BEIRUT: On a sweltering summer Saturday afternoon, 20-odd young men and women filed up to the roof of a community center in Burj al-Shemali, toting bagpipes draped in Palestinian flags. Soon the strident strains of the reed instruments – playing, incongruously, a calypso song and accompanied by a pair of drummers – came cascading down over the rooftops of the crowded camp and the Mediterranean Sea below.
The bagpipe troupe, named Guirab after one of the Arabic words for the instrument, has been a fixture of the Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon for nearly 30 years. Its members have toured throughout Lebanon and outside, showcasing the musical artform that has morphed from its colonial roots to become a piece of Palestinian tradition.
“I play the bagpipes, first of all, because we Palestinians consider it part of the Palestinian heritage,” said Hassan Ali Said, the band’s leader, who has been playing the instrument for 21 years and has traveled with the band to perform in France and Italy.
“I know it’s originally from Scotland, but in Palestine, in Bethlehem, in Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Ramallah, they all play the bagpipes.”
In fact, the instrument has a long history in the Middle East. The Oxford History of Music notes the first known sculpture of a bagpipe, dating to 1,000 B.C., was found in present-day Turkey. The instrument was also used in Egypt, as the Greek poet Aristophanes around 400 B.C. referred to pipers from Thebes blowing pipes made from dog skin.
But in more recent history, the pipes were reintroduced and popularized in Palestine and other parts of the Middle East under the British Mandate, through Scottish soldiers stationed in the region.
In Jordan, for instance, the Armed Forces Band Corps includes a bagpipe troupe. In Palestine, bagpipes are a common accompaniment to Scout troupe ceremonies and religious occasions. Despite the fact the instrument was brought to the country by an occupying power, some Palestinians have embraced it as a symbol of resistance, drawing parallels between their own present-day struggle for autonomy and the intermittent Scottish struggle for independence from England.
Beyond the historical significance of the instrument, starting the troupe in Burj al-Shemali was a way to teach the youth discipline and support them in the face of crowded and impoverished living conditions, said Mahmoud al-Joumaa, Tyre region coordinator of the NGO Beit Atfal Assumoud, which runs the community center where the group practices.
“We created it because we believe that music is an important way to teach the young to listen,” said Joumaa, known in the camp as Abu Wassim. “And it’s a message that even if we are suffering in the camps, living in hard conditions, still if you believe, you have the possibility to do the best things.”
Although Joumaa said Burj al-Shemali has not had the security issues as some of Lebanon’s other Palestinian camps, it still faces problems of overcrowding and high unemployment.
UNRWA lists a total of 22,789 Palestinian refugees registered in the one-square-kilometer camp just east of Tyre, although the census of Palestinian refugees conducted last year found a considerably lower number, listing a total population of 10,218 in the camp, with 8,142 of those being Palestinians.
The band’s members – who range in age from 16 to young adults – agreed the music helps them cope with the stresses of life in the camp.
“I love the camp, because I love what it symbolizes for me,” said Lama Aboukharroub, 20, a computer and communications engineering student at the American University of Beirut and longtime member of Guirab.
“But the situation in the camp is not good compared to the kind of life outside the camp. People have a lot of pressure.”
Playing with the bagpipe troupe, she said, is “a kind of joy and happiness for me, and this kind of gathering together.”
Zahara Walid al-Mehri, also 20 and a computer engineering student at the Islamic University of Lebanon, has been with the band since she was 12 years old and plans to continue playing after she finishes her studies.
“If we don’t play for a week, I feel that something is missing,” she said.
Starting the band was not easy, Joumaa said – some political parties opposed the formation of the musical group as immoral, and simply finding bagpipes and accessories for sale in Lebanon was a difficult task.
Joumaa recalled having to appeal to foreign friends to bring reeds for the instruments. At one point when no reeds were to be found, he said, players improvised using plastic straws as a replacement.
But over the years, the group found support from international donors and today has as many as 50 members, Said said. Their repertoire focuses primarily on Palestinian standards like “Wayn a Ramallah,” “Jafra,” and “Ya Zarif Atoul,” but dabbles in songs from other areas.
Recently, the players have also been getting coaching from Tony Collins, a Scottish bagpiper living in Lebanon who joins their twice-weekly practices to work on the technical aspects of playing, including tuning the instruments and reading music. The calypso song the band was practicing at their most recent rehearsal, for instance, was an exercise in following sheet music.
“It’s a bloody difficult instrument – it really is – so for people to play it somehow isolated [from other players] is an achievement in itself,” Collins said. “We’re learning some Scottish tunes and maybe we’ll learn some Irish ones, but really I want them to be able to play their own music better.”
Several of the players said they hope to travel to Scotland one day to connect with the Scottish piping tradition. But most of all, Mehri said, “Our dream is to play in Palestine. It’s more important than to play in any other country.”