Walking in the Association building, I passed a row of rooms on both sides of the wide corridor. Most of the rooms were closed. Some doors, however, had been left ajar, and music was coming from inside. In one of them, a young lady was practicing the flute. The sound of strings was coming from another room, and at the end of the corridor a small group of girls was talking together, laughing.
The young musicians were warming up for final rehearsals before their travel to Valletta, Malta, for their concert on Sunday 6 May at Teatru Manoel, Malta's National Theatre and one of Europeans most renowned theatres. A few minutes later, I was invited to join a rehearsal in one of the Association's larger rooms. I listened to over 30 young ladies performing chosen works from the larger repertoire prepared for Malta: two compositions by Maltese composer Joseph Vella and Rossini's overture to L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers).
The musicians performed without notes and without the guidance of the maestro. Instead of standing at his podium, Aly Osman, the conductor, walked in between the musicians, adding minor remarks when needed. The striking precision and inspiring dedication of the performers left me speechless and humbled at the same time.
The orchestra whose rehearsal I was attending was Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra for blind girls, operating under the umbrella of an association of the same name.
The Al Nour Wal Amal Association (Light and Hope) was founded in 1954 by a group of volunteers under the leadership of late Istiklal Radi, and it was the first in the Middle East aiming at the care, education, vocational training and integration into society of blind girls and women.
Today, the Association has five branches in five cities. It has expanded into new premises in Nasr City, a compound that incorporates a kindergarten for blind and sighted children, allowing visually-impaired toddlers to integrate with other children, a centre teaching blind people to use computers, a welcome boarding home for the blind women who do not live in Cairo but stay in the city during short visits or for academic studies, and a call centre that creates jobs for the blind.
The Association also provides additional services and activities, among which many aim to increase girls' independence, helping them to learn how to generate income. In total, the Al Nour Wal Amal Association today takes care of over 300 blind girls and young women.
The idea of creating a music institute for blind girls goes back to 1961, when Istiklal Radi decided to expand the Association's activities by incorporating music education. She contacted the late Samha El-Kholy, former president of the Academy of Arts and former dean of the Cairo Conservatory. Together, they founded the Al Nour Wal Amal Music Institute to teach music on an academic basis. The institute develops musical talents and abilities of blind girls, allowing them to express themselves through music, playing instruments and/or singing. The Institute's staff consists of the musicians and professors from the Cairo Conservatory, the College of Music Education of Helwan University, and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.
For two decades, the Orchestra was trained and conducted by late Ahmed Abul Eid. Today, it is under the artistic supervision of Ines Abdel-Daim, chairperson of the Cairo Opera House, and is conducted and trained by Aly Osman. The first generation of musicians formed an orchestra consisting of 16 girls. Today, it has 38 musicians, representing mainly third generation girl graduates of the Al Nour Wal Amal Music Institute. Many of the girls and young women have independent lives and jobs outside the Association returning to the premises in the afternoons to practice with the Orchestra. In parallel, the Music Institute is preparing a fourth generation of musicians, members of which have already held a concert at the Association and at the Russian Cultural Centre.
"Ever since its creation, the Chamber Orchestra at the Music Institute has become one of the most important parts of the Association. First time, the Orchestra performed outside the premises of the Association was at the old Cairo Opera House in 1972," Amal Fikry, vice-chair of the Al Nour Wal Amal Association explains.
"The Orchestra continued to perform around Egypt in many cities and venues: schools, universities, cultural centres, embassies, hotels and clubs, and it was invited to perform on many important occasions. As the number of musicians was growing, in 1987 a group of over 30 girls gave a performance at the Gomhoria Theatre. This concert gave rise to extensive interest in the media and audience alike. It was then that I thought of realizing a dream of Istiklal Radi's that the Orchestra should travel abroad," Fikry said.
Their first trip of the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra outside Egypt was to Austria in 1988. The concert was very successful, and the host named the Orchestra "the Fourth Pyramid of Giza" and invited the girls again a year later. "The girls are always welcomed very warmly, and their musical standards impress audience around the world," Fikry says, proudly adding that in 1994 the Orchestra performed with the Tokyo Junior Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Hitomi Memorial Hall in Japan. In some cases, the Orchestra is accompanied by Al Nour Wal Amal Choir, and on these occasions both Orchestra and Choir receive standing ovations.
During their travels, each group of three girls is accompanied by one sighted person. In some countries, volunteers offer their help to the Orchestra. Fikry underlines the great experiences that the girls have gained on their travels. One of her most vivid memories comes from Switzerland in 2008, where the girls had their first encounter with snow and ice. Also in Switzerland, they dined at the Blinde Kuh Restaurant, a pitch dark restaurant, where they could reverse roles and assist the sighted accompanying persons confused by the darkness.
Until today, the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra has travelled abroad 25 times, its visits including trips to 12 European countries, five Arab countries, three Asian, along withand Australia and Canada.
Conductor Aly Osman explains that though the preparation for a concert can be quite lengthy, the Orchestra has a large repertoire that is expanding each year. While preparing a new composition for performance, the girls are given musical notation in the Braille system, a tactile form of reading and writing for the blind. With the help of professional musicians, they then memorise every single bar and all the markings. "Once they have their lines memorised, each section of the Orchestra starts to rehearse separately. Then the whole Orchestra meets and rehearses the complete composition together," Osman explains.
On Sunday 6 May, the Al Nour Wal Amal orchestra performed an impressive programme in Malta; it included over 15 compositions by Egyptian and western composers. Among these were Abou-Bakr Khairat's "Eih Al-Ebara?" (What is the matter?) from the Suite folklorique, Rageh Dawood's Dance for Flute and Chamber Orchestra, Brahms' Hungarian Dances (no.1), Verdi's "Brindisi"(from the opera La Traviata), Bizet's "Farandole" (from L’Arlesienne Suites), Dvorak's Slavonic Dance No. 8, the first movement from Mozart's Symphony No. 40, and other pieces. "We always incorporate at least one composition from the country the girls are visiting into the programme. Hence, our Malta concert includes works by Joseph Vella," Osman added.
Julian Holland, a retired banker, got to know the Orchestra in Cairo when he was based in Egypt. Impressed with their work, Holland became the main initiator and producer of the Orchestra's travel to Malta. Originally, the concert has been planned for February 2011, but it had to be postponed due to the January Revolution in Egypt. "Yesterday's concert was fantastic," Holland commented on Al Nour Wal Amal's performance at the Teatru Manoel on 6 May. "I think it was one of the best performances by the Orchestra. The audience loved it, too. The fact that the girls are visually-impaired is definitely one of the reasons for the Orchestra's uniqueness. However, we must also underline that all the girls are excellent and accomplished musicians."
Music education demands lots of additional effort from all the girls. Al Nour Wal Amal Music Institute provides an academic music curriculum in the afternoons, as an additional activity. Girls from the Association's day school are able to add music to their studies at the age of eight, once music professionals determine that they have a musical gift. They then practice for many years before being incorporated into the Orchestra. Fikry underlines that many of the blind girls come from financially modest backgrounds. Not all of them have their own instruments, and many depend on equipment provided at the Al Nour Wal Amal premises. Even though they may not always have a background in western classical music at their homes, the girls' passion and determination to pursue studies is usually supported by their families.
University graduate Basma Saad, the leader of the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra, is now in her twenties but she says that even as a very young child she was always surrounded by toy instruments at home and music always attracted her. "I always wanted to study music. Having passed the assessment test, the professors decided that the violin would suit me best. My academic studies allowed me to embrace my passion and gain a fuller understanding of music," Saad says, adding that though the Orchestra also performs oriental compositions, it is western classical music that gives her the greatest satisfaction.
Same feelings are shared by Mona Samir, a cellist, also in her twenties. Now studying at an open-learning university, Samir recalls her particular interest in music as a child. "Everyone has his or her own talent. I always liked to sing and play. Today, I play the cello with the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra which makes me enjoy the western classical repertoire more," Samir explains.
Both Basma Saad and Mona Samir are among the several girls from the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra who have taken passion further. Apart from the regular academic curriculum and the concerts they give under the Music Institute's umbrella, they are following an additional music programme provided by London Trinity College, which offers the Trinity Guildhall curriculumand exams. These internationally accredited examinations can open many doors. Saad is currently taking the seventh level of the Trinity Guildhall exams, while Samir is preparing for her post-graduate music diploma exams.
Giving joy to dozens of blind girls and opening many creative doors, the Al Nour Wal Amal Association works hard to secure decent education and development of blind girls. However, following the events of January 2011, it became harder for the Association to gather funds.
"The government is helping us, though. Twenty years ago, the government gave us a piece of land in Nasr City for further expansion," Fikry explains, adding that unfortunately over recent years governmental support has been dwindling and it can take the Association a year or two to collect donation. The Music Institute depends on donations in order to offer its education and facilities for free to blind girls. It is also in need of high-quality instruments, in order to improve the Orchestra's sound.
Leaving the Association premises in Cairo, the city's busy streets hit me with their visual and noise pollution. The sound of the girls performing kept ringing in my head. I could not forget the expression of joy on Basma's face, as she proudly performed beautiful solos pieces on her violin. I could not forget the concentration on Mona's face as she played the cello. For many hours after my visit, I remembered all the girls: the double-bass player leaning towards her colleague to listen and keep up with the music; the wonderful lines emerging from the flute player; and an endless counting of bars by the percussionist, wanting to make sure that she made a perfect entry.
I still remember girls practicing in at the Association and the sound of conversation and laughter in its corridor. Though these girls are visually impaired, music makes their lives much richer. Listeners of the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra are offered the pleasure of hearing some very good music, and they are also invited to take part in a humbling amount of reflections.