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60th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival

Last weekend Monterey hit a milestone: 60 years of hosting one of the most exciting musical events worldwide, known and hailed internationally as the Monterey Jazz Fest. And they didn’t hold back for this special anniversary: topping the lineup with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, all three days of the festival were jam-packed with acts such as the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Kenny Barron, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Common, Joshua Redman, Pedrito Martinez, all three of the Claytons (John, Jeff, and Gerald), Joe Lovano, Regina Carter, Branford Marsalis, and Jimmy Heath (you know, to name a few). Not only was this year’s fest particularly star-studded, but it also included a diverse spread of genres while keeping the focus centered around jazz; this acceptance of branching genres such as hip hop, rock, and blues is a recurrent theme in MJF’s history that I’ll dive into further on.

Monterey being within eyesight of my home turf in Santa Cruz, I had the honor of performing at this festival with the UCSC Jazz Combo. Taking the Thelonious Monk Education Stage at 12:30pm on Saturday, we opened the afternoon with a setlist from the European Real Book:

“Vista,” “Distant Biscuits, “Secret Champ,” “Home,” “Ups and Downs,” and “Sixteen Blues.” Mad props to Galen Savidge, Gabe Meacham, Keshav Batish, Evan O’Brien, and Ben Sitzer – your hard work and musicianship shined through, and it was a pleasure to play with you.

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I could write pages for each act I attended, but I’m going to focus on three: Common, the Roy Hargrove Quintet, and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Not only were these three performances the most enthralling to me, but taken together they formed a convincing statement on jazz’s future, present, and past (yes, like the Ghosts of Christmas).

Seeing Common’s name on the lineup probably caused a lot of double-takes, especially from seasoned jazz fans. Born out of the South Side, Chicago, the Grammy Award-winning rapper is one of the most respected hip hop artists living – but what was he doing at a jazz festival? Several answers come to mind: first and foremost, that hip hop’s musical language comes from the same place as swing and bebop. Both heavily make use of the backbeat, which originated in West Africa, and both feature improvisation – jazz with instrumental solos, and hip hop with rap freestyling and disc scratching. Common underscored this point by appearing with a full band of accomplished jazz musicians and frequently giving them the mic (flautist Elena Pinderhughes was one of the musicians on stage – a welcome surprise, as she wasn’t listed on the program but commanded a set at MJF last year).

Equally as important, though, is to acknowledge that hip hop is coming out of the same culture as jazz – namely, black urban communities in America. Both are historically tied to black oppression, and as a result both respond to similar problems, rearticulated for different eras. Common’s set, for example, was called “Black America Again,” and all his songs discussed some problem he saw with the way people of color are treated in the United States. His lyrics echoed the words of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and countless others, who critically discussed black experience and expressed it in their music. Though MJF kept the spotlight on  jazz, having such an authority embrace rap signaled an acceptance of hip hop into the jazz family tree, the way MJF has done with blues, bluegrass, rock, and funk in the past. And one can find that happening with more established jazz musicians, with artists such as Christian Scott, Roy Hargrove, and Takuya Kuroda intentionally seeking to incorporate elements of trap, house, and old-school into their work. This is especially important because hip hop speaks directly to younger generations, while jazz is often criticized for seeming restricted to older demographics. By incorporating the newer genre into its fold, jazz, now a worldwide phenomenon, can retain a link to the same communities it served in the past.

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Common performing at the White House with Elena Pinderhughes, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, and Keyon Herrold

I thought it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Herbie Hancock himself was clapping and dancing to the music most of the time.

Roy Hargrove’s combo was a much more traditional set. Having just seen them perform in Paris at the New Morning, I already knew what to expect and was in a better position to offer critique. In Paris they played a diverse array of songs, ranging from soothing ballads to hard bop tunes with a heavy backbeat (my favorite). In Monterey they played the same set, and they danced on stage again, and Justin Robinson was an absolute beast on the saxophone, again, but something about this performance was much more lively. I’m not sure if it was higher energy in the quintet or a heightened engagement in the crowd, but their show in Dizzy’s Den on Saturday night was electric. They had the audience clapping and cheering for several songs, and you could hear the more experienced audience members whispering, “He just referenced Joe Henderson!” and “Did you catch how he modulated right there?” The show had something for everyone: masterful soloing navigating complex rhythms and harmonies for experts to chew on, exciting tunes and danceable grooves for newbies, and traditional combo-style playing for those who attended a jazz festival expecting a classic jazz performance.

I found Roy Hargrove backstage after the show and asked him to sign my t-shirt; I am now the proud owner of a shirt that has my combo’s name screen-printed along with the “Roy Hargrove Quintet” and topped with a signature from the man himself. The deepest, music-nerdiest part of myself is thrilled.

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Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock capped off the festival late Sunday night in the Arena. The show didn’t start until close to 10pm, and while we waited I had a conversation with a woman who had been coming to the festival for 40 years. I found out her grandkids had played in a band with Elena and Samora Pinderhughes in junior high; small world. I asked her how this year compared to previous years, and she said the 60th has definitely been one of the best. I’ve only been coming for two years – but I’d have to agree.

When the red curtain finally parted, we saw two full open-topped grand pianos locked together, like a musical yin and yang symbol. Chick and Herbie walked out on stage, the former dressed in white, the latter in black. They sat down and began to play. At first it sounded almost classical, like a modern piano-four hands piece, but soon they were evolving outward, opening into denser harmonies and rhythms and departing the classical sense of structure. And between the two of them they created a galaxy of sound; at times they cleanly came together for rehearsed motifs, and at others there was obvious call and response, but the majority of their playing melded concrete music and uninhibited improvisation so fluidly that it rarely seemed that they were separate at all. Each song evolved as naturally as a good conversation, spoken fluently and filled with epiphanies and fascinating ideas.

This is something I strive for as a musician: a sense of ease in communicating through sound, in any genre. After all, at its most basic level, music really is another language. This is an old idea, and Hancock and Corea are two of the most venerated musicians still alive from jazz’s youth, but somehow this set sounded very fresh, flexible, and even futuristic. They managed to connect with the crowd on standards – Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Corea’s “Aranjuez/Spain,” two absolute classics – while introducing sounds that for all the world approached the most dissonant, complex ideas found in modern classical piano playing.

For a taste of what that set was like, check out this video of the duo performing a similar set in 1978 – under different fashion norms. Or this one from 1979, at the North Sea Jazz Festival (we’ve got the full recording of that festival over on the Jazz Archive). 

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I came away from MJF’s 60th festival fully convinced of jazz’s ability to be flexible, adaptable, yet still firmly rooted in an era when music seems to be increasingly hybridized and sometimes nebulous. And, of course, a strong motivation to get back to practicing.

 

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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 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 28th, 2014 (Hebron)

*** I really struggled to write this post, and I apologize for the length ahead of time. But if you want to understand what the occupation looks like from the inside, this is the entry to read.

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As part of our short vacation from working in Nablus, we decided to take a day-trip to Hebron. I was told that this was where I’d come face to face with the occupation. I was ready, but I wasn’t ready.

But before I tell this story, I need to give a little background info: Hebron is one of the oldest cities in the world, and with a population of around 600,000, it’s easily the largest governorate in the West Bank. According to the bible, it’s the town where Abraham settled, making it an important religious site for all three major monotheistic religions (Abraham’s the guy who almost sacrificed his own son because God asked him to). Because of this, control of the town has been sought after by many groups of people dating back to the second millennium B.C., and most recently by the Zionist Labor Party of the Israeli government. Their mission was to occupy this city, and after the Six-Day War in 1967, they had their opportunity. The Labor Party seized much of the West Bank, including Hebron, and remained in control for decades. Then, with the Oslo Agreement in 1995 and subsequent Hebron Agreement in 1997, most of these cities were returned to Palestinian control (at least nominally) with one exception: Hebron. The city would be split into two sectors: H1, which is Palestinian controlled, and H2, which is retained by Israel. H2 occupies the middle of the city, and contains around 500 Israeli settlers and 2,000 IDF soldiers in four downtown settlements (that adds up to about four IDF soldiers per settler). These settlements are funded and protected by the Israeli government, and their primary objective is to secure a Jewish majority in strategic regions of the West Bank, despite their explicit prohibition in the Geneva Convention (read more about the legality and purpose of the settlements here). All movement in and around the area is restricted to Palestinians, and especially Shuhada street, where 1,829 Palestinian-owned shops have been permanently shutdown. This means that the heart of one of the largest cities in Palestine is closed-off to most of its residents. In their place, it houses one of the most hostile settler populations in the West Bank. This is the place where settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994. Today, we would meet a Palestinian who calls these settlers neighbors.

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At first glance, Hebron looked the same as ever other town we’ve visited in Palestine. Bustling market place, falafel carts, traffic, etc. But then we entered the souk, and after a few intersections came up against a fenced-off, barbed and blockaded street. “H2 is past there,” a shopkeeper told us. Unfortunately, “past there” was where we needed to go.

Drew and Julia had given us the number of a contact in Hebron a few days before, when they learned we might be visiting. Hashem Azzeh couldn’t come meet us; he’s been under detention for two years now, meaning he can’t leave the H2 sector without being rearrested. So he told a taxi where to take us. We drove all around Hebron, taking long detours and suspicious alleyways. We were beginning to wonder if this guy was really taking us to Hashem when he turned around and asked us in Arabic how many days we were spending in Hebron. “Just today,” I responded. He laughed. “Pay attention, then.”

We were dropped off in front of an abandoned guard tower and a traffic gate. Hashem stood waiting on the other side, so we crossed over into H2 territory.

As we walked with Hashem, he told us more about himself. He’s lived in Hebron his whole life, and is one of the few families who has remained following the settlement installments 20 yeas ago. After studying medicine in Jordan, he returned to Hebron to work as a physician, but can no longer do so due to his detainment within the H2 sector. Why exactly was he detained? For leading tours like this one, where he shows foreigners what’s going on inside the settlements. “They called it ‘Anti-Semitic behavior.'” He looked at us, perplexed. “For showing people the truth! What do they even mean, ‘Anti-Semitic?’ Arabs are technically Semites!” (it’s true; not to belabor the point, but here’s the dictionary definition of a Semite).

A bunch of children were sitting outside a school. They were a little wary at first, but at the sight of Hashem, they warmed to us and started practicing their English: “How are you! Where are you from!” Some even got up and showed off their dabke skills. They kicked, stepped, twirled, and then broke away and ran off, giggling. Hashem followed them inside; he volunteers here as a director of student activities. “I taught the women basic healthcare and sexual education, so they can teach their students. I trained them, so they know how to check for breast cancer. We have psychology classes, too, to help the kids cope with the settler attacks. They have a lot of fear; many can’t sleep in their own room, or even alone at all. ” We asked Hashem what exactly these settlers would do to terrorize the kids. “I’ll show you,” he said.

We walked away from the school and towards Hashem’s house. Along the way we passed an IDF soldier on the way, who eyed us suspiciously but let us by all the same. We stopped just before an orange house. “This is the settlement. These are my neighbors. They tried to buy my house from me twenty years ago, the way Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs, to make me leave Hebron, but I refused. So after that, they turned to violence. The entrance to my house used to be this way, but they won’t let me cross, so now I have to take another way.” Then he turned down a dirt side path. It ran parallel to the orange house above us, and as we walked, kids ran out on the porch. They started yelling at us in Arabic and Hebrew. I couldn’t catch most of it, but I did understand “sharmouta.” It means “whore” in Arabic.

Hashem stopped under a grape vine. There were a few green ones, but most looked more like rotten raisins than grapes. “The settlers poisoned these, and the fig trees, and the olives. Here, look at this one.” He pointed to a huge olive tree, the largest I’ve ever seen. “We call them Roman olives. It’s 2,000 years old. The settlers cut off it’s largest branch, but we stopped them from doing more.” As we wandered the garden, we saw more signs of sabotage: shriveled fruit, dying shrubs, trees that were cut down to stumps. There was broken furniture in the yard, and a bullet lodged in the wall above his door.

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(Hashem leading us around H2; an IDF soldier in his outpost above Hashem’s house; grapes poisoned by the settlers)

I was already disgusted, but he went on. “My wife was pregnant in 2009. One day, she came home, and the settlers walked up to her, and they beat her. The fetus died. She became pregnant again. They beat her again, and tried to make it so she couldn’t get pregnant anymore. But, somehow, she became pregnant again. This time, I told her to stay in the house, that I would bring her everything she needs. Thank God, she gave birth in the night. But when we returned home with the baby, there were 50 settlers waiting for us. They beat me, and they beat her, and they even beat the infant My wife was permanently damaged, but we made it inside the house, and my daughter is four years old. You’ll see her now.” And with that, we entered his house.

The first thing I noticed about Hashem’s home were the beautiful oil pastel paintings hanging on every wall. The second was a little head poking out of the room on the left. Then it disappeared. “She’ll come later, don’t worry,” Hashem laughed. We sat down in his living room and watched videos while drinking mango juice. The videos were of the settlers: settlers explaining their tactics, settlers throwing rocks at Palestinians coming home from school, settlers screaming at Hashem and his family. In one of the videos, the perpetrators where children: girls in sundresses, shouting curses and kicking their Palestinian counterparts, and young boys waiting further on, clutching stones (here’s a video of one of the settlers, Mirar, training children to attack her Palestinian neighbors. The white building in the video is the settlement right next to Hashem’s house).

The video finished, and the child who had been peeking at us finally came in to say hello, followed by her mother and her brother Yunis. This is the girl who survived the beatings from the settlers, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at her. She’s absolutely gorgeous, with smooth, undisturbed skin. The mother was beautiful as well,her face was marked by evidence of the attacks. She’s the one who painted all the oil pastels in the house:

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We left the house to visit what used to be the busiest marketplace in Hebron. Shuhada street was like a ghost town. The windows were broken, and the doors had been welded shut years ago. There were no signs of life anywhere, except the occasional child donning a kippuh. Hashem pointed at each shop: this one was a bakery, a pharmacy, a dentist’s office. On the side of a school, we found some faded graffiti that read “Gas the Arabs!”:

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 (Shuhada Street)

No more than twelve years old, Yunis walked a little ahead of us, hanging back only when he saw the settler’s children ahead. “They beat him, when he comes to and from school,” Hashem explained. I looked at Yunis again, startled. He didn’t look scared, but he never smiled either, not once during the whole tour. His face was just grim the entire time.

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(Yunis, waiting for us to catch up)

By then the sun was descending in the sky, and we needed to get back to Nablus before it got too late. As we walked back the way we came, I asked Hashem if he’d ever tried to escape his detention area. “Yesterday,” he responded immediately.

I laughed, surprised. “Why?”

“Because I needed a haircut.” Well, when you need a haircut, you need a haircut.

Just then, a group of Palestinian kids appeared from around the corner and ran up to us, tripping over each other to shake our hands and ask us questions. I turned to Hashem. “How come they’re not afraid of us? We’re total strangers; based on what they live with, they should have every right to fear us.”

He shook his head. “We have workshops on nonviolent resistance, and as a part of these workshops we teach the children that the settlers are not like most Jews. Whenever I have visitors — and especially Jewish visitors — I bring them into the classrooms to meet the children, you know, to show them that not all people are like the ones giving them problems. My only exception is Zionists. If a Zionist comes here, I show him the door.”

We stopped just before the ledge of a crumbling wall six meters high. “The taxi station isn’t far from here. Just climb down this and you’ll be out of H2.” I banged my elbow on the way down but otherwise escaped unscathed.

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(Hashem’s 2,000 year-old Roman Olive tree, and Giulia)

 

 

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(H2 kids waving bye from the six meter wall)

What Hashem had touched on right before we left is something I find central to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not a war over religion, nor has it ever been. Religion in this context has only ever been a pretext for a crusade for resources and political control in Palestine (literally since the Crusades in the 11th century AD). Before the Israeli invasion in 1948, there was a large Palestinian Jewish demographic that lived in peace among the Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Samaritans. Today, “Jewish” can mean many things: there are secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Jews living in Eastern Europe and New York and California, and even people who identify as Christian Jews (seriously)*. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, only 75% of Israelis living in the self-proclaimed Jewish state are actually ethnically Jewish or practice Judaism. Many of the settlers themselves are religious zealots from Brooklyn who were hired to wage Israel’s war in a house in the West Bank. So, contrary to popular belief, these communities have little to do with the average Jew. In reality they are an implementation of the Israeli government that serve a political end. The settlers are to the Jews as the KKK are to the Christians, and the ISIS to Islam. Each of these groups claim a religion to justify their terrorizing actions while displaying a blatant disregard for the principles and practices that constitute their chosen theologies.

I don’t scare easily. But what I saw today scared me. It scared me first to be near people who were so zealous and cruel that they would beat a pregnant woman into miscarriage in the name of their religion. It scared me to see settlers’ kids, around the age of those I’ve been teaching during my time in Palestine, look at me with hatred that shouldn’t belong to someone so young. It scared me to look at Yunis and realize that he has to see live with these people. And, most of all, I was horrified by the slow realization that this is what Israel is funding and protecting, meaning it’s what Americans are supporting with their tax dollars. Had I not seen it for myself, I doubt I would have believed it.

*For more information about demographics and recent history in Palestine/Israel, check out this post by David Sanchez, complete with sources and statistics. We met David in Hebron, which for him is just one stop on a year-long voyage to fifteen countries important to his Peace-Conflict studies. He keeps an excellent blog that’s definitely worth a long look.

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.