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.
(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.