A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
“When words end, music goes on.” This is how one feels entering the hall of the Cultural Center in Sana’a and listen to Riyam play ‘Asmar ya Asmarani’ on her violin as if she has been holding it for a thousand dream-filled years so that peace comes
Seventeen-year-old Riyam al-Dubbai is the leader of the violin band. More than 40 female students have been enrolled at the Higher Institute of Music at the Cultural Center in Sana’a since Mr. Abdullah al-Dubbai established the violin band in 2018. It is an attempt to alleviate the impact of the war on young people – despite limited resources – and to realize his dream of establishing a national orchestra that revives the glory of the past. Al-Dubbai was a member of an orchestra that was created in the 1970s. It included eighteen men and eight women who played string and brass instruments and held concerts in many countries, the last of which was the United States. However, the orchestra gradually died out from the early 1980s. “When music left the country, it was replaced by war”, al-Dubbai said sadly.
Visitors to the Center notice that it is mostly frequented by women. According to al-Dubbai, he would like to train female musicians, since Yemen is full of promising young talents despite the long war that destroyed almost everything else. Out of the 60 students who enrolled at the Center since its establishment, there are more than 30 young girls learning the violin, the guitar, the oud, the organ, and even singing.
Safa al-Azazi, a violinist, says she joined the Center – despite the short teaching time, the shortage of instruments, and the long distance – because she is passionate about music and the courses are free. Like other students, Safa cannot go to other institutes because her family cannot afford the high fees due to interruptions to salary payment and the high cost of living.
This is how Safa explained the heavy attendance of young girls at the Center. She said that women in Yemen have become bolder and more willing to learn and participate in creating a state of peace with the help of music. They also aspire to excellence and to access opportunities for regional and global participation, which brings back hope to them.
Nurhan bin Abdat Alkathiry is another distinguished young woman who trained at the Center. We were unable to meet with her since a sponsor covered her trip expenses so she could participate in ‘The Voice’, after she was selected from among thousands of Arab applicants.
Professor al-Dubbai, who holds two Arab and European degrees in music, is spending his time, effort and money to continue working at the Center, even though he is the only teacher. He spends 35 minutes each day with each group because there are not enough instruments and students must share them. Thus, the professor divides his time among the groups in order to teach them musical notation. In addition to the lack of instruments, which he is trying to cover alone, al-Dubbai has a daily six-kilometer commute to the Center, and leaves in the afternoon to work as a tailor in the evening to provide for his family. He has dedicated 27 years of his life to music and considers that although humans are naturally drawn to melodies, this natural instinct must be developed, and a true musician is someone who studies music academically.
The issue of financial support is not usually discussed at the Center. With the years of frustration that al-Dubbai was able to overcome and the positive energy created by music, in addition to the students’ learning and adjustment to the precarious situation, the professor refuses to charge students any fees. The support of civil society organizations, especially those working in the field of peace and culture, is notably absent. However, Dr. Fayrouz Deifallah, a lecturer at Sana’a University and a piano student at the Center, says she returned here after a long interruption because this is where she finds the passion and the energy she needs in her life. She endeavors to organize the Center internally and to find financial resources via the Internet, despite her busy schedule. Dr. Fayrouz aims to motivate students to develop both their talents and the Center, which has become their second home. She told us they are on the right path to a healthier and more effective music-learning environment. Dr. Fayrouz has a wonderful musical ability that she acquired when she took piano lessons in Europe, where she spent part of her life. She has earned the respect and affection of the students because she represents a model of success that combines a high degree of education with music, which has long been taboo for families.
The role of al-Dubbai at the Center is not limited to teaching, as he is the spiritual father of everyone, especially the female students. He constantly strives to break their barrier of fear and hesitation and enhance their sense of appreciation of art, and even encourages them to meet visitors and take pictures. He does his best to ensure that female students have the opportunities he thinks they deserve, in addition to allowing some of them to be accompanied by their families. Thus, the Center has created a warm family made up of a number of small loving families that are brought together by music.
Our visit to the Cultural Center in Sana’a came as part of a working visit to Sana’a as representatives of the Takween Club in Mukalla, which participated in a project by al-Mawred al-Thaqafy Foundation that aims to strengthen the relationship among cultural institutions in the Arab region. During this visit, we were able to see that music in Yemen is among the few aesthetics that has not been killed by the war, but rather refined and further enhanced. The continuation of such cultural centers and initiatives and the growing awareness of youth that art can be a manifestation of peace, civilization and the fight against violence and extremism maintains Yemen on the world map of art and culture. Unfortunately, it is no secret that the name of Yemen has been associated in the international media with poverty, war and extremism.
From my perspective, how I wish I were able to attend piano lessons in an official institute among other children and young people who were neither frightened nor apprehensive. In this regard, I hope that Riyam will get a scholarship to study music next year rather than journalism, which she chose only because it is accessible. I also hope that Safa will get the opportunity to play in an internationally renowned theater and that al-Dubbai will be able to provide an instrument for each student at the Center. Furthermore, I hope institutes in other provinces will be able to reopen their doors and realize the secret dreams and hopes of young musicians in the country’s villages and cities.
I really hope that colleges, institutes and theaters will be built in our country, which is a bastion of diverse ancient Arabic music, along with more awareness of a welcoming society that appreciates art and knows its value in building and sustaining peace.
Riyam, Safa, Nurhan, and dozens of others raise their violin arches so that the sound of music drowns every voice calling for conflict. These young women and their teacher, who travels to Adl Street in the middle of Sana’a, do not realize that every morning they erase a little more of the long period of emptiness and silence that allowed disturbing voices to seep into our country for years. They also do not know that the world has not yet been able to silence these voices.
Aisha Aljaedy is a writer, cultural activist and youth activist in the field of peace and development.