Called "The fourth pyramid of Giza," "The human miracle," and "The ambassadors of Egypt," once again, Al-Nour Wal Amal  (Light and Hope) Chamber Orchestra, consisting of 40 visually impaired women, captured the hearts of audiences during their latest visit to Germany.
The orchestra gave two concerts: in Berlin's Urania Theatre on 8 October and in Hamburg's Laeiszhalle on 11 October. This is the third visit of the orchestra to Germany, following their German tours in 1992 and 1999.
The orchestra often performs in concert halls that carry illustrious histories. In Berlin, Al-Nour Wal Amal performed in Urania Theatre, which belongs to the Urania Society celebrating its 125th anniversary this year with decades of contribution to the scientific, technological and cultural life of Berlin and other cities across Europe.
In Hamburg, the over a century old Laeiszhalle adorned the musicians with its splendid architecture and breathtaking acoustics. "The Laeiszhalle miraculously escaped damage during the two World Wars. Its original interior is almost intact," Petra Gaich, head of artistic planning at the Laeiszhalle, explained to Ahram Online.
Hamburg's grandest concert hall, which seats over 2000, is also the main home to the city's three leading orchestras: the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra , Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra (NDR Sinfonieorchester).
Since its first international trip in 1988, Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra proves that visual impairment is no obstacle to musical growth. Sharing this experience internationally not only gives exposure to Al-Nour Wal Amal, it also encourages orchestra members who today consist of three generations of musicians. "The youngest member of Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra is still at school. This is our third generation. The most experienced are those from the first generation. Some are married and have families of their own," Amal Fikry revealed to Ahram Online.
The orchestra is part of an association with the same name — an NGO founded in 1954 by a group of volunteers under the leadership of the late Istiklal Radi with the aim of providing care and education to visually impaired girls, and to help them integrate into society. In the early 1960s, Radi — with the help of late Samha El-Kholy, then dean of the Cairo Conservatory — launched Al-Nour Wal Amal Music Institute. A decade later, a small chamber orchestra was formed and started to perform across many venues in Egypt. In the 1980s, Amal Fikry, vice-chair of Al-Nour Wal Amal Association, decided to put into action one of the dreams of Radi: international travel.
Austria came first, in 1988. Since then, the orchestra has toured extensively, enchanting audiences in many countries, including Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Greece, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, India, Thailand, Japan, and Australia, among others.
Each musician points to a different country as their favourite trip, for varying reasons. All, however, underscore the appreciation they receive from the audiences, fact that they take as a reward for their hard work and persistence.
As they enjoy music and persevere, the orchestra's repertoire is growing. It includes many pieces from the Western classical music canon, along with compositions by Egyptian and Arab composers. Usually the orchestra will also perform a piece from the country hosting them.
Some girls point to Mera Joota hai Japani by a composer from India Shankar Jaikishan as their favourite. The composition was in their programme this time as well. Other works included compositions from Rossini, Johann Strauss II, Mozart, Grieg, Bizet, Mikis Theodorakis, topped with Abou-Bakr Khairat, Rageh Dawood, Riyad El-Sonbaty, Aly Abdel Sattar, etc.
Though some women from Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra say they particularly enjoy performing Western classical music, others seem to enjoy both Western and Oriental music. But a closer look at Al-Nour Wal Amal reveals that there might be some compositions that are closer to their hearts as musicians. For instance, there is something special in The Blue Danube, as an obvious happiness springs from their faces once they embark on a journey through this famous river. "We've been performing Strauss's The Blue Danube for three years now. The music flows delightfully ... " Basma Saad, violinist and leader, explains to Ahram Online.
On the other hand, percussionist Fawzeya Latif recalls Refaat Garrana's Pharaonic Dance as one of her favourites, pointing to its "beautiful melodies." Though the orchestra did not perform Garrana's piece in Germany, it is one of their standards. In turn, contrabass player Shahinaz Salah says that "each composition has something special within itself," adding that being raised on Western classical music, she finds herself most comfortable with it.
But whether the musicians have particular preferences, or enjoy performing all of the repertoire equally, the audience seemed to respond differently to each composition: from indulging themselves in a silent and attentive delight, to enthusiastic clapping alongside Oriental rhythmic compositions.
An adaptation by the orchestra's conductor and trainer, Ali Osman, of the Ballet Suite No 21 from Theodorakis' Zorba witnessed especially strong enthusiasm in Berlin and Hamburg. In fact, Zorba was the last element of the programme, leading to long standing ovations, to which the orchestra responded with an encore.
Music is one of the most important elements of the lives of the visually impaired women of Al-Nour Wal Amal. But while some find it easy to balance their work with the orchestra, and are supported by their homes, others face obstacles to sustain their passion.
Flutist Rasha Ibrahim and trombonist Lobna Anwar revealed to Ahram Online that their spouses — both also visually impaired — are not always as encouraging as they hoped for.
Lobna Anwar tried to stay at home after marriage, but found that detachment from music reflected negatively on her mood. "Music is in my blood. It's a part of who I am. It took me time to convince my husband that if he wants me to be happy I have to continue practicing and performing," Anwar told Ahram Online.
"Al-Nour Wal Amal Association, where we practice and prepare for the concerts, is almost the only place we visit outside home. Music and the association cannot be taken away from us," Rasha Ibrahim revealed, adding that she always feels pressure to satisfy her home demands versus keeping her passion for music alive.
Though some married musicians might not find sufficient support at home, when performing in Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra they seem to flourish. It is apparent that for all the girls and women, music is their life. They enjoy the whole process of how music emerges from their instruments. Long hours of memorising from scores transcribed to Braille, followed by practicing in orchestra sections and then rehearsals with the whole ensemble under the baton of Ali Osman — it is a journey they take with great satisfaction. The results are very rewarding, for the musicians as an artistic realisation, and for audiences, as a strong trigger for deep reflection.
Today, Al-Nour Wal Amal has an established international reputation for bringing "light and hope." Its concerts are attended by many officials, associations working with impairments, and many music lovers. The orchestra also enjoys the general musical supervision of chairperson of the Cairo Opera House, Ines Abdel Dayem.
The orchestra's Germany visit was an initiative of His Excellency Mohamed Hegazy, ambassador of Egypt to Germany, in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and other parties. Hegazy's relation with the orchestra goes back to the days when he served as ambassador of Egypt to India and invited Al-Nour Wal Amal to perform there.
"By inviting Al-Nour Wal Amal Orchestra we have a chance to show how Egyptian women — in this case Egyptian blind women — are on a mission of conveying Egyptian culture abroad. They are faced with many challenges, not only social and political but also the disability. The orchestra proves that when a disability is being taken care of, it becomes a very powerful ability," Hegazy told Ahram Online.
"Those women represent the soft power of Egypt and create a beautiful link between Egypt and the West, underscoring that music and cultural beauty is our common denominator," he added.
"There are a few important ambassadors of Egypt. Nefertiti is one of them ... Al-Nour Wal Amal is another ... " Hegazy concluded.