August 9th, 2014

Saturday shouldn’t feel Monday. It’s just not right.
Even though I slept over thirty hours this weekend, a.k.a. Thursday and Friday, I definitely didn’t get enough to be awake for morning music class with twenty eight year-olds. Our students had the Monday/Saturday blues, too; their voices sagged during the vocal warm-ups, and sluggishly clapped through the rhythms I wrote out for them. Still, though, they’re learning quickly. Everyday we add a new rhythm, exercise, pitch, etc.

Our second class was cancelled, so Giulia and I celebrated by eating literally the best falafel I’ve ever had (this is slowly turning into a food blog…). Then we met up with Tessa, and all three of us returned to Project Hope to meet our new oud teacher.

He showed up on the steps, right on time. The second I saw him I knew he was a musician. Picture a young man with hair gelled and spiked, dressed in a loose open shirt over a tank and shorts, and you have Nedal (Nedo for short). Garbed like that, he looked like he was from California rather than Nablus.

The first thing Nedo told us, after his name, was, “We need to get you guys ouds.” This wasn’t exactly planned in the budget, but we’re also not exactly the sort of people to reject the chance to own a new, exotic instrument. Plus, oud lessons were part of the deal; as a volunteer for Music Harvest, you teach music in exchange for learning oud, Arabic, and certain cultural facets of Palestine. Project Hope calls it the Tabadel Program, and the whole philosophy behind it is that when you come to teach, you also come to learn.

We definitely learned a lot as we followed Nedo through the winding souk and into a music shop. We learned that he’s an internationally recognized musician, who recently toured Euope with a group called Onadekom Band. We learned that the music shop in the souk sucks, and that we needed to meet with a man named Habib, professor of music at the An-Najah University of Nablus (that’s “Professor Love,” in Arabic). And we learned a lot more about the oud, this instrument we’re about to spend a lot of time learning.

Oud’s are basically guitars without frets. This allows their players to reach the elusive quarter tone, a musical feature rarely (if ever) found in Western music. In the Western world, there are 12 scales and their various modes. In Arabic music, there are around 35. They’re called maqams, meaning “place” in Arabic. When you play oud, the point is to get from “place to place”, often by Taqasim improvisation, feeling out the flow of the music while at the same time abiding by a complex but unspoken rule system. Professor Habib demonstrated would be the first one to demonstrate Taqasim for us.

Even in the lobby of his building, we could hear high-pitched plucking drifting down from three stories above. Following the sound, we climbed the stairs and pushed open the door to his apartment. He certainly had a musician’s house; bookshelves on every wall were cluttered with sheet music and ethnomusicology books, while ten gorgeously carved ouds hung on the sides and leaned against a sofa. On one table sat a bucket of violin bows, and above his TV were several shelves reserved for ornaments in the shapes of various instruments. Habib himself sat in front of the TV, playing a qanun. He didn’t stop immediately when he saw us, but continued for several minutes, strumming the qanun like a harp with one hand and picking out a longing melody with the other. We didn’t mind; in fact, we were totally entranced. After a while he stopped, turned to us, and laughed. “It’s new to me! I’ve been playing for two months!”

Wow. Two months. I had heard that Habib plays, like, a million instruments, but he truly sounded masterful on this thing. And it looks difficult to play: two thumb picks are all you have to make a huge range of sound on this precise and technical instrument. But the qanun was just the opening act; now Habib reached for his oud, his first instrument, an ornate full-bodied one with birds etched across its face (click here for a video of Habib’s playing). He started playing, a slow, sad maqam, but gradually he accelerated and transposed to a new key, a fiercer one. Soon his hand became a blur as he picked out rapid patterns in the strings, with such practiced technique that even to Western ears, the quarter tones sounded settled and right. Then he started morphing into another maqam, a calmer one, until finally ending the piece with a moderate flourish. But before we could applaud him, Habib stood up and put the oud down. “Now that you’ve heard how an oud should sound, it’s time to pick one out for yourself.”

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It’s like he said we were choosing our first Pokemon. Giulia, Tessa, and I started talking about how it would sound, whether or not we’d fall in love straight away, and so on. So when Habib led us around the corner into another room, we were totally floored. It was filled, from floor to ceiling, with ouds. Just stacks of ouds, everywhere. There must have been a couple hundred of them.

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(Seriously. This was just one wall)

After a tuning and jam session between Habib and Nedo, we had our ouds ready to go. We were beaming as we left the apartment, our new instruments slung over our shoulders. To celebrate, Nedo wanted to take us to Semaa Nablus, a sort of park at the top of one of the mountains overlooking the city. It was late, but we were to happy to care.

Fast forward three hours and its 1:30 am. We’re just thinking about going home, after drinking coffee and smoking shisha with Nedo’s friends. The night is clear and the temperature is perfect, and you can see Tel Aviv from here. Nedo’s group ranged from their early twenties to their fifties or even sixties. The eldest is an ex-war general, and the next had spent sixteen years in prison after the First Intifada. The younger two were his brothers, and the rest were cafe employees who were bored and wanted to hang out. Before coming to Palestine, we were told by our coordinator that friendship between opposite genders didn’t really happen in Nablus, due to their rather conservative, Islamic society. But by the end of the night, we were telling dirty jokes, making fun of each other, and sharing stories from our respective home countries. True, as a group of three girls and one guy we initially attracted a lot of attention, but that was mostly due to Nedo: he’s basically a rockstar here. Now, sitting at a table with these guys, talking about Islamic marriage culture and the Occupation and friends and family and sex, we feel like total equals. Definitely not a conversation/situation combo I ever imagined having in Palestine.

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