mathilde Vittu.
One must be careful not to be misunderstood when writing about non-Palestinians “bringing” music to Palestine, lest it sound as though Palestinians need outsiders to do this for them. But equally, it would be patronizing to treat Palestinians as some static Orientalist construct who cannot decide for themselves when they welcome other influences into their own cultural inheritance — especially as seven decades of dispossession and suppression have done much to suffocate the collaborative and absorptive streams of cultural life that are natural and that we take for granted for ourselves.
Vittu comes from the highest tradition of European ‘classical’ music. She is a professor of music analysis at the Conservatoire de Paris, as well as an expert in voice training, a conductor, and violist. With such elite credentials it might seem unexpected that in September 2013, on sabbatical from her Paris teaching commitments, Vittu accepted a teaching position at the Ramallah branch of Palestine’s Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.
Over the course of the following year, she served the Conservatory far beyond her actual obligations, formed a strong bond with Palestine, acquired a fine viola by the Palestinian luthier Aref Sayed, and began a serious study of the Arabic language. Her expertise in voice training and choral music, her love for children, her love of Palestine, and her desire to contribute to a better future in the best way she is able, all coalesced into a single vision: She would create a children’s choir — which in turn meant creating a children’s choir school. Her vision was of a choir singing far and wide, the effects radiating out, and of children eventually teaching other children, like ripples — and so its name became obvious: Amwaj, Arabic for ‘waves’.
True to its name, Amwaj is conceived not as a single school, but as a network. In addition to choral singing, Amwaj offers voice training, foreign languages, music theory, conducting, introduction to piano, percussion, and theatre.
Word of the project was spread in Bethlehem by the Ghirass Cultural Center, and in Hebron by the Association d’Échanges Culturels Hébron France. Initially, there were no auditions, and no requirements other than that the children attend all lessons and rehearsals that they are able to. A monthly tuition of ten shekels (approximately $2.70) was charged, though this was essentially symbolic: no one is turned away should the fee present a hardship, and food is provided that far exceeds the cost.
In August, 2015, the Amwaj Choir held its first summer camp, hosted by Association d’Échanges Culturels Hébron-France, which has run intercultural programs for children and adults for nearly 20 years. The children sang in Arabic as well as in French, English, German, Italian, Armenian, and Welsh; small workshops explored body percussion, vocal technique, jazz singing, theatre, vocal games., and introduction to music notation.
(Video above: The song Hal Asmar Ellon, from a performance at the Bethlehem Convention Palace in January, 2017. The Amwaj Choir (blue shirts) is accompanied by a professional ensemble of 30 musicians from Palestine and abroad, and joined by children of St Joseph School, École des frères, and Sounds of Palestine. The violinist Amandine Beyer is among the ensemble (pink ornament in hair and purple keffiyeh around the waist).
September brought regular courses in Hebron, and the following month in Bethlehem’s Ghirass Cultural Center, whose other programs include fine arts, dance, music, library activities, adult literacy, and teacher training.
As news of the school spread, applicants soon outnumbered available places, and auditions are now held to fill vacancies — though the informal, non-intimidating nature of the selection process barely merits the word ‘audition’. Sixty voices is considered the Choir’s ideal size, split evenly between Hebron and Bethlehem.
The nascent Choir was invited to participate in October’s El Atlal Festival in Jericho, but heightened tension in the West Bank led to the festival’s cancellation. Two months later, in December 2015 — a mere three months after the Choir’s inauguration — the Hebron and Bethlehem branches performed a joint concert in the Chapel of Bethlehem University as part of the Christmas Nights festival organized by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. Bethlehem Strings, a baroque ensemble comprised of professionals and the more advanced Palestinian music students, accompanied the Amwaj Choir in a series of Christmas carols in several languages and songs from the Palestinian tradition. As described on the Choir’s website, “the experience of sharing the stage with professional musicians allowed the children to understand the setting of a public performance.”
If all this seemed perfectly natural to those involved, some on the outside wondered whether there might have been any negative reaction from the predominantly Muslim families to the concert’s Christian context. There was none. Hebron is predominantly Muslim, but even in Bethlehem, which is largely Christian, most of the children who apply are Muslim.
The summer of 2016 brought the Choir’s first chance to share the stage with a professional choir when the Choir of London came to Hebron. More opportunity for the children to work alongside professionals followed in December, when the Oslo Philharmonic Choir came to Palestine (rehearsal video). This culminated in a concert at Bethlehem’s Nativity Church (Saint Catherine’s), in which the children joined the Oslo choir in five songs spanning German, English, Norwegian, and Arabic. January 2017 brought another concert with the Bethlehem Strings, now at the Bethlehem Convention Palace and joined by the extraordinary Baroque violinist Amandine Beyer.
The French Children’s Choir, Les Petits chanteurs de Lyon, visited Palestine in the spring and summer of 2017 and joined forces with Amwaj (video). In July, Amwaj performed with the Ramallah Orchestra, a symphony orchestra under the Palestinian conservatory Al Kamandjati. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass attended, chatted with a few of the Amwaj children, and wrote about it. “We met,” she wrote, “in the most unexpected place: the desert. A procession of camels was marching towards the sunset.”
Hass described the desperation that led a Palestinian youth to attack the West Bank settlement of Halamish, which caused the cancellation of the ensemble’s scheduled concert in Jerusalem. The attack, she wrote, was in line with the Israeli “plan” of pushing Palestinians past the breaking point: it’s “part of the logic of control. You escalate, you incite, you detain more young people, you scare more children to create more reasons for preventive activities and oppression, and to maintain the apparatus.”
But any nurturing of Palestinian achievement and self-worth, such as Amwaj, is powerful defiance, powerful resistance, of a sort that Israel is powerless to exploit. It will try to stymie such defiance, but, ultimately, cannot control it.
Les Petits Chanteurs de Lyon returned to Palestine in the spring of 2018, partly in preparation for the summer and the Amwaj Choir’s most impressive accomplishment to date: its first international residency and concert series. This included a six-day residency at the Philharmonie de Paris; a concert at the Institut du Monde Arabe with the DEMOS children’s orchestra; a concert at the church Notre-Dame des Vertus at Aubervilliers with the Children’s choir of the Orchestre de Paris; a concert at the Philharmonie de Paris with the DEMOS children’s orchestra; a concert in Lille, Le Grand Sud, with the child singers of Finoreille; a residency in Lyon with Les Petits Chanteurs de Lyon; and a concert at the Cathedral of Vaise with Les Petits Chanteurs de Lyon.
Nothing happens easily under military occupation, and no child born into such injustice is free of its scars. And so it was inevitable that the Amwaj Choir would become not just a choir, not just a social network for its members, but a powerful safety net and antidote. Knowing life only under military repression, many children harbor repressed anger, not just from the visible dehumanization imposed by Israeli control, but from the unseen pressure it exerts on home life and on their parents. Mathilde and her small staff have not infrequently found themselves acting as adviser, as consoler, as friend, and as social worker. As but one example, a boy — we’ll call him Khalil — attended all rehearsals, but never sang a note. He always took his place in the choir, and never made a sound. But since he fulfilled the sole requirement of attending the rehearsals, his right to remain in the Choir was not questioned. Even when he wanted to join the Choir’s tour to France, he was not excluded. Yet no one could have anticipated that in France, with his first breaths free of apartheid, suddenly, he began to sing, and his outlook changed.
Dr. Vittu and the Choir’s General Director, Michele Cantoni, have maintained a consistently high level of staff and visiting teachers, despite Israeli deterrents to Palestinian achievement. To begin with, all teachers from abroad must accept the endless specter of losing Israeli “permission” to be in Palestine. Lucie Tronche is one who was not deterred.
I had the pleasure of meeting Tronche soon after she first arrived in Palestine, and met up with her again a year later. Tronche had been teaching in several conservatoires in France, when (as she described it to me) she “discovered Palestine, its cultural and musical richness, and I decided to move there in order to work within the continuity of a musical and artistic project.” She became involved full-time with the Amwaj Choir as coach, conductor, and theory teacher. A year later, “that human and artistic experience has proven to be well beyond my expectations.”
Given its newness and the challenges imposed by foreign repression, what the Amwaj Choir has accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary. But there is still a long way to go before it is a world-class children’s choir. While Vittu is constantly challenging the choir to improve, she is careful not to over-extend the children, and to train them with a solid technique free of shortcuts.
In a decade, she predicts, the Amwaj Choir will be ready for the world.
Author’s note: I met Mathilde Vittu in 2013 at Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music, where she and I were both teaching. Although we taught at different branches — she in Ramallah, I in Jerusalem — we got to know each other through music projects, string quartets, and beer.
Acknowledgements: The choir is supported by Instruments of Peace – Geneva, Fondazione Giovanni Paolo II, Institut Français de Jérusalem, and many individual donors through its support page. It maintains partnerships with several arts organizations, and has enlisted the collaboration of a long roster of professional and advanced student musicians.