‘There are not many outlets for fun’: the Gazan arts centre that keeps music alive

Wafaa al-Najili left home for Gaza City after neighbours and relatives complained about her being allowed to sing (Waleed Abd Alghafour - Wafaa Elnajili)

Bethan McKernan & Hazem Balousha

The Guardian  /  February 25, 2022

Concerts are banned thanks to Hamas hardliners, but the Delia arts centre is determined to give young musicians a chance to play

Wafaa al-Najili’s voice, fiery and bright, enchants the group of young people clustered around an audio workstation at the Delia arts centre in Gaza City. Together, they muse over how to mix her vocals with the other tracks of their latest project, a new recording of a traditional choral song.

Outside, the neighbourhood still bears scars from last year’s fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in control of the Gaza Strip. The joint Israeli and Egyptian blockade that isolates Gaza from the rest of the world means rebuilding efforts have been slow.

But, in the darkness of the recording studio, these young musicians could be anywhere in the world.

“There are not many outlets for fun and self-expression in Gaza,” said Ayman Mghamis, the centre’s project manager, himself a rapper with a budding international career, which was cut short after Hamas took over the area in 2007.

“We don’t just want to give young people that, we want to build up the music sector here into something that people make careers out of.”

Palestinian musical traditions have been under threat since the Israeli occupation, but arts and cultural endeavours in Gaza have also suffered greatly under the rule of the strictly conservative Hamas. Concerts have been banned for the last 15 years. Even Mohammed Assaf, the wildly popular winner of Arab Idol from a Gazan refugee camp, has not been able to perform in public.

The blockade has also led to a shortage of instruments and other equipment, making music an unaffordable pastime for most ordinary people. Music programs, which started at Gaza University in 2015, shut down shortly afterwards. At the moment, there is just one instrument shop to serve the strip’s entire two-million-strong population, and few rehearsal and recording spaces.

While the impact of these obstacles is hard to measure, in 2015 the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found that only 39% of Gazans listen to music as a hobby, compared with 71% of Palestinians in the West Bank.

The Delia arts centre aims to solve some of these problems. Plans for a Gaza branch of the Athens-based Delia Arts Foundation began in 2018, after founder John Keating, a music producer and founder of RNT Records, paid a visit to the strip.

Despite a slow start owing to the hurdles imposed by the blockade, and further delays caused by the pandemic, the centre now offers four programs a week. Three in-person and one online class allow Gazans to learn music theory and sound producing and engineering, and some classes are only for women and girls to encourage more to take part.

The centre is now frequented by around 80 people a week, mostly in their late teens and early 20s.

“Particularly since the last round of fighting [in May 2021], I have seen changes in the young people I work with,” Mghamis said. “Obviously we were all affected. But I also see how the centre helps them discover happiness and creativity again.”

For Najili, the centre is a lifeline: a place where she can experiment with her favourite pieces and original songs, as well as impart her passion to a new generation of Gazan girls eager to explore the world of music.

The 30-year-old from Khan Yunis in the south of the Gaza Strip grew up in a family that loved music. She and her siblings learned from their father, who sang and played the oud at weddings.

Despite her talent, however, there was no opportunity for Najili to pursue music in the blockaded Gaza, so she trained as a nurse. “Working in nursing was the only way for me to earn money in the difficult economic conditions we are living in,” she said.

“I kept singing over the years, but it has caused problems. As a girl who sings and has relatively liberal tendencies in a conservative society, many relatives and neighbours complained to my parents about me, which led my father to ask me to stop. I left Khan Yunis and lived with my aunt in Gaza City for several years.”

At the Delia arts centre, Najli has been able to take part in professional recording sessions and put out her work to audiences on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, including an Arabic cover of Blackbird by the Beatles. In the accompanying music video, Najili glides through choppy Mediterranean waters off the Gazan coast on a paddleboard, her glorious white dress rippling like a sail in the sunset.

“I was very frustrated [before I started at the Delia centre], and in some periods in the past, I had begun to lose hope. After training as a voice teacher there, I got back my desire for singing. In a small way, I am helping other girls, and I must continue too,” she said.

“I have still never stood on a big stage to sing in front of an audience, because there are no public concerts in Gaza. But it remains my biggest dream.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Hazem Balousha from Gaza City