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A counterpoint to all the checkpoints

It's 5 p.m. on a cold and rainy Friday in East Jerusalem, the first day of school after a week of official mourning in honor of Yasser Arafat. The cavernous YWCA - home to the Palestinian National Conservatory of Music - is void of the usual peals of laughter, music, and song: Anything constituting "entertainment" is banned for 40 days after the president's death.

Deep within the somber stone building, however, a handful of music lessons are resuming. Ala' Sharif, one of the school's most talented students, concentrates at her piano. Barely a teenager, she studies a Bach composition, commits it to memory, and begins to play. Next door, Shirley Smart, a British cello teacher working at the school, waits for pupils to arrive.

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"We were supposed to start at 3:15, but the kids are probably stuck at a checkpoint again," she smiles with resignation. "You can't plan anything in this situation."

It's a testament to the conservatory and its teachers that students are willing to risk the dangers of coming to class here.

Since the current intifada began in September 2000, 490 Palestinian children and teachers have been killed, 3,235 injured, and 617 arrested, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education. Among the latest fatalities is Iman al-Hams, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who died after she was allegedly shot by an Israeli army captain said to have mistaken her schoolbag for an explosive device.

Despite the stress and danger of getting to school, more than 3,000 children pass each day through heavily guarded gates in Israel's security wall and into East Jerusalem. About 450 of them - ranging in age from 4 to 18 - come for musical training at the Palestinian National Conservatory.

Opened in 1993 by five professional musicians, the conservatory started with just a tiny student body whose instruction took place in a makeshift classroom.

Its aim - then and now - is to bring together Palestinian children through a mutual love of music, to keep traditional Palestinian folk music alive, and to make up for the lack of music education in schools in the occupied territories.

One of the conservatory's biggest success stories to date is Ramzi Hussein, now 24, from the Al-Amari Refugee Camp near Ramallah. As a young boy during the first intifada, he spent his time throwing stones at Israeli soldiers outside his makeshift home. Then, through the conservatory, he discovered music.

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These days, Mr. Hussein studies viola in Paris and is training to be a professional musician. An inspiration to many committed young students at the conservatory, Hussein is living proof that even the poorest of Palestinian children can break out and find a place for themselves, through music, on the world stage.

Music not an 'essential'

Outside of the conservatory, music education currently has little part in the Palestinian school curriculum, which is hampered by shortages of teachers, equipment, and classrooms. Until recently, Palestinian children used outdated materials and textbooks, inherited in the 1950s from Egypt and Jordan. These have recently received close media scrutiny, amid Israeli claims that they contain thinly disguised anti-Semitic propaganda.

A five-year plan started in 2000 seeks to rectify these deficiencies. Still, the new curriculum offers little in the way of musical training, focusing instead on what the Ministry of Education calls the "essentials": math, science, technology (though Internet access in schools is rare and costly), religious studies, Arabic, social studies, physical education, home economics, English language, and arts and crafts. A school choir is the only musical education most Palestinian children can hope for.

But at the conservatory, even the poorest Palestinian children can attend, thanks to scholarships from international agencies. For a token sum, the students and their families can rent instruments or buy their own. The most popular choices are guitar, flute, and violin, and the traditional Palestinian instruments the qanun (a kind of tabletop harp) and the lute-like oud.

For several weeks each summer, music camps in Israel and Jordan bring talented young Palestinian musicians together - to meet, play, and inspire one another. Friends united through music from throughout the occupied territories, Lebanon, and Syria say they relish these precious few days together.

Successes on stage

In May, seven students - including 12-year-old Ahmed, who plays the qanun - had the opportunity to perform for actor Richard Gere during his visit to Jerusalem. Though Ahmed laughingly admits his first question was "But who's Richard Gere?" the event stirred excitement among the students.

Such contact with the outside world is infrequent for Palestinian children, and teachers say the chance to show off their talents to a Hollywood icon gave a boost to their self-esteem. Moreover, this summer the conservatory completed a landmark project: the first-ever Palestinian musical, "Al-Qandeel Al-Saghir" ("The Little Lantern").

The school's teachers believe that, with the enthusiastic public reception of this production, their students have new hope that significant cultural achievements are possible even with limited resources.

This ray of hope, says Dalia Habash, the school's administrative director, may be the most crucial element of the National Conservatory's work.

The school gives the children an enormous psychological lift, she says. "Music opens them up to a world very different from that of the conflict. It gives the children motivation to survive, and it gives them artistic ambition, something to strive for.... It's very hard for a child to live under such a constant burden of suspicion. Those kids can come here and channel all their aggression and violence into their music."