"My violin is a way for the world to see my heart and soul without seeing my disability. I feel like I am on my own planet when I play," says Shaimaa Zakaria, one of the violinists in the Al Nour wal Amal orchestra. And that's how most of the girls in the orchestra feel.
The NGO Al Nour wal Amal ("light and hope") started back in 1954 as a school for blind girls, teaching a conventional curriculum as well as work readiness and handicrafts skills to help them adapt to independent life. "Back then we were the first and only NGO and school for blind girls in the Middle East," says Amal Fekry, vice president to Al Nour wal Amal organization and a Member in the Board of Directors.
Later, in the 1960s, they added the music school and orchestra. They now have two symphony orchestras: a large, professional orchestra with 48 musicians aged between 20-40 years, and a junior orchestra with 35 musicians aged from 8 years old. The orchestra has received worldwide acclaim, playing on 5 continents. To achieve their high standards, Al Nour wal Amal hires teachers from the music academy, the conservatoire and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.
"We created the orchestra because we found out that blind girls often have a huge talent for music and it changes their lives for the better," says Fekry. "They form connections between each other, and it maintains their memory and develops their skills."
Violinist Shaimaa Zakaria tells how she began her love affair with music: she was roaming the Al Nour wal Amal school passageways one day when she heard the sound of a violin and followed it until she reached its source. "It captivated my heart. And after that I took the decision to do what ever it takes to be a pro." She has now been playing now for 20 years.
Al Nour wal Amal are the only blind orchestra in the world who take on classical music rather than folk or pop. Zakaria explains how the orchestra learns music of this complexity. First, the piece is transcribed into braille, which is read, practiced, and ultimately, memorised by the musicians individually. Given how difficult the violin is, says Zakaria, "I think the challenges I face are the same as for any beginner."
Traditionally, conductors work with visual signals to bring in and guide the musicians as a body. Here, the conductor counts the beat and guides the musicians vocally until, Zakaria says, "my ear just knows that after this note, by this instrument, I will start playing. So we are kind of feeling the music as well." At a concert, unlike with sighted musicians, you won't see a music stand or a score: the music has become part of them.
"I don't think there are special challenges just because I can't see," says Zakaria. "But I can tell you that we reach a point were we play classical symphonies by ear with no notes, and that's something not any musician can do."
This determination and the young women's talent means there is little to distinguish them, musically, from a sighted orchestra. Fekry relates one story when an audience member, a visitor from Malta, was chatting afterwards about how much he enjoyed the concert. He then asked why the girls were playing without scores: only then was he told the musicians are blind.
"He was so astonished and fascinated that he arranged for us to go play in Malta," says Fekry.
The orchestra's impact goes far beyond the musicians, explains Fekry. "Through their achievements, people are starting to change the way they view [blind people]," she says. "[The musicians] actually defy social norms, as they all have [degrees] and excel in all walks of life. People are surprised when they come to visit us, because they see the [girls] excelling, making jokes, and are just not as broken as they might have thought."
For Zakaria, the violin changed her life. "It made me more sociable, happy, independent and just alive. And through travelling with the orchestra I was able to see and experience different cultures. Before the violin, I always kept to myself.
"For me the violin is my best friend," she continues, referring to the violin as ‘she’. "She has been with me every step of the way, and sometimes she's my voice when I can't express myself in words. When I play, it takes me to my own happy place no matter what my mood is.
"She just gets me every time."
Make sure to support Al Nour wal Amal by donating, attending their concerts, or inviting them to play.
Image courtesy of Al Nour wal Amal