The musical inspiration of Siraj in Rama

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Forty years ago, when three colleagues and I created a public health venture we called The Galilee Society for Health Research and Services,” we chose Rama for its home. As the organization’s director, I befriended many of Rama’s leaders including its kind-hearted mayor, Elias Qassis, and its physician son, Anwar Awad. More recently, Rama has hot-housed another public institution, this time in the field of music, a chorus-com-orchestra whose six founders called ‘Siraj’—an oil lamp—a light to the world, they must have meant.

What is it about Rama, another Palestinian village in Galilee enveloped by ancient olive fields, that inspires and nurtures public activism? Perhaps Rama only encourages our inborn communal striving for progress and excellence. Perhaps it is Rama’s famed olives, its pure mountain springs or its fresh westerly breeze that are to blame. More likely it is all the culmination of a historical process: During the Ottoman era, as another small Christian community in Palestine, Rama attracted the special attention and investment in education from European nations especially from tsarist Russia. That was followed by further partiality from the British Mandate authorities. With time, the favoritism created a mini-class of modern-day professionals: teachers, lawyers, physicians and the like. Inevitably, the centuries-long process led to communal self-reliance bordering on haughtiness and revolutionary fervor.

Now, to our current alarming reality: With apartheid already sanctioned by law in Israel, I recently returned to my hometown of Arrabeh to the rumblings of open fascism gaining further grounds in Israeli electoral politics sponsored by no other than prime minister Netanyahu. On the eve of the invasion of Arab polling stations in Israel by hundreds of rightist ‘observers’ with illegal spyware of cameras and recorders, I sought solace in a rare cultural event in the neighboring town of Sakhnin. It was a musical performance by Rama’s homegrown Siraj. The event was sponsored and promoted by a human rights activist lawyer from the Galilee Arab community of Sha’ab. A niece of mine secured tickets for my wife and me from the lawyer who is the aunt of her daughter-in-law, a typical Palestinian clan-based wheeling and dealing that I have to match some day. I came out of the two-hour performance overwhelmed. I had seen this level of professionalism, musical talent and craftsmanship before only in movies and in TV shows broadcast from Arab capitals, say Cairo or Beirut. How could this level of professional excellence and musical refinement be achieved in the absence of a sponsoring state, a national authority and a supportive ministry of culture with massive investment of funds, I wondered?

Rai Winery and Restaurant, in Rama again, is my favorite Galilee eatery. All through summer, the afternoon breeze off the Mediterranean shore to the west fans its scenic mountainside locale. That renders its outdoor tables under an expansive carob tree the perfect choice for a leisurely feast combining Palestinian hospitality with neighboring Mount Lebanon’s rural cuisine. Rai’s mezza is further supplemented with one’s choice of Bulgarian dishes, the specialty of the proprietor gained from his college years there and his marriage to a Bulgarian college mate, and with the house’s own home-brewed arak and wine. For the past two summers, I keep finding excuses to visit the special restaurant. You can imagine my excitement when a new acquaintance sprung an invitation to Rai at me.

A day after Netanyahu won his fifth term as Israel’s prime minister, I got in touch with Zuhair Ghanadri, the manager and cofounder of Siraj who is a practicing dental technician, and he suggested to meet that afternoon at Rai Winery and Restaurant. It turns out Adeeb, Rai’s proprietor, is one of Siraj’s six original founders. Rai himself, Adeeb’s firstborn, was there to wait on us. By the time we arrived, the day’s Spring burst of heat had already worn off and we enjoyed the sunset view in the warmth of the indoors from behind the glass portico. From where we sat we overlooked the expanding eastern edge of Rama physically pushing against its millennia-old olive fields. Further south we could see Wadi-Sallameh, the valley where my father once owned a field with a water-powered mill. Alas, he sold the property to cover the expenses of his and my mother’s wedding. With time, Israel’s tampering with the water table had dried the stream at source and the mill faded into a haunted ruin. Deir Hanna, Arrabeh and Sakhnin, the famed Land Day Triangle, decorated the next series of hills. Further south on the next visible mountain range, some Nazareth homes and steeples completed the magic panorama.

Yes, of course, Israel does have a ministry of culture and it does encourage and financially support community cultural initiatives, Zuhair reassured me. In fact, recent years have seen a sharp rise in the ministry’s level of financial support to our Arab communities in Israel. Except that, when you look closely at the figures, you discover that the total sum of such support to the communities of the over 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian Arabs has reached less than 3% of the total. Such miserly support mainly covers deficits that NGO’s such as Siraj incur regularly. With the advent of the Nation State Law, finally no one needs to ask the question many had raised since Israel’s establishment: Why are there discrepancies in funding levels? And why are the residential areas in Israel racially segregated in the first place? It is enough to rile one’s innards. And it is now the law; it is constitutional.

Which brings up a related issue: With the high expenses involved in building and equipping a modern auditorium with the proper acoustics and seating arrangement and with the needed sound and lighting systems, very few Arab communities could afford such luxury. That was why, for most of its 15-year existence, and though it specializes in classic Arabic music and singing, Siraj had to rent halls for its concerts mainly in Jewish communities. Still, its self-selected nearly 100% Arab audience withstood the decade-long test of loyalty. More recently, Siraj, led by its manager, made a decision in principle: to take the group to its natural audiences across the Arab community in Israel and occasionally in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. To do that it started adding its own transportable sound and lighting system to existing halls, and sometimes even to outdoor spaces, so as to perform more often in such communities.

This audacious decision met with other difficulties: For example, in the City of Umm-El-Fahim, a city with a religious Islamic mayor and administration, some conservative residents raised objections in principle to the group’s performance in their city. When the management of Siraj would not hear of cancelling, thugs started calling individual members of the group, especially women performers, and threatening them. The group and its official hosts called on the police and the ministry of culture to step in. They did, but what helped more was the city’s local government including Muslim officials who finally came out in force to protect the defiant group. That night Siraj performed for a full house, the threat and polarizing having made the best advertisement for the event.

The locally-based and culturally-rooted group consists currently of 45 Galilee musicians and singers, equally balanced between the two types of constituent artists. Samir Bishara, the scion of a multi-generational musically-gifted family, is the group’s maestro and personal inspiration to each of its members. His musical conducting skill and inborn human relations talent enable him to unite the group into a single performing body. Samir’s animated presence magically spellbinds audiences and enthuses them to join the act as the group performs their favorite classics. He not only scouts for new talent across the Galilee but also trains and charms each new member into integrating smoothly and finding his/her right place in the orchestra and choir group. Having already met the challenge of establishing Siraj and promoting an avid following for it among the home crowd, the new dream of both the conductor and the manager is to reach the beckoning potential audiences around the world. Not only are Arab crowds across the Middle East and North Africa potential audiences, but also Arab diasporas everywhere and cross-cultural adventurers are likely to be intrigued.

With the exception of the conductor most members of the group earn their living from employment in other fields ranging from technical professions to teaching. None of the singers is salaried while several musicians join small bands performing in wedding celebrations and the like. Running the group’s affairs, the duty of the mainly volunteer position of manager assisted in the last couple of years by a half-time secretary, must be overwhelming. The challenge of balancing the high public demand for performances, maintaining the group’s high standards through rehearsals and individual lessons for new members, promotional activities and scouting for new talents is quite daunting, Zuhair, the manager, says. It all adds up to a high level of volunteerism and self-reliance, singers morphing into makeup artists for each other before performances and providing their own required special outfits.

The spontaneous self-reproductive process of rising out of the ashes of the Nakba to soar at the height of professionalism in a general atmosphere inimical to Arab culture is miraculous. Yet, the group has carved a special artistic identity for itself. It has innovatively adapted some of the best performances of lead ‘Renaissance‘ Arab composers and singers from the 20th century from Mohammad Abd-El-Wahab to Um-Kalthoom to Fairuz. Siraj offers the enchantment of such divas’ performances sung on occasion by a male singer. And yet the magic is never lacking, especially with its conductor’s easy interaction with his audience who are frequently called on to join the chorus. On occasion, the group offers an original piece written and composed by its inspired conductor, witness Wenak mentioned above. In one of its performances Siraj even featured a selection from Nakba-exiled Palestinian composers at which the group sang ‘Bilady, bilady’–the Egyptian national anthem that many Palestinians have adopted as theirs–joined by its local Palestinian audience even if at a Jewish town auditorium.

Siraj can no longer hide its light. International exposure is next.

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