Category Archives: Palestine 2014

In Memory of a Friend: October 21, 2015

*** Support Hashem’s family and donate by visiting the gofundme page here ***

Last summer, when I visited and worked in Palestine, I had the pleasure of meeting Hashem Azzeh, who showed us his home in Hebron and the atrocities of the settlers and the IDF there (you can read about the visit here). Of all the people I met while in Palestine, Hashem inspired me the most. It saddens me to learn that after spending years of nonviolently resisting Israeli occupation of his home, he was killed today by tear gas thrown by IDF soldiers.

First, he was Palestinian. Second, he was educated, a medical doctor. Third, he was a leader in his community. Which brings us to his next offense, he was a peace activist. Finally, and perhaps most aggravating for the Israeli state, he adamantly refused to be forced from his home in Hebron’s Old City – though the IDF and Israeli settlers, who lived in houses perched right above his, never tired of using intimidation and violence to try and push Hashem and his young family from their home.”

Hashem, his wife, and four children have endured beatings, shootings, crop poisonings, arrests, and more while living next to Zionist settlers in an Israeli government occupied zone, yet Hashem never turned to anger, violence, or hopelessness. Instead, he fought for his beliefs: his belief in education, by working at a local school and by giving free tours of the occupied zone in Hebron to outsiders. His belief in peace, by teaching the children at his school not to hate, that the Jewish people and the Israeli government are not the same thing and that violence is never okay. His belief in resistance activism, first by refusing to sell his home to the government for millions of dollars, and then by refusing to leave when they turned to more intrusive and violent methods.On top of all this, he was a fully-educated medical cardiologist.

And on top of that, he was an incredibly warm, kind, and hospitable person. When Tessa, Giulia, and I dropped in on him on short notice in 2014, he went out to meet us and gave us a tour of the occupied zone: his neighborhood, school, and Shuhada street. Then he invited us into his home for drinks and pastries, where he introduced us to his family. After we left he kept in contact with us, and in his messages he always referred to me as first as “friend.”

My heart goes out to his family, who has bravely stood with him in resistance against a violent and oppressive regime.

May his story continue to inspire,

Thank you, Friend in al-Khalil.

September 23rd, 2014

Even though I’ve already been home for two weeks, I feel the need to go back and cap off the Palestine portion of this blog, and especially to outline the unnecessarily stressful process of leaving the country. It’s taken a while for me to write about it because a. my laptop’s been out for repairs, b. my headphones broke and I pushed everything else aside to try and fix them, even packing for Santa Cruz, and c. I’ve been packing for Santa Cruz. Not to mention jet lag, which knocked me out for a good week, and was only furthered by the terrible caffeine habits I quickly picked up in hopes of countering it. It was a vicious cycle, but I’m back to living diurnally.

My absolute last day in Palestine was actually spent in Israel with Tessa. Stationed at Old Jaffa Hostel in Tel Aviv, we seized the day to be total tourists. For the first time since July, I wore shorts and sunglasses and fully switched over into Californian mode. Actually, Tel Aviv reminded me a lot of Southern California: white sand beaches, green grass, volleyball, modern skyscrapers, thrift stores, niche cafes. Even surfers, with kippah swim caps and the star of David painted on their boards. Picture San Diego in the Middle East and you’d get pretty close. It was such a different world from the one we’d been living in that it was a shock to remember that that by night, you can see Tel Aviv from the mountaintops in Nablus.

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(Tourist mode activated)

Then again, the more we toured the city, the more we realized the similarities between Palestinian and Israeli culture. Both eat hummus; both are steeped in religion but vary regionally in how strictly they adhere to their doctrines (Tel Aviv and Ramallah, for example, are quite liberal and secular); even the languages, Arabic and Hebrew, sound similar and often share the same words.

Even so, I never reached the same level of comfort in Israel that I felt in the West Bank. This is mostly my fault, because in general, the people I met during my short time in Tel Aviv were extremely friendly and helpful, even though I didn’t speak their language. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I avoided telling anyone I had visited the West Bank at all, because I assumed they would react negatively. But Tessa felt more comfortable with this and mentioned our trip to the hostel manager, who just nodded and seemed to find it normal. “Don’t worry – you’ll be fine at the airport,” she assured us, when we were discussing how to get there. “You’re young women, they won’t bother you at all.” I hoped so, but I had my doubts; from what I’d heard from the other volunteers, leaving the country was harder than entering it. One English teacher had undergone a pretty violating search when she arrived in Israel, but the one she received on her way out was much worse (I’ll spare everyone the gory details). And several of my friends sent West Bank-affiliated items in the mail before getting on the plane, in the hopes of avoiding any extra attention from airport security.

You might be wondering why the Israeli government would put so much effort into regulating people who are trying to leave their country. There’s a shroud of secrecy over Israel’s security procedures, but from what information I’ve gathered from my fellow volunteers (and, of course, the other bloggers out there), the main intent behind them is to decide who should be allowed to freely return to Israel, and who should be labeled for requiring extra control, or, worse, blacklisted and ultimately denied reentry. By comparing experiences, other travelers have figured out that the customs officers slap a barcode sticker on the back of your passport to classify your threat level, the first digit above the barcode being the significant one. Apparently, that number ranges from one to six, with six being the worst possible assignment. Now, there’s a lot of speculation over what each number actually means. According to one blogger, the “one” ranking is reserved for “white Jewish Israelis,” while a “six” means you’re “Palestinian, Muslim, or hostile.” Another just thinks a six means that you’re “super duper suspicious.” Marijke Peters from BBC Watch notes that “every foreigner living in the West Bank’s got a scare story about Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport,” and goes so far as to call the codes and intimidation “Kafkaesque.” I had read all these accounts before heading to the airport, and (as some of you may recall from my very first post) I had already been thoroughly searched and detained on the way into the country. Needless to say, I was a little anxious.

At least my taxi driver was cool. He and I rocked out to The Beatles the whole way to Ben Gurion Airport (I’ve never been in a city that doesn’t regularly play Beatles songs on at least one of its radio stations, Nablus included). He dropped me off in front of the airport and wished me luck. I had the oud over one shoulder, the trumpet over the other, a suitcase in tow, and a purse hanging from an arm. A tiny part of me hoped that any officer scanning me would think I’m too burdened down with luggage to actually be much of a threat.

I approached the security gate and tried not to look as apprehensive as I felt. In an effort to appear relaxed and friendly, I started making small-talk with the guy in front of me, a Floridian with a white mustache and a thick Southern accent. Almost everyone on the flight was American, because the final destination was New Jersey. After a few minutes his turn came up and he whizzed through questioning, and then the officer was calling me over. She started out smiling, but, just like the first time, her smile drooped a little with every question, until she was scowling and calling over another officer. Together they verified that I was American, with Arab heritage and an Arab last name; that I had visited the West Bank; that I didn’t receive any mysterious objects from anybody I had met during my stay. Then they took my passport and had me sit off to the side. Awesome, now everyone’s going to stare at me. And they did, at first. But then, a few of the Americans came over and took a seat as well. “Wow, you got the right idea, sitting while we wait for the counter to open!” the man from Florida exclaimed. His wife came too, and suddenly a small crowd of us were lounging in the area designated for suspicious people like me. The officers returned and seemed a little bemused by all the Southerners and East Coasters discussing politics and the weather. But they handed me back my passport, and brusquely told me to enjoy my flight. I quickly flipped the passport over, and saw: a six! What did I do to deserve a six?!

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Okay, listen: Tessa got a four. Giulia got a three. I had spent almost every waking hour of the past six weeks with them. And I get a six, which is rumored to be enough to bar its recipient from returning to the country? (It’s okay, my passport expires this year). “Okay, maybe I don’t understand the system correctly,” I thought. Maybe the ranking system is outdated, or all those bloggers were really just paranoid and over dramatic. After all, I wasn’t pulled into a dingy room for further questioning, right?

But as I continued through Ben Gurion Airport, I realized that both my ethnicity and the number on my passport carried more meaning here than they should have. Every time a new security officer examined my passport, they would nonchalantly turn it over to check the barcode, and suddenly hiss, “shesh”, meaning “six” in Hebrew, at their coworkers. I was taken to a special line, separate from the rest, where I was x-rayed and my carry-on items were extensively searched. In a way, this was great, because I was ushered through security faster than I’d ever been in my entire life. At the same time, I was conscious that this was because for the first time in my life I was being truly, negatively, racially profiled. Even when I was going through security on my way into Israel I had my doubts, but this time my background was indisputably the only significant difference between me and the other volunteers. 19 hours later, when I had safely arrived home in California, I opened up my suitcase and laptop and realized that both had been thoroughly searched without my knowledge, which is actually and definitely illegal.

But, hey, I got home safe and sound, and I’ll have a new passport soon. If I want to reach Palestine again (which I do), I can always go through Jordan.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep using this blog as a space to write about what I’m doing musically. I’m hoping to make it to New Orleans later this year for some jazz…

September 10th, 2014 (Goodbye, Nablus)

Forty is a very special number in Islam,” Habib lectured, as way of answer when we asked why he refused to let us clean the dishes or help cook dinner. He pointed to the chicken on my plate. “When a guest comes to table, she must eat at least forty bites. After forty days in the home, she is a guest no more, but one of the family. Until then, sit and eat and be happy.”

Well, today marks my fortieth and final day in Palestine, so upon returning I should no longer be considered a guest, according to Habib. Just a part of the family, or an old friend who’s been away for too long. Then I’ll throw the dinner parties and complain when people get up to help with the dishes.

Our final mission in Nablus was to broadcast ourselves over the air. Hakim, the director of Project Hope, scheduled a slot at Kuffiyeh Radio and Radio Nablus for us to present ourselves as volunteers to the community (better late than never) and play a song over the air. This basically meant that Tessa, Giulia, and I sat in a studio with our instruments, straining our ears to catch what we could of the rushed but perfectly enunciated stream of classical and dialectic Arabic (Fuhsa is nearly incomprehensible to me). Once, we were asked to talk about our experience of Nablus, and, with Hakim translating, Tessa gave an answer that perfectly capped off our entire trip: “We love Nablus. Everyone’s so welcoming… between our friends and work and the town itself, we truly have a home here. There’s a real sense of community.” Then the Arabic resumed. At some point, the host would stop talking abruptly and stare at us expectantly, which was our cue to start playing our arrangement of “Blackbird.” We only messed up a little, and turned the mistake into a sort of canon that I’m sure somebody out there thought was neat and intentional. But in general, the two demos went over well, and I got a kick out of seeing how a foreign, professional, commercial radio station operates (I deejay for KZSC Santa Cruz, a college radio station in California). We were buzzing from radio afterglow and the fact that we had officially finished everything we needed to do in Nablus, so, logically, the next step was victory knafeh.

All that was left was to say goodbye. We spent a good two hours with our neighbors upstairs, who were the first people to make us feel at home in Palestine. Then up to Sama Nablus, for one last round of hookah and coffee with our circle of friends on the mountain overlooking the most beautiful city.

I’ll miss these faces:

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September 8th, 2014

This time, I have a decent excuse for the delayed entry: with only three days left in the volunteer placement, Tessa, Giulia, and I decided to pull together a concert. This means that from Saturday to Monday, every spare moment had to be dedicated to rehearsal.

On Sunday morning, Giulia and I were running through a piece on guitar and voice when we heard a knock on the door. I opened it to find a smiling young man with strawberry blonde shoulder-length hair and a bushy ginger beard, suitcase in tow. “Hey, roomie!” he bellowed, before rolling in. I stepped aside, bewildered. He introduced himself as William from Ireland, and one of the new Music Harvest volunteers who was sent to replace us. 

We took a few flurried minutes to clear a room for him and tidy up the place. All the dishes were dirty and the backyard had become a small landfill, and even though there are five beds in the flat, the extra two were covered in layers of clothes, souvenirs, and sheet music. But it only took a few hours after settling William in before we felt like he’d been living with us for weeks. Which kind of makes sense; there’s a pretty specific subset of people who would want to teach music in Palestine, so us volunteers tend to have a lot in common. William joined our jam session, and even agreed to play some Johnny Cash at our concert. 

William, with his best Johnny Cash impersonation

William, giving us his  best Johnny Cash impersonation

The next couple of days were spent trafficking the guitar, trumpet, flute between Project Hope, the flat, our friends’ houses, and the local radio station, just looking for some practice space and a piano. Nidal has a friend who works at EMP Studios, so one afternoon he had us come play and filmed the rehearsal (and here’s another recording, sans video). Later that night, we had an impromptu jam session at Habib’s apartment, with an eclectic mix of mandolin, oud, guitar, piano, flute, and tambourine. And in the gaps between practice sessions, we slowly said goodbye to Nablus by visiting our friends for a drink or grabbing lunch at our favorite restaurants. 

But the night of the performance was the official send-off. The director of Project Hope escorted us to the venue, an old stone oil press that had been renovated into an audience hall. I walked in and was immediately excited to play. The chamber was spacious and illuminated by newly installed showroom lights, yet still cozy enough that we wouldn’t feel isolated on stage. The “stage”, by the way, was the huge, wood and white-stone oil press occupying the center of the room. We set our bags beside it and started sound check. The acoustics were amazing, thanks to the stone and the high-ceiling; a solo singer could fill the room without ever needing a microphone. As we got set up, people started filling the room; there were a few strangers, but the majority of the attendees were familiar faces from around town, our group from Sama Nablus, and all of the other volunteers from Project Hope. When we stood up to begin playing, we found that we were facing an audience of friends.  
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The official set list was as follows: Blackbird, Folsom Prison Blues, For Emily (Wherever I May Find Her), I Dreamed a Dream, Louis Louis, two Chopin preludes, one Hungarian flute solo, Angel Eyes, Blue Skies, Ya Leyl, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow (the version by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole). Even after three songs were cut due to technical issues, we had a full hour’s worth of music. For the encore, we just improvised and ended up with something completely new. 

Though we were constantly, sheepishly aware that by leaving all preparations for the performance to the last possible minute, we were fulfilling not one, but two stereotypes (that of the musician and that of the Palestinian), I think our first and final concert in Nablus was a success.

September 4th, 2014

I arrived at the square in front of the mall and stopped to unsling my trumpet and drums. With an hour until my next class, I had time to relax and observe the city center. Because Friday is typically reserved for prayer, Thursdays tend to see the most action in Nablus. People streamed in and out of the souk to my left, and at its mouth the fruit carts were waiting in the streets with their produce arranged in colorful, eye-catching designs.

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Right in front of me, a man tending a sharwarma stand suddenly burst into song, one that I recognized from weddings and parties. After a month and a half in Nablus, I now know Palestine’s Top 40 by heart, because we hear the same tunes every day: in the taxi, on the street, in restaurants, and from our students. It’s not uncommon to hear wedding songs sung in cafes or political songs chanted at weddings, nor is there a particular age associated with mainstream music: you could easily find a child and his father and his father clapping together and singing the same thing.

As I sat listening, a boy selling coffee ran up to me and rapped his knuckles across the skin of the djembe on my lap. I laughed and held it up for him to play, causing him to take a break and set the tall copper pot on the ground. I don’t know his name, but I see him all the time, badgering pedestrians to buy from him, as he used to do to me. Now when he sees me, he forgets the coffee and comes to play the instruments I’m carrying. His dad, a rugged man wearing stained cargo pants, sells coffee too, and one time he saw his son playing and rushed over immediately. I was worried, thinking he’d yell at his kid for getting distracted. Instead, he halted right in front of me, rubbed his five o’ clock shadow, and unzipped my trumpet case. I was too surprised to protest initially, but started to get up until he told me in broken English, “No worry, is safe.” I was still wary, but couldn’t help smiling as he turned it over in his hands, puzzled but amused, and trying to get a sound out of it. Finally, he handed it back, beaming. I’m a regular customer now, though I keep a closer eye on the trumpet.

That kind of behavior is commonplace here; in my experience, Palestinians are very forward and form connections with people quickly, especially internationals. This is why we’ve been so relentlessly busy: every night there’s a dinner, or a rehearsal, or a party, or a wedding. It’s as if our activity level is inversely proportional to the days we have left in Nablus; sleep has become optional, and the waking hours whip by in a blur. This past weekend I visited Jericho, Ramallah, and the Dead Sea, returning each evening to the group at Sama Nablus. Last night, they threw a barbecue bachelor party for one of Nidal’s cousin, and Nidal himself brought his oud. He strummed and sang some of the songs I keep hearing everywhere, while his brother Odai danced behind the grill. At some point, Abu quieted everyone down and asked his girlfriend to close her eyes and stick out her hands. When she did so, he placed a sparkling silver and diamond ring right in the center of her palm. That’s another wedding, and another reason to come back to Palestine.

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That night I didn’t come home until two in the morning, and then stayed up playing oud until I heard the call to prayer at dawn. I woke up late the next morning and dashed to the cultural center, arms full of percussion instruments. Nidal was supposed to bring his oud for a nice final activity, but cancelled at the last minute, leaving us to face our students without a lesson plan. The kids were already excited because they knew it was their last class with us, and I could feel their energy bubbling until it reached a boiling point ten minutes in. Then all hell broke loose: all 20 of them charged Giulia and I, arms outstretched for a drum. There were only seven, so the rest of the hour was a chaotic mess as kids chased and pushed each other, while those with instruments drummed so loudly that their little hands turned red. I couldn’t hear myself shout over the din. Rather than intervene, our translator shrugged and said, “It’s better to just let them do what they want.” Already sleep-deprived, I decided that a coffee after class was nonnegotiable. But as I walked out of the cafe with my cappuccino, some guy slammed into me and knocked it out of my hands. I watched, horrified, as it hit the sidewalk and burst like a water balloon. Defeated, I found my usual spot at city center and sat, brooding over the coffee, the class, and the lack of sleep. Someone tapped my shoulder, interrupting my thoughts, and when I turned I saw the coffee boy, holding out a fresh Turkish brew. I took it, but he didn’t charge: just tapped the drum on my lap and kept walking.

September 1st, 2014

“It’s September 1st,” Giulia casually mentioned as she walked by on her way to bed. 
I jerked up, startled. I had fallen asleep on the couch, using my journal as a pillow. I checked the time: three in the morning. It was indeed September 1st. 

With only ten days left, our coordinator assigned us a kindergarten class, in addition to our older kids at the Cultural Center and Askar camp. Out of all the students we’ve taught music to, the oldest of which are 17 and 18 years old, these five year-olds are easily the most well-behaved. And so enthusiastic! We could have them play musical statues for half an hour and they wouldn’t get bored. 

At the Cultural Center, we have to try a little harder to engage everyone, especially the older students. I have this exercise I really like, where I split the class into four groups and give each one a sheet of manuscript paper to write music on. This time, without thinking, I grouped all the older kids together… including Ameed, who tends to prefer joking about the songs we’re singing than actually singing them. I slid him a paper and a few pencils, and turned away to help the younger ones figure out their rhythms. But we were interrupted only a few minutes later by the loud stomps of “We Will Rock You” by Queen, Arabic style. Unsurprisingly, Ameed was leading the chorus, slamming the tables until the other groups started covering their ears and complaining. I went over to him. 

“Ameed, c’mon, write something. It’s easy.” 
He sneered. “Bidoosh. Mahib el musica.” Meaning, “I don’t want to. I don’t like music.” Which obviously wasn’t true, as he was rocking out pretty hard a few seconds ago. I sat down next to him. “Okay, Ameed. Write that song down.” 
He looked at me, then at the blank piece of paper, and back to me again. “Queen?”

I nodded. “Queen.”
He picked up a pencil, then set it down. I watched as his expression changed from derision to honest perplexity. “Ma baaraf keef.” I don’t know how.

So I showed him. We spent about five minutes working over the basics, while the other groups finished their compositions. After helping him write a bar, I walked back to Giulia, who had started playing the freshly minted pieces on her flute. They were pretty basic tunes, but musically correct and kind of catchy. As she was blowing the last note of the last piece, Ameed came dashing through the cluster of students, clutching his paper. I smoothed it out and scrutinized the muddle of eraser marks and pencil lead. Then I looked up at Ameed, who was intently awaiting my review. I smiled. “Messy, but this is unmistakably “We Will Rock you.” Then I let him lead the entire class in the song, clapping the iconic beat that is beloved of rebels even halfway around the world. 

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(Our CCC kids. Ameed’s the one in blue)

August 29th, 2014

Somehow, I slept through the entire two-hour taxi ride back to Nablus. I think some part of me figured it was better to be unconscious rather than freak out every time the driver almost hit an oncoming car, or took a sharp curve at 120 kph. I get that the police have bigger things to worry about than traffic violations, but seriously, it’s worse than LA over here.

Then again, I was grateful for the haste. Giulia had received a text from Nidal a few hours ago telling us that we needed to make it back to Nablus before dark. The city was shutting down, and the IDF would be manning the checkpoints. We weren’t given a reason, but we did know that soldiers had burst into classrooms earlier that day to arrest children, some of which may have been our students. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence here.

That’s the eerie thing about living in Palestine: the occupation seeps into every aspect of everyday life so that it becomes perfectly unavoidable in the minds of the occupied. Had I only come to Palestine for a short visit, I might have missed all but the most blatant symptoms of occupation, and mistaken the day-to-day business of Nablus as an indicator of a healthy society that just happens to be under foreign political control. Now, after a month in Palestine, I find that I am constantly thinking about “politics” for one reason or another:

Should I go outside on Friday, or will there be protests?

Can I buy this product, or was it made in Israel and therefore detracting from the local economy?

Is it okay to travel to Ramallah today, or has the army blockaded the roads?

Can I mention my Arabic teacher’s name online, or is there a chance I’ll get him in trouble by associating him with this blog, because of his politically active past?

Why didn’t Mohammed come to class today? Does it have anything to do with the soldiers who were here last night?

If I’m feeling the pressures of the occupation as a foreigner, then the locals are being absolutely crushed by it. Ahmad, our neighbor, recently graduated university with a degree in IT, but he can’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage. Most people leave the country for 10, 20, or even 30 years to work, before finally returning to their families. One in four Palestinian citizens have been arrested by the Israeli government, making Palestinians “the most imprisoned people in the world.” I found out yesterday that one of our translators, who grew up in Nablus, applied and was accepted to Harvard for computer engineering. But apparently Israel is more selective with their visas than Harvard is with its applicant pool, because when he applied for permission to leave the country, he received an unexplained rejection letter. No wonder the youth are so politically active, and no wonder the Palestinian people as a whole are so relentless in their protest against Israeli control: they never have the chance to forget about it. In America, being politically informed is a choice (sadly, one that too many people choose to ignore). In Palestine, you couldn’t avoid politics even if you wanted to. The occupation is ubiquitous, and to avoid it would mean escaping the country itself.