Palestinian territories: Music brings down walls

Before I made my first visit to the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, a music band who are friends of mine had described this place to me as a ghetto.

They themselves grew up there and, at that time, were still making hardcore rap music. I thought their descriptions were grossly exaggerated, laughed at them and constantly wound them up, accusing them of trying to play up their gangsta rap image. One year later, I began working as a peace expert in Jerusalem and visited my friends in the Shuafat camp. As soon as I passed the checkpoint at the entrance, the horror hit me between the eyes and, by the time I got inside the walls of the camp, all I could think was, I have to apologise to the boys in the band. For all the really stupid things I’d said, like ‘you just want to be ghetto kids’ etc. I’d never seen anywhere like it: I couldn’t believe that it was actually part of Jerusalem. Cramped. Dark. Dirty. Walled in. Ghettoised. It’s not somewhere you go to voluntarily and strangers aren’t really welcome. They’re more likely to be viewed with suspicion. Fadi, Mohammad, I’m so sorry! I’m sorry that I was such an ignorant dumbass.

The two of them showed me where they produced their music and introduced me to the manager of the Palestinian Child Center: Khaled Al-Sheikh-Ali. His aim is to create a space within the camp for the children that enables them to forget that they’re in the camp. ‘A place where they can just play like every other child in the world.’ Abu Al-Sheikh, as Khaled is also known, also works with music – in a way, that is.

He plays the ‘magic flute’, as he likes to tell people. By which he means he can inspire children and young people. He understands them and tries to offer them what they actually want and not what adults think is good for children. I was immediately drawn to this idea and visited the centre in my free time as often as I could. I kept thinking, we have to get involved here...

One year later, we were working together on an ‘experiment’: a series of workshops to train 50 children and young people in alternative and creative forms of expression. Disciplines such as DJing, rap, junk percussion, singing and Dabke, a Palestinian folk dance, were covered. On 20 May 2014, the results were performed on a stage, along with other participants and famous artists from throughout Palestine and Germany, including German rap star Marteria. The festival drew a crowd of more than 1,500. Children, men, women, even sheikhs were there – and they were equally impressed.

For one evening, everyone could escape the everyday life of the camp. 

A lot of people from outside the camp also came. It was a new experience, for the camp’s inhabitants and for the visitors. The people from the Shuafat camp now had the opportunity to demonstrate who they are: i.e. not ghetto kids or even terrorists. No, they stood on the stage and played the hosts. They celebrated together, boys and girls, refugees and internationals.

The Shuafat camp had come alive and, for once, its walls had disappeared. Peace is more than just the absence of war. And peace work must prepare people to enter a space where self-confidence, mutual respect and recognition are the norm. Music is one way of learning this. Abu Al-Sheikh is continuing the concept as manager of the ‘Palestinian Child Center Shuafat’. He has since mastered more tunes on his ‘magic flute’, and even the adults are now sitting up and taking notice.

Kayed Sagalla,
Culture expert and educator and event organiser, CPS expert

Additional information

The CPS has been working since 2003 in the Palestinian Territories, where the impact of Israeli occupation is the root cause of a whole raft of psychosocial problems. It supports civil society actors that offer psychosocial counselling, support and trauma therapies and create safe spaces to promote resilience and self-determination among children and young people in particular.

Since 2013, the CPS has taken a creative approach to tackling the political, geographical and social fragmentation of Palestine, through the medium of art, culture and sport.