When playing an instrument, being able to see is definitely helpful, right? For anyone who has fumbled about with an instrument, learned their first chord, their second, even a third and then given up when it came time to put all three together, imagine doing all that again, only without the help of the sense of sight. Then, imagine getting really good at it. This is what the Chambre Orchestra Al Nour wal Amal (Light and Hope) did. Through their own doggedness, determination, hard work and oodles of natural God given talent, these girls managed to make successes of themselves.
The Al Nour wal Amal Association is an Egyptian orchestra. The association was founded in 1954 by a group of volunteers and headed by Mrs Istiklal Radi, the first director of the association. It was the first non-governmental association in the Middle East to help visually impaired girls and women. The association provides them with care, education, vocational training, job opportunities and integration into society. But especially they help young girls to develop their musical talents on an academic basis. The association caters for over 300 blind girls and young women at any given time.
The Spanish photojournalist Fernando Moleres has been documenting the musicians for many years. “I saw some photos of the orchestra in a photo contest and as I went to Egypt to continue with a report on child labor, I decided to visit the center. The centre gave me a chance to visit and I took photos during the rehearsal and also during a concert in Cairo.” Moleres also followed them on their recent tour. “I visited them again after the Arab Spring in March 2011. The relationship was very good and I decided to accompany them during their tour in Europe in September 2011. Afterwards I attended the concert in Segré, France in 2012 and in Malta in 2012.” He decided to make a short documentary to accompany the photo story Sounds of Light and Hope.
The orchestra performs extensively around Egypt in many cities and venues like cultural centres, embassies, universities, and has also toured various countries on five continents. When asked about his comment in a Dutch newspaper that the hardcore Salafists (who represent 20 per cent of Egyptian voters) could make it impossible to perform, he reacted surprised. “I don’t think that I said that, nobody asked me about that. I don’t think that the Salafists can stop this center or the orchestra but probably they don’t like it.” He added the whole thing is beside the point as they are not the main power in the present government.
The orchestra is composed of blind girls with different levels of music education. About 34 muslim women play strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. The girls are trained with special techniques and methods to enable the girls to perform as an orchestra. Before playing, the musicians must read the music in braille and memorize each selection in rehearsals. Then the whole orchestra meets and rehearses the complete composition together. In the rehearsals, the conductor taps the beats to keep everyone synchronized.
The photo series’ caption says: “In Egypt, being a blind woman without resources means having a bleak future outside the family environment and a negligible chance to make a living other than by begging.” Unfortunately, people with special needs all over the world, like the visually impaired, still face daily the harsh reality of living in a society awash with superstition, social stigma and the absence of institutions necessary to cater for their needs. The road to a normal existence is still lined with thorns and hardship. “In Egypt, as in many other countries where resources are not being made available to persons with disabilities it is very complicated or even impossible for the poor to get an education or find a job. There is not enough support from the government for this section of the population. We may add some cultural factors that do not encourage women with disabilities. But there are private initiatives like Al Nour wal Amal that encourage and support the blind women and girls.”
The girls show that those with disabilities can achieve their goals. Many of the girls and young women have independent lives and jobs outside the association, returning to the premises in the afternoon to practice with the orchestra.
The orchestra plays various compositions by Egyptian and western composers like Bizet, Verdi, Brahms, Mozart and other composers. Even if they may not always have a home-grown background in western classical music, the girls’ passion and determination to pursue studies is usually supported by their families.
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 personal growth for blind girls. However, following the events of January 2011, it became harder for the association to gather funds. Over the last years governmental support has dwindled and it might take the association a year or two to actually collect a donation. The Music Institute depends on donations in order to offer its education and facilities for free to its students. It is also in need of high-quality instruments, in order to improve the orchestra’s sound.
Though these girls are visually impaired, music enriches their lives so much. The girls are always welcomed very warmly, and their musical standards impress audiences around the world. They received standing ovations on several occasions. “It was like travelling with family. I felt formidable with the group and I love to hear their music. It is so moving to listen and see how they play. The humility and the good spirits of blind people are incredible, their souls touch you forever.”
Fernando Moleres was born in Bilbao, Spain in 1963. During the early 1990s, he combined nursing work with long periods traveling and doing photo projects, such as Children at Work, which lasted for several years and took him to many countries. His photos have appeared in a number of international publications, such as Der Stern, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde 2, La Repubblica, Io Donna, The Independent and The Sunday Times Magazine. Moleres has published two books and has had more than 20 solo exhibitions worldwide. His honours include a Picture of the Year 2011, two World Press Photo prizes (in 1998 and 2008), a W. Eugene Smith Grant, an Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation Grant, and a Lucia Award 2012 Deeper Perspectives Award. Recently the photojournalist has been awarded the second Tim Hetherington Grant, an annual visual journalism award focusing on human rights, for his project Waiting for an Opportunity, in which he documented the harsh realities of juvenile justice in Sierra Leone. Moleres is now based in Barcelona.
Photos: © Fernando Moleres
This post is also available in: Dutch