An intimate glimpse into a remarkable Egyptian orchestra for blind women / by Karen Frances Eng

The Al Nour Wal Amal chamber orchestra for blind women has awed audiences for decades. Now, a new installation gives a glimpse into the lives these extraordinary musicians at home in Cairo.

Awoman standing in a corridor positions her violin in preparation to play. The image cuts to a woman with a cello, a flute, a clarinet. Some put the instruments to their lips or shoulders, some play, some put them down and smile.

These are the musicians of the Al Nour Wal Amal chamber orchestra for blind and visually impaired women, whose accomplishments have been widely applauded on the global stage. In Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab’s new video installation The Sound of Light and Hope, though, the women of the orchestra are portrayed in their home environment—the humble corridors of the Cairo school for blind girls where they train—offering intimate insight into their experience.

“I chose to feature each woman solo, not part of the orchestra, because each is a hero in her own right,” says Shehab. “Their smiles tell the whole story, a story of accomplishment and fulfillment.”

Images courtesy of Bahia Shehab.

Images courtesy of Bahia Shehab.

This video was commissioned for Shared Vision — an exhibition of works by sighted, partially sighted and blind artists to investigate the ways in which we see. Shared Vision is the inaugural project of Project Light, a global art campaign created in collaboration between seven TED Fellows — including ophthalmologist Andrew Bastawrous’ Peek Vision and Fine ActsJulie Freeman and Yana Buhrer Tavanier’s social justice arts collective — to raise public awareness and support for the right to sight.

“We believe that everyone, no matter where they live, deserves access to health care and vision. Yet 36 million people in the world are blind, three-quarters from preventable or curable conditions,” says Fine Acts’ director Buhrer Tavanier. “By raising global awareness, we aim to drive local action and influence policy makers to provide basic eye care for all.”

As Shared Vision opens to the public this week at the Old Truman Brewery in London, we ask Shehab to tell us more about the orchestra’s history and the women portrayed in her film.

The Sound of Light and Hope, a new video installation by Bahia Shehab for Shared Vision, Project Light’s inaugural exhibition raising awareness of eye heath and the right to sight. Music: “Eh el-Ebara” by Sayyed Darwish (1914), played by Al Nour Wal Amal chamber orchestra for blind women.

When Project Light approached you to create one of the inaugural art pieces for Shared Vision, what was their brief, and how did you respond?

The brief was “How can we create awareness of and support for the problem of avoidable blindness in the world?” I played with several ideas. The first was to collect tears in bottles. But when I started working, I realized that just a bottle of tears would not create the kind of empathy I wanted to elicit. I wanted a powerful visual that would really make you think twice about blind people, and spur you to appreciate and support them.

These women, who were either born blind or gradually lost their sight — come from very challenging backgrounds. In addition to the daily struggle of living in a city that is not vision-impaired friendly, it’s very hard work to train to be a classical musician. In spite of all the challenges and difficulties they face, they can do this blind, which is inspiring.


How did the organization start?

In 1954, a group of women in Cairo decided to establish a boarding school for blind girls who have no income. In 1981, they also decided to found an orchestra for that school so that these girls would have the option of a music education as well. The Chambre Orchestra Al Nour wal Amal — which means The Chamber Orchestra of Light and Hope—was set up and supervised by a group of maestros, some from the Cairo Conservatoire, who adapted the curriculum to facilitate classical music training for visually impaired musicians. Since then, the world has come to know these extraordinary women through its orchestra, which tours around the world giving concerts.

The orchestra currently has 45 members made up of women from different parts of Egypt, some from the provinces. Since the school was founded, it has trained four generations of musicians. Girls as young as ten start training on different musical instruments at the school, and after graduating the musicians keep returning twice a week for orchestra rehearsal with support provided by the Al Nour wal Amal Association, which is still entirely funded by donations.

Not all the girls become orchestra members: some graduate and move on with their lives — get married and find jobs.

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