Shady Rabab was studying fine arts at the University of Luxor in Egypt several years ago when he realized that his true passion, his purpose in life, was music. He wanted to make songs and share them with the world. But he was broke and couldn’t afford to buy instruments or pay for lessons.
This might have deterred someone else, but Rabab was newly resourceful, having just finished Egypt’s mandatory military service where he learned hardscrabble survival skills. One day, he saw musical potential in empty tuna cans and began fashioning them into a guitar. He scavenged plastic fibers and turned them into strings.
Soon, he was plucking the strings and hearing tinny sounds. After tuning them, he was ready to learn how to play for real.
“I learned a lot of skills from the army,” he told Global Citizen. “I learned how to make something from nothing. And music is in my blood. Everything about it — creating it, making musical instruments, listening to music.”
“I learned how to play from YouTube and classes online, from meeting other musicians and jamming with them,” he said. “A passion takes you where you need to go.”
His passion eventually spurred him to create the social good organization Rabab Luxor in the city of Luxor to share his knowledge about homemade instruments. By collecting and transforming garbage, the organization is dedicated to rehabilitating the environment and creating a movement of environmental activists who can combat plastic pollution in Egypt and beyond.
The growing problem of plastic pollution threatens the well-being of marine and land ecosystems alike, and the United Nations urges countries to enact policies restricting plastic production, while working together to clean up bodies of water and cities.
“We want to encourage people to reuse and recycle plastic and understand how their behavior impacts the environment,” said Farah Kobaissy, co-founder of Rabab Luxor.
Rabab Luxor has helped spearhead plastic clean-up efforts, raised awareness around microplastics, and contributed to the removal of more than 21 tons of waste from the Nile River. This impressive track record has helped the group earn awards from the United Nations, Solution Search, and elsewhere.
But stopping plastic pollution is merely the means to the organization’s larger goal: to help young people.
Rabab Luxor is primarily a youth empowerment organization. Nearly 28% of Egyptians live in extreme poverty, a crisis that hits children especially hard, according to the Borgen Institute. Children in extreme poverty are more likely to miss out on school, lack sufficient food, and be pushed into the workforce to earn an income.
The team at Rabab Luxor gives marginalized and impoverished children an outlet for their creativity and a chance to develop self-confidence, teaches them how to play music and make useful things, guides them toward higher forms of education, and connects them with other organizations and mentors.
“In Luxor, there are not a lot of art spaces for youths to make music and engage in fun activities,” Kobaissy said. “This was a big gap we were aiming to cover.”
“We were also very aware of the importance of engaging both young girls and boys, because there is not very much encouragement for young girls to take part in such activities outside of the school, so this has required a lot of trust building with parents and families and schools and we have seen the impact of that,” she added.
“A lot of the children have become leaders in their own communities and schools and neighborhoods. Some of them had an opportunity to go on one of the most seen TV shows in Egypt, and it was regarded with a lot of admiration from their schools, teachers, and the church. This has a lot of impact on their personal development.”
In 2018, Rabab Luxor received a grant from the Coalition Wild and Action for Hope to make a video of its work. In the short film, children gather plastic waste from bodies of water and perform a beautifully simple and elegantly layered song. They play on flutes made from soda bottles, drums fashioned out of chocolate tins and water jugs, and guitars assembled from gasoline canisters.
At the end, their joy is unmistakable as they jump up and down and cheer. In their smiles, you can see how their lives are being transformed, and their potential is being cultivated rather than squandered. Many of them have gone on to create their own musical groups and have shown their peers how to craft homemade instruments — an ever-growing circle of artistic expression.
“It’s important to use art and music,” Kobaissy said. ”It’s a very effective means to reach more people, not through words and readings, but through something that moves them in a happy way. In our time, we need many more spaces to have fun and enjoy and experiment, and we think that music is one of the best ways to do that.”
Rabab Luxor’s most recent collaboration is an album called Electro Zebala with mixing support from the North African electronic artist Rafik Rezine, known as Daynassour.
Since starting out in Luxor, the organization has moved to the city of Dahab in South Sinai Governorate, which faces a more pressing plastic pollution challenge, due to its proximity to bodies of water and endangered coral reefs. In response to this threat, the city has enacted a ban on plastic bags.
Rabab Luxor is joining community cleanup efforts and collaborating with diving schools and other local organizations to collect waste, all while building a hub for environmental awareness and musical education. It ultimately wants to create an album with children from across Egypt playing their own self-made instruments. But its model is highly flexible and it recently received collaboration requests from people around the world.
“Music doesn’t need language,” Rabab said. “It’s a universal language.”