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Egypt's blind women's orchestra struggles post-revolution

Al Nour Wal Amal orchestra is feeling the pinch from Egypt's economic and political instability, as funds dry up and concerts dwindle.

CAIRO — Described as “Egypt’s miracle,” Al Nour Wal Amal (Light and Hope), the blind female orchestra, is feeling the economic pangs of the revolution. Prior to the January 25 Revolution, the orchestra staged regular monthly concerts, traveled annually and had multiple donors supporting the organization and its initiatives. Today, the picture is somewhat bleak, shown by the infrequency of concerts, little or no international travel and dwindling funds. 

“Since the revolution, the organization is really struggling. Most of our donors left the country and others can no longer afford to help,” Amal Fikry, the organization’s proud chairwoman, told Al-Monitor, detailing how even regular donors last year were today less forthcoming. Masr El Kheir, an Egyptian charity, is currently the main, stable funding source, according to Fikry.

The economic setbacks instigated by political instability have been multifaceted and deeply felt within the heart of the orchestra. Heba Rifat, a 22-year-old, talented, blind musician who plays the bass clarinet, linked the drop in concerts to the far-reaching economic tensions preventing people from donating or attending cultural events. The World Bank’s findings support this premise: At the end of June 2013, Egypt’s fiscal deficit and gross public debt — domestic and external — rose to nearly 100% of gross domestic product and unemployment reached over 13%, predominantly affecting youth.

The demand for concerts has diminished and people fear nighttime excursions because of the economic, security and political instability, said the young musician. The daily lives of many of the female musicians in the post-revolutionary period have also been influenced.

“The older girls who are independent of their families and those married with children have been badly affected by the revolution and the economic implications,” Rifat told Al-Monitor, identifying herself as one of the fortunate, since her father is still supporting her.

Funding constraints during this period of political turmoil have also prevented the purchase of new orchestral instruments, minimized travel and stalled initiatives such as the development of a piece of land where Fikry hopes to establish a sports center for the blind. Ali Osman, the conductor of Al Nour Wal Amal since 2001, refers to the Ministry of Culture’s failings before and after the revolution, which have denied the organization vital resources, media and international recognition.

Currently, the association has only a Facebook page created by Osman and the musicians to generate awareness about their phenomenal work. Such meek public exposure is disconcerting in light of the achievements of these gifted women, who have managed to overcome an enormous set of challenges. Not only are they struggling with their sight impairment, they are also struggling with social constraints, making their struggle all the more commendable, music critic Ati Metwally told Al-Monitor.

Al Nour Wal Amal orchestra consists of 44 blind female musicians between 20-40 years of age, of which five are visually impaired and can only see shadows. The orchestra has traveled around the world, visiting over 20 countries. There is also a junior orchestra of around 27 girls from 8-20 years of age.

The Egyptian Blind Girls Association was establish in 1954 by volunteers led by the late Istiklal Radi. It was the first organization in the region whose mission was to care, educate and provide vocational training and societal integration for blind women. In 1961, Radi and Samha el-Kholy, former president of the Academy of Arts and former dean of the Cairo Conservatory, expanded the association's activities to incorporate music education, establishing the Al Nour Wal Amal Music Institute.

There are currently five organizational branches in five cities, with a compound in Nasr City that includes a kindergarten for blind and visually impaired infants, a boarding school for blind women who live outside the capital and a call center that facilitates employment for the blind.

The musicians are from ordinary backgrounds and tend to join the institute at the primary stage. Upon passing the initial musical aptitude tests, an instrument is then selected by the student or teacher that it is compatible with the girl’s physique. Each young woman learns musical notation in the braille system. 

"It is a mere miracle, they learn everything by heart, they don't have the notes in front of them and cannot see the conductor," Fikry said, with a smile that radiated her sheer admiration for the girls, whom, observers remark, she treats as her own daughters.

Some of the musicians work full-time with the orchestra, while others have jobs and simply attend afternoon biweekly practice sessions. All the women musicians are educated, many with degrees and one at the doctoral level. Fikry recounts the remarkable story of Mahassan Mohamed, a woman in her 30s of Bedouin ancestry from Ismailia, who was illiterate until the age of 15 before joining the institute. Not only did Mohamed learn music, following the completion of her bachelor's degree, she traveled to the United States, where she obtained a master’s and is currently pursuing her doctorate at Syracuse University.

Despite the countless obstacles further amplified by the revolution, the musicians and their support network exude unyielding optimism and hope regarding the organization’s and Egypt’s future. Aspirations expressed by the conductor Osman include Al Nour Wal Amal’s elevation from a chamber orchestra to a symphony orchestra with the mandatory 60 musicians. International recognition is another goal at the top of the association's agenda.

“As a member of the only blind orchestra in the world, I want the world to know that Egypt is still making history and that women can succeed in spite of disabilities,” Rifat said.

Political stability will afford such ambitions, if it is achieved.

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