Tag Archives: Palestine

The War is Over (maybe)!

Tessa posted this on Facebook yesterday, summing up our experience of the last few days: “Last night the city was hushed and I watched army jeeps take over the streets as arrests occurred throughout the West Bank. Tonight there are celebrations and fireworks in honour of the Gaza ceasefire. What a difference a day makes.” After 50 days of warfare in the Gaza Strip, Cairo has finally brokered terms that both Hamas and Israel can agree upon. We’re (tentatively) celebrating the headway made for the Palestinians, because for the first time in seven years, Egypt and Israel will open a few of their border-crossings with Gaza, easing the blockade and allowing in humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials.

But both sides are claiming victory, with varying reactions from their people. Hamas has been holding victory rallies and celebrating the fact that they were able to force real negotiation efforts with Israel. And I think here it’s worth mentioning again that Hamas is a legitimate political party, democratically elected by its people to represent the Gaza Strip, and that they attempted peaceful negotiations, with little or response from Israel (Jimmy Carter wrote an op-ed on the dangers of demonizing Hamas that explains the situation better than I ever could). Before this last bout of fighting, 1.8 million Gazans have been suffocating under a seven-year blockade, leaving them isolated and in utter economic crisis. I will never condone violence as a means of negotiation, but I do understand the desperation of the Gazans and why they believed that fighting back was their only option.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also called the outcome victorious for his people, but rather than organizing victory rallies, many Israelis are criticizing his leadership. “‘After 50 days of warfare in which a terror organisation killed dozens of soldiers and civilians, destroyed the daily routine [and] placed the country in a state of economic distress … we could have expected much more than an announcement of a ceasefire,’ Reuters reported analyst Shimon Shiffer as writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper.”

So it’s unclear who “won” the war. Even though the ceasefire terms sound progressive at first, The Guardian makes the important observation that “the terms of the deal – brokered by the Egyptian government, and reached on the 50th day of the conflict – appeared to be almost identical to those agreed at the end of the previous war 21 months ago.” And Al Jazeera follows, reporting that “The war today is an echo of the war of 2012, and that is a reminder of the war of 2009 and before that the war of 2008 and still before the war of 1967, 1956 and 1948. The war of today, therefore, is an echo of the 1948 Nakba, and the 1967 Naksa and Sabra and Shatila in 1983.”

But I’m a little more optimistic about the outcome, and particularly the effects this war has had on public opinion of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Despite the fact that you can still be fired for simply criticizing the Israeli government (and each of those highlighted words links to a different case), the issue is finally beginning to be discussed by celebrities and politicians, as well as on social media sites, in a more open and critical manner than ever before (looking at you, Jon Stewart). And this excerpt best explains the general feeling of optimism from the ground: “From the perspective of a straight score-sheet, the number of deaths and the amount of destruction during the war was incomparably greater in Gaza than in Israel, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar university. ‘But in Gaza we measure things in a different way. The Palestinian resistance with modest military capabilities was able to fight one of the strongest armies in the region for 50 days. The resistance and the people were not broken. The Palestinians showed resilience and steadfastness. You don’t look at victory and defeat only from a military perspective.'”

As I type, I can hear car horns and fireworks outside, celebrating for Gaza. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of the conflict, but for now everyone’s taking the time to acknowledge that the fighting’s over and some progress has been made. More importantly, we’re happy that the civilians in Gaza will have some tenuous peace and the chance to rebuild.

10532897_10204539360262883_4574816827928520483_o                     10540733_10204539352822697_7981587291446246782_o

***My last few posts have been more politically charged than usual, and I want to get back to writing about music and Nablus. If you want to keep up with what’s going on Palestine and Israel, please please please make sure to check several different news sources for each story; this issue tends to garner more bias than others, especially in Western media. I usually check in with Al Jazeera, CNN, The Guardian, BBC, and Haaretz before posting about something happening here. And after that I check The Onion, because by then, I just really need to laugh about something.

August 26th, 2014 (Miscellaneous Sounds of Palestine)

Before I left the United States to come to Palestine, I almost, almost bought a field recorder. I took a huge detour that makes me regret not buying one (there’s a lot for a musician to hear in Istanbul, Lesvos, Rome, and Berlin), but I’m lucky in that my two flatmates in Nablus happen to be very interested in ethnomusicology, and brought along one recorder each. Giulia has been especially diligent in making sure we capture pieces of what we hear everyday. Some of these are a few weeks old, and really belong to some of my earlier posts, so I’ll go back and edit in the links, but this post will provide a sort of sound collage of Palestine for anyone interested. 

Adhan Thohr Juma3a – This is definitely the most exemplary sound byte I could include here to represent Nablus. Here, the time of day is clearly marked by the five calls to prayer. In other words, the call serves as a musical sundial. This particular adhan plays in the afternoon on Fridays, to announce the most important prayer of the week (similar to Sunday church bells for Christians). And although many Muslims have insisted to us that the call is vocalizing the Qur’an, not merely singing it, I can’t help but love it based on it’s sheer musicality. Each call is sung in a maqam, or Arabic scale, and sometimes the vocalizers ornament each phrase and elongate the words (religious rubato, though they might not appreciate the expression). It’s one of the things I know I’ll miss once I’m back in the States.

Wedding Song and Dabke Dancing – Because to understand a Palestinian wedding, you really need to hear it. Actually, maybe it’d be better not to; the speakers were turned up louder than anything should ever be ever, and I think my left eardrum has some aural form of PTSD. But you can’t hate this music — it’s designed to get people moving, and there’s a strong sense of rhythm that makes it hard to resist the dance floor, even if you suck at dabke (like me).  Also, here’s a recording of us almost dying as our car raced twenty others to get to the wedding first. And here’s one of me, at the wedding lunch before all of this, killing time drumming on a bunch of soda cans.

Pool Jam Session #1, 2, and 3 – This is what happens when you stick a bunch of musicians in a pool house for a weekend. We had two oud players from Nablus, one singer from Canada, one flute player from Italy, and me, playing guitar and occasionally oud as well. #1 is probably my favorite. It’s called Ya Leyl Ya Leyl, and Professor Habib composed it. It’s so simple but we never get sick of playing it, and it’s the easiest to jam, because the accompaniment is just switching between Do and Fa, and then repeating the same thing in the minor key. I don’t know what into the second recording, but a lot of it is improvisation between Nidal and Habib. And the third is an Egyptian political song. We don’t know the name; we just call it Ham/Hum, for obvious reasons. 

Students at Sabastiya and the Medical Relief Center – We gave our students drums and taught them to beat out rhythms while singing. Our Sabastiya kids are mostly 10-12 years old and we had them drum along to Tik Tik Tik Ya Musleiman by Fairouz. Everyone here knows Fairouz, and especially this song; the Lebanese singer has a lot of classic children’s songs in her repertoire, and even the adults we meet love it. And apparently, my own mother used to sing it to me when I was a baby, though I had no idea until we had already taught it to the kids here. The Medical Relief Center students are a little older — 14 to 18 in age — and a lot of them know some pretty complex rhythms. In this recording, one of our students is leading a call and response song/chant/game with the rest of the class. Giulia, Tessa, and I have noticed that students respond really well to rhythm, but don’t have as much familiarity with pitches and harmony. That observation could be made of Arab music culture as a whole; the beat tends to be a lot more important to the essence of a song than the melody is. It’s worth mentioning that every student there knows how to dance dabke.

The only other recording I want to include here is of daytime fireworks, but only because we’re so relieved that our ears have finally learned to distinguish between a spray of bullets and a wedding celebration. 

August 25th, 2014

The kids are going back to school, so for this week we volunteers get a little break in our schedules as the students adjust to theirs. We’ll be back to normal in a few days. For now, we’re enjoying a much needed rest, which has given me time to reflect on the complex layering of cultures in Nablus. That, and also a few days to party at our friend’s pool house in the Jordan Valley.

10631071_10204479496366323_65420612128256211_o

The pool house had a high fence surrounding it, so for the first time in three weeks, I was able to wear a bikini and walk around in shorts and a tank top. Note: I’m from California, where the second the weather breaks 16 °C, everyone’s in shorts. I consider it a major accomplishment that I’ve grown comfortable with long sleeves and pants in a country where people drink hot tea to cool down. I’m used to it now, but during my first week here, I was amazed that so many of the women were wearing head scarves (hijabs) in this heat, along with leggings and even jackets. To be honest, I was criticizing (in my head) the idea that this society’s religion oppressed its women in terms of freedom of movement and expression. As usual, the truth is a little more complicated than that. Abu, a friend of Nidal’s, took it upon himself to enlighten us.

As we walked through the souk, looking for some knefah, Abu picked up a conversation we had started earlier about religion. “You know Muslim women don’t have to wear the hijab,” he began. I will admit, I was surprised. My mother is technically a Muslim and forgoes the hijab, but she also forgoes the rest of the religion, so I didn’t exactly view her as the paradigm of cultural Islam. “Yes, in the 1980’s, before the First Intifada, Palestine was like Europe. Tee-shirts, dresses — seriously! You should see my aunt’s pictures.”  And it’s true: if you look at photos from that era, not nearly as many women wear the scarf as they do today. Abu was getting excited now; you could tell he’s explained all this before. “It’s traditional, not religious. The tradition comes from religion, yes, but people only take the tradition so seriously because of he occupation. When the IDF locked down Nablus in the early 2000s, times were hard, and we didn’t have international influence because nobody could enter the city. All we had was religion and tradition, and the people clung to it.” We’ve definitely noticed the aftereffects of the six-year blockade on Nablus; it’s one of the most conservative cities in the West Bank (not including villages), meaning long-sleeved clothes, no alcohol, and a major emphasis on religion. Pop culture and social media is huge here, but whenever Israel begins bombing the Gaza Strip, the only songs accepted on the radio are dedicated to Gaza, and Facebook becomes a channel for otherwise censored news and critique. But it’s important to acknowledge that this cultural lean towards conservatism was caused by the occupation and is a way of resisting it, rather than the reverse: that religious intolerance caused the occupation. In fact, Nablus has always been, and still is, a hub of religious diversity and tolerance. Though predominantly Muslim, Nablus houses a large Christian demographic that has peacefully existed here for centuries. Overlooking Nablus from one of the valley mountains is the Samaritan community, which has been there for nearly 2,000 years and is viewed as a sort of neutral zone (alcohol is routinely sold there, and Good Samaritan Arak is the best I’ve ever tasted). There used to be a Jewish community within Nablus as well, before the invasion. But now in their place, over on another mountaintop, sits Yitzhar, the Orthodox Jewish settlement that keeps itself separate from Nablus, but occasionally causes conflict in this otherwise peaceful city.

We leaned against the wall of the cafe, eating our knefah as Abu finished his speech on culture. He wants us to understand, but he also understands us; he’s traveled around Europe with Nidal, so they have international experience and know quite a bit about our own cultures. We’re pretty comfortable with him, and he doesn’t care that we don’t wear a hijab. Actually, most people here don’t; we’re Westerners, with our own beliefs, and as long as we respect the culture of Nablus (see: not downing shots naked in the street; also: not starting a city-wide blockade that literally restricts all movement into and out of the city for six years), they will respect us. Moreover, they’ll probably invite us in for some tea and ma’amoul.

August 20th, 2014 (Last day of First Schedule)

Halfway through our placement, Project Hope is shifting all its volunteers’ schedules. School is starting up again in Nablus, so we can’t have morning classes anymore. If we’re lucky, we’ll still have the same kids. For all the obstacles we face with teaching here– including the language barrier, the problems in Palestine, and the fact that they are, you know, children — they’ve made so much progress in these last three weeks that I’m reluctant to give them up for a fresh new batch of students. 

Until now, Giulia and I have been teaching at the City Cultural Center and Medical Center in Nablus, a women’s center in Askar Camp, and another in Sebastya. Each class has its own difficulties and personality. There seems to be a trade-off between behavior and enthusiasm; at CCC and Sebastya, for example, the kids are usually pretty well-behaved, but they get bored more easily, so we have to work harder to keep their attention. At Askar and the Medical Center, the kids are crazy. I always leave with my ears buzzing, and the Medical Center is where the fight broke out a while back. But when they focus on an activity, they put an amazing amount of energy into it (here’s a link to the Medical Center kids singing Al Kufiyya for us). 

We tried to make the last day memorable while simultaneously reviewing everything we’ve gone over up until that point. With the older kids, I wrote out some staves and had the compose their own music. It was pretty basic stuff, but they were able to come up with 10 or so bars of song, which Giulia and I then played on her flute and my trumpet. 

10626209_10204467959357905_799111591759047344_o10606406_905063982854533_1584188921260648228_n    1553355_10204467958957895_8826438769447567565_o

After going over rhythms, notes, and dynamics, and singing “Tik Tik Tik Ya Musleiman” and “Oh! Alele”, we took group pictures of each class. Sometimes, we let the kids try out our instruments. Most of the younger ones could eventually get a sound out my trumpet, and a few managed to jump registers, which is actually way more than I could do the first time I picked one up. It made me want to buy them all instruments; some would seriously make great musicians, if they just had the resources to get started. 

10633437_10204467965558060_959042835850324257_o

 

1618071_10204467971158200_5759298230530172196_o 10575326_10204467971598211_1765325630263425527_o10431190_10204467964358030_6366507965384916424_o  

August 20th, 2014 (Second Intifada and the Second City)

I know I’ve been awake for too long when the I hear the Fajr Dhuhr adhan announcing the crack of dawn. The first “Allahu Akbar” sounded over the loudspeakers of the nearby mosque just as I sat down to begin writing. We were out late celebrating; today marks the last day of class under our first schedule. After this weekend, the kids will be off summer vacation and back in school, so our schedule will probably become busier rather than easier, but we decided to celebrate anyway. We’ve been hanging out with Nidal and his friends since 2 pm and only got home a few minutes ago. It’s 4:00 am now.

It’s also the twentieth day we’ve been in Palestine, and we now have twenty more to go. It’s difficult to find time to write, not only because of our schedule, but because there are so many layers to each day and discovery that I’m reluctant to snowball it all into one journal entry.  Everything I talk about here could easily be filtered through a political lens, for example. The occupation affects the economy, the economy affects education, education affects our students and the volunteers’ purpose in Palestine, etc. This is often the topic of conversation here. Today, the focus was on the Second Intifada.

Nidal took Giulia, Tessa, and I out to lunch, along with his visiting friends, Drew and Julia. Drew is an English teacher from Portland living in Cairo, and Julia is a Jewish-American from New York. The two are in Nablus conducting business research in the hopes of expanding Project Hope to other cities in Palestine, as well as personal research on the occupation in Palestine. Nidal decided that a good place to start on the latter would be the Old City.

After a few twists through the souk, we left the bustling shops to arrive in front of a green door with a rusted sign swinging above it. Nidal unlocked the door and pushed his way in. We followed him through a low corridor and up some stairs, emerging in a small stone courtyard with a jasmine tree and trash littering the floor. All around were doors, some belonging to residents, others free for us to explore. One room had been converted into a classroom, completely untouched except for a thick layer of dust. We looked out the window and found a huge well, maybe 10 meters in diameter and so deep that we couldn’t see the bottom. “This well used to lead to a river under the city,” Nidal explained. “Now it’s just an entrance to the ruins of the Old City.”

10559824_10152687378448223_7589047938078080309_n

10603513_10152687377203223_4376189501112277385_n

I was confused. I thought we were in the Old City. But Nidal told us that what we know as Nablus was actually built right on top of an ancient city, like Rome. The aquifer wells are now some of the only entrances into it. “Underground lies an entire city, and it’s here that the Palestinian rebels hid during the Second Intifada.”

The 2000 Second Intifada lasted five years and severely impacted the West Bank. Every Nablusi over the age of twenty has a story about it. Our neighbor Ahmad was a kid back then, and strongly remembers chucking a stone at a tank; in response, it honked its horn (apparently, tank horns sound like this). The IDF demolished downtown Nablus, erasing years of history embedded in the Ottoman-era houses and souks. But another part of the city, even older and hidden from the destruction above,  of the Palestinian resistance. Drew wanted to explore one tunnel entrance, but it quickly became to dark to see, so we decided to save it for another day. As Nidal led us through streets and courtyards, we found evidence of the fighting: bullet holes, crumbling houses, a broad sheet-metal school roof that had been wrenched down by Israeli soldiers. We climbed to the top floor of a beautiful, 200 year-old palace. It had once been elegantly painted, and a few panels of stained glass remained in their frames, but the ceiling was caving in and animal droppings were scattered everywhere. Its windows looked down upon a garden where a famous Palestinian leader was gunned down during the war.

10548024_10204468001238952_3311844033269883650_o   10620175_10204468006279078_6806330434267858177_o   10448683_10204467997398856_8663595826981246280_o

We exited the palace and the density of the Old City, turned a corner… and found ourselves standing on a Roman amphitheater. I was blown away. It literally is just sitting in somebody’s backyard; had Nidal not been guiding us, we would have missed it. Jules and I climbed onto a fallen pillar and started rocking it back and forth. Jules started laughing. “Look at us, a Jew and a Palestinian, logrolling a Roman pillar in the middle of the West Bank.” It was pretty funny, even foregoing the irony of our respective ethnicities. I mean, the depth of history is astounding, and yet there is little to no regulation of the anthropological sites. Where’s the ticket vendor? The roped-off ruins? The tourists?

10615383_10152687363513223_2580408904183996774_nThe rest of the night was spent at Bashar’s cafe in Sama Nablus, with the same people from our first night there. Naturally, our day trip sparked a conversation about the the destruction of Nablus and the demonstrations. “Everyone’s thrown a stone as part of a demonstration,” Aabu told us. “But we’re not organized. We’re not soldiers, just fighting for our homes. Sometimes, you see a demonstrator suddenly tumble over in the middle of a crowd. When that happens, it’s because another demonstrator accidentally hit him in the head with a rock.” He and Nidal joked about how the most firepower at their disposal was a Molotov cocktail, and proceeded to teach us how to throw it so you don’t end up with fire in your face. I love their sense of humor; even after two (minimum) intifadas, 66 years of occupation, a crushing economy, the daily injustice of the IDF, and the devastating and predictable cycle of violence in Gaza, these guys can still laugh at their situation. Nidal’s uncle was a major general in the war, and Bashar was a resistance fighter. Both had spent years in prison and lost friends and family in the war. Yet all still had the spirit to continue protesting and resisting while going on with work, family, and life. Moreover, they’re hilarious, and incredibly good company. There was no hint of bitterness from them as we sat at Sama Nablus, drinking tea and watching the city sleep.

August 15th, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m only a quarter Palestinian. So it came as a surprise to me when my mother called a week ago to tell me I have around 500 distant (but directly traceable) relatives in Ramallah. At least, these 500 were coming to the wedding my second cousin Eman invited me to. His son, Karim, is getting married, and the festivities have lasted three days. I missed the first day, but I arrived in Ramallah on the 14th for the “small” family get-together, including commercial loudspeakers and dabke dancing until 4 am. When I woke up, Tessa and Giulia had arrived (my cousins had kindly invited them as well). Between lunch, wedding preparations, and the salon, the day quickly disappeared, and before we knew it we were in a van, one among, twenty, rushing to pick up the bride.

There was already a crowd when we arrived, so we barely caught a glimpse of white before she vanished into the groom’s car. Then they took off, and all the other cars followed, ours included. The groom drove behind a camera truck, filming the entire drive; so of course, every other car wanted to be in the frame. I’ve seen crazy drivers before. I’ve been in our minivan when my dad was going 80 mph down a windy cliff road. But no driver has ever made me fear for my life the way this one did when he turned Ramallah Radio 103.4 way up and rocketed us straight for a four-way merge. He slammed the breaks at the last possible moment, and the groom’s black Audi had to drift to avoid being hit. Our entourage of vehicles kept this up the whole trip: fishtailing, beeping, and blasting music, with kids hanging out the windows and exhaust pipes popping. All I could think was that my parents are worried about me for the wrong reasons. If anything kills me in Palestine, it will be the drivers, not the rockets 80 km away in Gaza.

We arrive safe and sound, only to be immediately swept into the growing crowd around the groom. I don’t know where his bride went, but Karim was surrounded by a troupe of drummers and cheering friends. As the troupe beat out a quick baladi rhythm, his friends rushed him and began tossing him in the air. For the record, Karim is neither small nor thin. But that didn’t stop the crowd from throwing him five feet in the air and carrying him on their shoulders.

I made my way for the hall, and was a little shocked to find that the two floors were gender-segregated, before remembering that this was a Muslim wedding. Up on the women’s floor, 250 ladies unraveled their scarves and revealed elegant dresses and complex hair-dos. Then the bride appeared on the silver carpet, clad in sparkling white from head to toe. Even with her veil on it was obvious that she was gorgeous. But then she too removed her scarf, and the groom arrived to accompany her for the first dance. After that, the night was blur of flashy dabke dancers, Arabic electronic music, cake-cutting, fireworks, a bizarre giant plastic ball for the newlyweds (?), and presentation of the dowry for the bride. The formal matrimony ceremony actually occurs in private, so there was no altar; just a swanky white couch on a stage, overlooking the masses. Arabs party late, and by the end, the three of us were exhausted.

10485930_1536778173211040_1836547341270687862_n

Palestinians are known for their hospitality, and my cousins really push the stereotype. At 3 am, they tried to offer us dinner, and only let us order a taxi back to Nablus when we insisted we had work in the morning. Even then, they slipped the payment to the taxi driver and told us not to worry about it. It was simultaneously frustrating and incredibly endearing. This taxi was a lot a gentler than the groom’s entourage, and on the way back I dreamed of dabke and wedding cake.

 

 

 

August 13th, 2014

Two weeks in and I’m still adjusting to this weekday shift. Today is Wednesday, so to us Westerners it’s really a Friday. You could tell by the way the students were celebrating: screaming Do-Re-Mi, jumping out of their chairs, clapping rhythms to a beat much faster than the ones we laid out. Then I made the mistake of handing out recorders to each and every one of them. We felt their Friday energy release in the form of twenty shrieking whistles, so piercing that the English teachers nearby came over to yell at our kids. Finally, we calmed them down enough to teach a few notes, and felt grateful for even that much progress by the end. 

Askar camp was worse. I keep reminding myself that these kids live in a cramped refugee camp, and tend to have a lot more energy than the others. Usually this is a good thing; they’re some of our most enthusiastic students and retain information better than most. On the flip side, if they get bored, this energy becomes fuel for literally bouncing off the walls of our echoing basement classroom and screaming until our ears hurt (maybe we should teach them to scream in harmony; at least then there would be something musical about it). Today, they sat still just long enough for us to do some rhythm review, and then broke out into the scene described above. To make matters worse, our translator ditched us again, so we struggled in vain to maintain control in Arabic.

DSCN3990

(But we still love our Askar Camp kids) 

Needless to say, I was relieved by the time we hit our weekend. The other Music Harvest volunteers and I hung around the Project Hope office, practicing jazz tunes and free jamming, before going home for quiet and relaxation. In the evening we had oud.

We met Nedal at City Center and took a taxi to Habib’s house. The second Nedal touched his knuckle to the door, it swung open with a slam and an “AHLAN WA SAHLAN!”, knocking Nedal back a good five steps. Habib stood in the doorway and erupted into laughter, before properly welcoming us inside. 

Tessa, Giulia, and I thought we needed to exchange our regular-sized ouds for bigger ones. As it turns out, we don’t need bigger ouds, just better technique. We spent an hour listening to Habib and Nedal improvise Taqasim, following each other through different maqams and quoting songs in both English and Arabic. They were really communicating; the two voices were woven into one, so that I couldn’t tell which one was playing the melody and which the harmony. Afterward, we were given an hour’s lesson, going over the nahawand maqam and “Tik, Tik, Tik” by Fairuz. 

 The evening wore on and we grew more relaxed. Habib’s friend Akeel brought chicken and potatoes to make makloubeh, a traditional Palestinian dish (in Arabic, I say “makloubeh” when I want to mean “upside-down,” and people understand because the way you make it is by flipping chicken upside-down onto a pilaf). Akeel also brought a homemade pear brew, so we put the ouds away, poured a glass, and sipped it while peeling potatoes. Meanwhile, we talked about work and nature and gardening; Akeel keeps a pepper garden, and regularly eats these green and black chiles. They taste like an inferno. Then he showed us a party trick where he smokes a cigarette, then flips it back into his mouth, appearing to have swallowed it whole. I swear, he doesn’t have a tongue. 

 I’m not surprised that of all the people we’ve met in Nablus, these three musicians are the ones we feel most comfortable around. As Habib said, “It’s only been two days, but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time!” He went on to talk about how musicians share the same “shape of mind,” and that the act of music-making is intrinsically communicative and unifying. Obviously, we all agreed: that’s why we’re here in the first place. 

August 11th, 2014

Saturday is Monday, and Monday is the busiest day of the week. CCC in the morning, Askar camp in the afternoon, Arabic lessons in the evening, and oud with Nedal in the night. It starts out like hell but gets easier as the day goes on. Our translator didn’t show up today, so the first couple classes were even more difficult than usual. But Giulia and I are picking up Arabic quickly, so we nailed at least a few of our objectives.

Oud was the best part of an otherwise long, humid day of work. We learnt the first maqam, called Nahawand. It’s similar to our Aeolian scale, but the third and fifth are a little flatter than we’re used to. I’ve grown attached to my oud; it has this beautifully expressive face, with an inlaid wood and mother of pearl design resembling an eye with a teardrop. Habib says the face of an oud determines the sound. I think he was referring to the material and shape, but my oud’s voice is just as sad and warm as its face looks. It fits well with the Arabic music, which as a rule emphasizes feeling and emotion as the guide to good sound.

After the lesson, we followed Nedal upstairs to drink tea and watch the urban sunset from his uncle’s balcony:
10547025_10204411562988031_764353636491924240_o

His uncle was carrying a baby, and as we played with him the mother came, carrying the baby’s identical twin. Twins are extremely common here; I have three sets of twins among my classes, a set living on my street, and a set that walks by everyday on their way to work. And more often than not, they make an effort to dress the same way, just as these babies were.

August 10th, 2014

Today, I had my first meeting with my most difficult and fun class yet. 30 kids ranging in age from 14 to 18 years old were stuffed into this tiny room at the Nablus Medical Center, dancing and yelling and eager to start class. Until meeting them myself, I would have never believed they could be more rambunctious than my eight year-olds. The boys were especially energetic; they wanted to know where we were from, what we played, if I could teach them drums, guitar, how to dance, etc. Some of them were only a year younger than me, though I kept that to myself. With the help of our translator, we finally got them to calm down. The nice thing about teaching older kids is that, even with an Arabic/English communication barrier, it is much easier to get them to understand what you want. Within forty-five minutes they had learned all the basic rhythms and Solfege that had taken the other groups a week to fully comprehend. The lesson was over fast, but not before one kid and I had a quick jam session with drums and trumpet. As they were leaving, the students started clapping and singing our names: “Giulia, behebik, Camellia, behebik.” It was extremely noisy, but endearing nonetheless.

Straight after that, I took a taxi to Ramallah for a quick visit. I have some second cousins there that I wanted to meet. They’re related to my mother, but I was going to meet them before she did.

I fell asleep in the car and woke up in Ramallah. While waiting in the heat for my cousin, one of the men who was in my taxi bought me a water from a nearby cafe. This is one of the things I absolutely love about Palestine: strangers being randomly kind to each other, especially men doing something nice for women out of the blue, is neither uncommon nor creepy. If someone offers you some tea, or decides to guide you to your destination free of charge, you just thank them and remember to pay it forward in the future. Hospitality is built into the culture.

My cousin arrived a few minutes after I did. Emad speaks enough English for us to converse, and as we walked to his car he told me his son was getting married this Friday, and that he wanted me and my friends to come. 600 people are coming to this wedding, and most of them are related to me. I’m only one quarter Palestinian, yet I have some 500 relatives living in Palestine.

DSCN3982

(Emad, with Ramallah in the background, and Jerusalem waaay in the distance)

Emad’s family really wanted me to have the traditional Palestinian experience. As we sat in the living room drinking Arabic coffee, they had me try on a tob, which is an embroidered Palestinian dress, typically worn at parties and weddings. Then they served maqluba for dinner, which is one of the most recognizable Palestinian dishes. “Maqluba” means “upside-down” in Arabic, and it’s made by flipping meat over onto a plate of rice and then pouring hot yogurt on top. I wolfed it down, forgetting that in Arab countries, the hosts will keep serving you until they see that you physically can’t eat anymore. By the time I had to leave to catch a taxi back to Nablus, I was stuffed with lamb and rice, and looking forward to the wedding on Friday.

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.”

10295021_10204389414114323_3448844603027745984_o  10476059_10204411598788926_5888397572027968910_o   1836709_10204411596348865_3000893096562879629_o

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.

10562488_10204389394393830_4713126222492021865_o

(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.

10483818_10204366453500322_7303123519246353543_o