Playing in the Dark

[caption id="attachment_55246116" align="alignnone" width="620"]Al Nour Wa Amal playing in Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. (Ati Metwaly) Al Nour Wa Amal playing in Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. (Ati Metwaly)[/caption]Wherever in the world Al Nour Wal Amal perform, they elicit an unprecedented level of enthusiasm, love and appreciation from their audience. During their decades-long career, they have played on dozens of Egypt’s stages. They have also toured in over thirty countries in five different continents, in each gaining the respect and touching the hearts of their spectators. Al Nour Wal Amal is a one-a-kind Egyptian orchestra---it consists of forty visually impaired girls and women.

The Ambassador of Egypt to Germany, Mohamed Higazy, has described its members---who in 2008 performed during the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UNESCO's headquarters in Paris---as "Egypt's ambassadors".

The Al Nour Wal Amal (meaning 'Light and Hope') Chamber Orchestra---who earlier this month performed in Berlin's Urania Theatre and at the renowned historical Laeiszhalle in Hamburg---was founded in 1961 under the wing of an institution with the same name. The non-government organization was launched in 1954 and aimed to provide blind girls with an education and tools that would allow them to integrate into society. Al Nour Wal Amal was the dream of founding director Istiklal Radi who launched the association in order to give the girls more than their regular school curriculum provided. Later, she introduced music into the girls’ education with the help of the late Samha El-Khouly, then dean of the Cairo Conservatory.


[inset_left]The institute provides instruments and music scores in the Braille[/inset_left]


Together they launched Al Nour Wal Amal Music Institute, which nurtures visually impaired women who show a particular talent in music and a willingness to take their interest to a professional level. The institute provides instruments and music scores in the Braille, the tactile writing system developed for the blind. It operates in the afternoons after regular study hours, and its staff consists of the musicians and professors from the Cairo Conservatory, the College of Music Education of Helwan University in Cairo, and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.

A small orchestra that formed at the school---consisting of sixteen girls, trained and conducted by late Ahmed Abul Eid---eventually saw the daylight. Ten years after the formation of the institute they gave their first performance to a large crowd outside the school’s premises. Today, the orchestra has grown to forty musicians; it is conducted and trained by Aly Osman and operates under the artistic supervision of Ines Abdel-Dayem, current chairperson of the Cairo Opera House. It’s repertoire ranges from Western classical music compositions to works by Egyptian and Arab composers. Occasionally, the orchestra also performs a composition characteristic of the country that hosts them.

"The orchestra starts incorporating the third generation of the Institute's students," Amal Fikry, vice-chair of the Al Nour Wal Amal Association tells The Majalla.

"The youngest musicians who joined the ensemble quite recently are two teenage girls. We are very proud to have them in the orchestra. Our visit to Germany was the first trip for the young ones." Says Fikry, who was also the sole initiator of the orchestra's international travels---a dream of co-founder Radi.

In parallel, more experienced musicians representing the first generation of the school’s alumni are still members of the orchestra. They maintain their strong links with the Association and remain committed to the orchestra's rehearsals and performances, despite having graduated decades ago.

The orchestra travels extensively. "Our first trip was to Austria, in 1988," Fikry recalls. "The girls made a great impression and soon after invitations to the countries around the world followed. We were re-invited to Vienna a year later, and in 1990, the girls performed in the UK, which was their only visit to this country so far." From Sweden, Malta, France, Belgium, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, and all the way to India, Thailand and Japan, members of Al Nour Wal Amal have been enabled to travel the world.

For the girls and women of the Al Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra music becomes their life. Despite the many efforts of numerous NGOs and associations who take care of the blind---and disabled in general---Egypt is not an easy place live for those who suffer from any impairment. Many of Egypt's blind population also suffer from poverty and have limited or no access to educational activities. Al Nour Wal Amal exerts an effort to educate and integrate the visually impaired into the society, yet it appears that Egypt's job market is not ready to accommodate the blind and many of them complain of difficulties in finding work.

"It is almost impossible for a blind person to find job in Egypt," comments Shahinaz Salah, the university graduate and the contrabass player at Al Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra. "We have to struggle for acceptance in the society continuously and most of the times finding a job results from direct connections with the employer and is not based on a set system that would accommodate visually impaired."

Salah continues to point to a high degree of negligence of the Egyptian authorities towards the disabled. "There are no services of any kind provided, no proper pavements, no audible signals at the crossroads; even canes for the blind are extremely old-fashioned and do not support us much... Crossing the street is practically impossible without assistance. Not to mention that, unfortunately in our culture there is no recognition and respect for the disabled. People tend to pity us, while the country does not accommodate us," Salah explains to The Majalla.

The difficulties faced by the visually impaired on daily basis in Egypt, are among the many reasons why the girls and women from the orchestra enjoy travelling in particular. "Europe is more prepared for the disabled. On the artistic level we gain an enormous recognition, while as humans we are respected and treated as rest of the society. In many countries across the world, blind and disabled are well integrated into the society, we can become more independent, something we lack in Egypt," Salah continues by pointing to minor details such as signs in Braille in elevators that helped her during the orchestra's trip to Greece for instance.

For the Al Nour Wal Amal orchestra, music becomes a substitute for a visual reality. Above all it is an opportunity to achieve validity and a sense of accomplishment in a life filled otherwise with challenges. For three generations of girls and women with special abilities, music has opened the door to new horizons and new wonders.

"We are very lucky to be members of the Al Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra. It is our haven that gives us what most visually impaired people lack in Egypt: a sense of self-accomplishment and self-worth, a reason to persevere. To some of us, it is also a job and a very rewarding one. While experiencing the most beautiful music, we also become better humans," Salah concluded.

The Al Nour Wal Amal musicians are an inspiration. The ovations that they garner across the world are not only for the music but also for the efforts that they have exerted in becoming active and value-adding members of society, against all odds. As its name indicates, the orchestra brings light and hope to the forty women as well as to their audience.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla Magazine.