Tag Archives: volunteer

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.

10698665_10152742285108223_8270738690055692115_n
(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?!

20140923_180353 20140923_180359

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.  
10699924_10204646846149963_2613211348013093910_o10659078_10204646840189814_4224279366634011702_o10679580_10204646921431845_666695385637962186_o

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.

10631320_10204579838114804_2779969843552871246_o 10483160_10204579843434937_5422371263082845548_o

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.

10504871_10204626977653263_7727470489183025623_o

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. 

10603893_10204579817114279_3976812573595221690_o

 

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

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 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.