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Fame beckons for Gaza teen band forged in war

Feb. 13, 2015 3:48 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 13, 2015 9:45 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (AFP) -- After wowing the judges of "Arabs Got Talent", five young Palestinians who formed a band while Israeli bombs rained down are hoping their budding success can raise awareness of war-ravaged Gaza.

Their first audition so impressed that they were propelled to the semi-finals of the hit Middle Eastern television show -- a spin-off of the British-created Got Talent franchise.

The sob stories of hopefuls in the Western talent contest pale in comparison to the trials and tribulations of contestants in the Arab version.

The young musicians in Al-Takht al-Sharqi (The Arab Orchestra), who wear the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh around their necks, had to rehearse during lulls in the fighting in Gaza last year.

"I would play the darbuka (goblet drum) to try and drown out the sound of the bombardment, but the strikes were always louder," said Ramzi al-Far, 14.

"Staying alive was the priority, so our band practice suffered a bit," added 16-year-old Siraj al-Sarsawi who plays the Arabian lute.

"We were too scared to do anything else most of the time."

The 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in July and August killed nearly 2,200 Gazans, most of them civilians, as well as 73 on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers.

Almost a quarter of the dead were children, UN figures show.

The band members have lost neighbors and relatives to the conflict.

Following their initial audition in September, the five-member group, which plays traditional Arab music, will soon return to Beirut, where the hit-MBC show is hosted.

During the war, the band members tried to leave Gaza via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, but were repeatedly turned away, only managing to cross several weeks after the fighting ended on August 26.

When they finally reached Beirut in September, the judges liked their lyrical music so much that they were sent straight through to the penultimate round.

"May you return, you who are lost in God's land," the band's singer Ahmed al-Madhun incanted in a heartfelt rendition of an old Levantine song.

It is not the first time Gaza has enjoyed reality television success -- Mohammed Assaf won the Arab Idol singing contest in 2013 and went on to become a goodwill ambassador for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

'Playing for peace'

For 13-year-old Mahmud Kahil, the youngest member of the group who plays the qanun, a stringed instrument similar to a zither, the emotional build up during the war was just too much.

For the last minute of their audition, which was watched by millions of viewers, he played with tears streaming down his face.

"Playing music was a way to break the boredom and terror of war. But every time I heard an explosion, I would leave it and run for cover," he told AFP months later in his home in Gaza City.

The five youngsters met at Gaza's only music school, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, and decided just last year to form a group.

For most of them, traveling to Beirut in September was first time they had left the tiny coastal territory, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2006.

Seeing the outside world was a shock for the band's 14-year-old singer Al-Madhun.

"There wasn't a warplane in the sky, and no destruction," he said of Egypt.

"I realized that there are people in the world who live in security, who aren't scared all the time like us."

Last year's war -- the third in Gaza in less than six years -- left some 100,000 people homeless, and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of houses and many schools.

Rima Ashur, 15, who plays the nay, a wooden flute, and is the only girl in the group, said their success was important to help shine the spotlight on young Gazans, as the humanitarian situation in the enclave worsens.

"We've shown the world that we, the children of Gaza, love life. We play music for peace, not war," she said.

"The only thing we ask is to live like normal children, without the blockade and without fear."
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