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For the love of his music, this man refuses to leave his bombed-out apartment in Gaza

Emad Soliman Robaya Robaya lives in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, and is often seen playing a flute fashioned from a metal tube with holes in it.

Emad Soliman Robaya Robaya lives in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, and is often seen playing a flute fashioned from a metal tube with holes in it.

Photo:  (Mohamed El Saife/CBC)


Palestinian man plays flute fashioned from metal tube with holes in it

After almost two months of war, few places in the Gaza Strip are safe from Israeli bombardment, but Emad Soliman Robaya Robaya refuses to leave the land where he grew up, partly because it is so vital to his music.

Living amid the bombed-out remains of their Rafah apartment, which was destroyed in October, Robaya has stayed in the southern city with his wife and children while so many other Gazans have been displaced.

If they bomb all of Gaza, I won't leave it, he said. I swear, if I leave this place, I won't play music … In my space, I can play music. In a place other than here, I can't live. 

Robaya's instrument of choice is a flute fashioned from a metal tube with holes in it. On a recent day, he played it while perched on a heap of rubble. Three of his six kids sat nearby, giggling and listening to their father play songs about Palestine. One tapped her legs to the beat of his music.

I play national music, he said. You play national music for your country, for your town… I think playing music is a form of rebellion. One artist he covers is Samih Shokeir, who recorded a melancholy tune called My Brother Has Returned, which features a flute, an oud (similar to a guitar) and percussion instruments. 

When he's not playing the flute, Robaya's prized possession sits in a pot on what's left of a counter in the pile of debris that was his home. 

A home in tatters

Robaya's apartment building was decimated in October. Bent pieces of metal and cinder blocks form a large pile there now, with glimpses of personal belongings in between. There's a chest of drawers, a carpet, a door and part of a kitchen where pots and pans sit, pieces fished out of what was left of the building. 

WATCH | 'In my space, I can play music,' says Palestinian man in bombed-out Gaza:

Palestinian flutist embraces music amid destruction in Gaza

Emad Soliman Robaya Robaya, a lifelong Rafah resident, plays his flute to lift children's spirits and keep himself calm as the Israel-Hamas war continues. 'I let out what’s inside me … Anyone who plays music will find peace,' he told freelance journalist Mohamed El Saife.

Amid the destruction, the walls of a room are still standing, the beige and brown tiled floor somewhat intact. Robaya set up a makeshift stove in the middle of this space.

Robaya reminisces about the Rafah he grew up in, and his deep attachment to the area. He is currently unemployed, and he and his family spend their nights sleeping at a nearby school administered by the United Nations. Every morning, Robaya returns home, to the pile of rubble, makes a cup of tea and plays the flute for his kids and neighbours. 

Sometimes, the notes from his instrument are joined by the sounds of bombs falling on buildings. Robaya plays through the explosions to alleviate the difficulty of the situation. 

Anyone who plays music will find peace, he says. During the bombings, I play music… A few times, they were bombing back there and I was still playing. 

Internal displacement

At the beginning of the war, the Israeli Defence Forces deemed the southern Gaza Strip a safe zone and pushed residents of the north to move there for their safety. 

Last weekend, the IDF dropped leaflets on residents in the centre and the south, asking more than two million people to move to Rafah for their safety. But the small town bordering Egypt is already packed with people. 

They crowded all the residents in Rafah, said Robaya. From all the crowding, people are on top of each other. I swear, the people are suffering.

Emad Soliman Robaya Robaya prepares tea for one of his children in Rafah, Gaza Strip. (Mohamed El Saife/CBC)

Emad Soliman Robaya Robaya prepares tea for one of his children in Rafah, Gaza Strip.

Photo: (Mohamed El Saife/CBC)

This week, Israel split the Gaza Strip into numbered blocks. If a number is called, residents are asked to evacuate. Some of these blocks include towns in the south, such as Deir el Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah. 

For Robaya, leaving his home town is out of the question. 

I lived here my entire life. I was born here, I went to school here, he said. I can't leave the place I lived in. 

So he spends his days in what's left of his home, trying to provide some sense of normalcy for his children. 

I think this is better for the kids, it makes them feel better, he said. 

As of Tuesday, leaflets were sent to residents of Khan Younis to move toward Rafah. As more people make their way to his hometown, Robaya says he will stay in place and continue to play his flute amid the backdrop of a raging war. 

Yasmine Hassan and Mohamed El Saife · CBC News