We called the two-day event held in Rome “Bridges of Hope”. They were two days filled with images, words and music dedicated to the vast and suffering family of nomads all over the world made up of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It was built on one core idea: give them a central role in our time and space, make them builders of bridges.
This is also how we arrived at the powerful name for the event, with inspiration also coming from a combination of the two artists of September 16 and 17: Amal Kaawash, ‘Amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic, and Jussur Project, ‘Jussur’ meaning ‘bridge’.
On this occasion, thanks to the Culture is Freedom campaign which, through the association of the same name, has been promoting Palestinian culture in Italy for three years and supporting Palestinian cultural projects in Palestine, and the essential support of transform! two outstanding musical acts were present. These were Amal Kaawash, a Palestinian with a stunning voice who lives in Beirut, and the excellent quartet Jussur Project: three musicians from Tunisia (Helmi M’hadhbi on the oud, an Arab lute), Cuba (Angel Ballester on the sax, flute and clarinet) and India (Sanjay Kansa Banik on the Indian tabla), accompanied by a Palestinian dancer, Dalal Suleiman. We are already familiar with their excellent work, because they have already performed at previous concerts in solidarity with Palestine. Most notably in 2015 to support the “Luthiers in Gaza, music against destruction” project, a workshop for repairing musical instruments in Gaza, a place where music is hugely popular, but which does not have any craftspeople to repair the instruments!
On September 16, at the Casa Internazionale delle Donne on Via della Lungara in Rome, Amal Kaawash, a young Palestinian illustrator and singer, presented her illustrations of Meiroun, the girl with the long plaits, a symbol of “the desire of freedom of Palestinians and of all the women in the Arab world.” She told Meiroun’s story, which is also the story of her own life, her dreams and imagination: the story of a girl born a refugee (as her travel document bears testament…) to a family forced, like hundreds of others, to leave their village – Meiroun – in 1948 during the Palestinian exodus, the violent occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel. The Kaawash family then splintered to inhabit several different places and could not return to its village which is now Meron, part of the State of Israel. This is the reason behind Amal’s sadness, a hint of which can even been seen in the smile and happiness of presenting the stories of her “creation”. She told us that she was trying to use the stories of the former residents of Meiroun, who live in a number of refugee camps in Lebanon, to flesh out the story of the rural village that lived in peace before 1948; the stories of a people that have been refugees and have had to flee from war more than once, most recently in Syria.
In the crowded hall at the Casa Internazionale delle Donne the images of this small girl with the plaits permanently lit by the moon are everywhere. “You’ll never see her face because I see her as representing all women who seek freedom”, says Amal, as we watch the silhouette chase the moon, or seek freedom by trying to break out of the cage she is in, or clean the window through which she can see an Israeli fighter-bomber filling the sky. “When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, I couldn’t leave the house and I poured all my energy into drawing”. It was at this time that she created the many images of Meiroun, whose name spread until “a friend in Gaza named his daughter Meiroun recently”. The last image of the child we are shown depicts her in a small boat: “It shows how we are still making our way back to Palestine…”.
Amal also refers to her voluntary work in the refugee camps, where “I feel at home” and where music is used as a way of expression and to create togetherness, to communicate and also to escape from physical conditions that are particularly difficult.
There is a direct link between her story and Miriam, the Baobab volunteer who gave a detailed account of the experience of the welcome given to refugees and the harsh reality of today, as the centre has closed its doors and hundreds of young people and women with children sleep on the streets in front of it.
A disgrace for the local authorities, a disgrace for the capital, Rome, but also a fine example of local solidarity, where so many donated food, clothes – basic necessities. A group of refugees was supposed to come with her, to run a musical workshop directed by Helmi M’hadhbi, but only one of them felt safe travelling to the venue. They tell us that fear is rife, fear of being locked up by the police and maybe having to spend hours at the police station. Everything we hear tells of a situation that both angers and saddens, a tragedy in our time. After the speakers, two of the musicians from Jussur Project, Helmi M'hadhbi, the oud player, and Angel Ballester on the sax, accompanied by Amal treated the remaining audience to musical excerpts and two songs. It was a taster of the musical journey of the concert that was held in the Auditorium del Seraphicum the following evening.
On the evening of September 17, in the Auditorium Seraphicum, an already interested audience, who rapidly became even more enthusiastic, were moved by an extra-large helping of music presented by Helmi M'hadhbi and played by Jussur; an hour and a half of audio perfection. Many of the pieces were written by Helmi: the piece on the birth of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia; the piece inspired by the bewildered look of a little girl from Gaza, the only survivor of a family bombed on the beach, the piece on the homesickness for your home country and others. He also presented the songs of Amal Kaawash, inspired by the musical traditions of the Sham (the Levant) and Palestine. Amal has a tender and powerful voice, and she moved her body or beat her hands to the rhythm of her music with a passion that left the audience spellbound.
Where the Jussur Project really shines is the great success with which it combines the sounds of instruments ancient and modern, from East (like the oud and the tabla) and West (the tenor sax and the clarinet), all played with extraordinary skill, with the virtuoso talent being heard in the solos in particular. It truly was what Helmi called, “a moving visual and audio journey across four continents”, full of different sounds and with Palestinian words and images. The inspiration behind it is that of the universality of music, its ability to transcend borders, to weave different cultures into one harmonious fabric. Dancing was set to only one piece of music – Mirage composed by Helmi – and the dance was interpreted by Dalal Suleiman accompanied by the group. Clad in black and with absolute mastery over the stage, she enchanted the audience with a modern dance, a glorious combination of flowing and sensual movements interpreted by her slender, supple frame. Dalal, who is also an actress, captivated the audience again with her reading of poetic works by Mahmoud Darwish, Suad Amiry and Fadwa Tuqan. Amal and Dalal, two women, brought to the stage the beauty of a voice, of the human form in motion and of poetry, all in perfect symphony with the voices of the instruments.
As with previous initiatives, Bridges of Hope was held as a show of solidarity. The proceeds of the evening will fund scholarships at the Saida Conservatory in Beirut for two young musical volunteers from the Burj Al Shamali refugee camp in the south of Lebanon. This is a decision we made together with Amal, Ulaia, the Italian association working with culture and the arts in the Burj al Shemali camp, and the Lebanese association Assoumoud.