In 2006-2007 I grew up. Before that year, I had finished my Masters in Instrumental Conducting after a Bachelors in Violin, and had just finished a 6 month self-organised opera project Maria de Buenos Aires. I needed a job. I reviewed the website musicalchairs.info daily and finally stumbled upon something that I was ecstatic to apply for and do: conducting two orchestras, 1 choir, and teaching violin and flute all in 1 place - the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. I didn't look at the flag, and applied. When I got the job, I realised that I would be moving to Pa. les tine. I was 25 years old. That was the year that I grew up and lost my stupid American naiveté.
In these series of blog posts I'll be sharing the email updates that I sent to my friends, family, and colleagues at the time.
Here is my update #2 Sent November 11, 2006
from Ram)ll-h, Pa. le.s. t i... n.
Contrary to what many people think about how hot and warm the Middle East is .. it gets very very cold here! I read some article describing Benjamin’s Ceremony of Carols, and how the words were describing the freezing winter night of Christ’s birth . and how this reflected rather a freezing England night rather than the “balmy Bethlehem comfortable night.” Balmy???!! Have some winter jackets and thermal underwear handy for a visit here!
Ah . . Ram)ll-h. So let’s start with the general situation: today there was a recognition of Arafat’s one year anniversary of his death, and so there was many youths (many from the refugee camps surrounding R) parading on the streets wearing black and white checkered attire and proudly waving the Pal... flag. There was a huge picture of Arafat hanging from the statue in the middle of Manara square (the picture that I sent out last time), a large amount of inconvenient traffic due to the fact that the main streets through town were closed, and general patriotic rallying and demonstrations. Life as usual in R. You see, that is the thing . . daily life here is a demonstration. There is always some kind of holiday to be aware of, to celebrate, to honor the dead, to mourn the loss of life due to political conflict, weddings, . . you name it, almost every day has significance in this land. On top of that, the community is actually very small, and so unification is not only possible, but mandatory. People cannot afford to disgrace, act against, or fight their society. Yes, there are factions (H and F),. . . but they come together to form one single entity which they are struggling to uphold and to proudly do so . . Pa l..e.s.ti..ne.
The small size of the community also means (for me) that nobody is really expendable. . every person is important. In the west we have the bad habit, perhaps a spoiled luxury, of being able to rely on competition . .”ok, if you can’t do this, then don’t worry, we’ll let you go and find somebody better to do this job”. For music, at least, I really do not have this luxury here. Every single student I have, whether it be the oldest member of my choir to the youngest beginning violin student, is important. They are the only prized means of expression not only for me as a conductor, but also for their own purely Palestinian community. If they cannot meet the challenge, there really is nobody else to take their place. . and so instead of giving up, we MUST find a way to overcome the hurdles!. It is really a challenge for me and for them to bring them all to a unified level at which we can present something of worthy of pride and respect . . and yet I think the outcome will be fantastic for all (including the audience) for the main reason that the energy that they put into this is willing and positive energy rather than reluctance or irritation or frustration.
As one example, I have a man in my choir who came in not reading a single note of music, and not being able at all do distinguish one note from another. Not only that, but because he was struggling to sing different notes, he acquired the bad habit of jutting his chin out to get them and therefore really tensed up his neck muscles. Tonight, after 1 ½ hours of work with him, he sang an entire major scale, all the intervals, and then by the end sung the first page of the Mozart Credo mov’t that we are doing which included octave jumps, diminished triads, and half steps. I never thought that changing a note to the correct pitch could give me such relief!!!! In the States .. I doubt if I would have ever considered working with such meager musical ability . . and yet, it is only a situation such as this one where you find that ANYTHING is possible. “Maria de Buenos Aires”, a project that I did earlier this year, proved this to me .. but Pal.. is really solidifying this to be not only an idea, but a fact.
If you remember in my last email, I said a few things about the taxi drivers here and I think I’ll continue this subject. There is a whole honking language in Palestine. Between the Arab buses, which are small (about 20 people), very convenient, and helpful (I pretty much know and recognise all the drivers by now from Jerusalem to Ra..) there is the “hello” “HEY!! How are you!” “Get out of the way” “there are problems ahead” “MOVE!!!!!!!” honks. The taxis are really bad, . . . constantly giving reminder honks, “hey, you, you need a ride?” The worst is the unemployed and testosterone overflowing youths in their cars who find nothing more interesting to do than to piss off foreign girls walking on the street (me) by honking obscenely at them and saying some kind of lewd comment. And so you get this whole slew of honks . . each one meaning something in a variety of situations to the point where a dictionary of honking could be useful to the foreign visiter!
About driving. There are no real laws of driving in P. Which in my opinion, makes people much better and smarter drivers. They are all completely unwilling to deal with slow, stupid, careful drivers, and mostly, with traffic jams. The result is that traffic usually doesn’t exist, and if it does, there is such a horrific chorus of honking and yelling that the jam breaks up at least 10 times faster than I have seen anywhere in the States and in Europe.
So, Ramadan is now over. At night, the city has returned to normal. . not too many people about, and the restaurants are open during the day and the bars at night. Speaking of which, in Manara square an enterprising young man, former employee of the infamous Starbucks in New York, opened his own version . . Star n Bucks. The sign looks the same, the inside as well. . (he also has a degree in Graphic Design. . comes in handy!) but the menu is much expanded, the music better, and it doubles as a bar at night. Absolutely hilarious to see such a blatant copy . . again, only in P!!
About politics I would rather not speak. “The situation” as people talk about, is always difficult, and it seems to be coming to another height of tensions with the recent events in Gaza. But we must not forget that people are people everywhere in the world. Governments are not made of machines, but of living human beings with emotions, needs and souls. Once governments can deal with each other with human sympathy as well as the mechanical efficiency that goes along with management of their respective societies. . perhaps some kind of easing of tension will occur. In any case, I still live with real people who care for each other, breath good air and eat good food and try to encourage musical creation with people who are motivated to do so. “Heek iddinya” ---- Arabic for “such is life”
3rd Update Nov 2006
So much keeps happening . . I wish I could write updates everyday!
The most recent news is that I am in Istanbul for a couple of days in order to renew my visa. I have never been to Turkey before, and of course I had a totally different conception of what it might be. This place is really beautiful (especially after living where I have been since Sept . .) and although the people are desperately pushy for tourist money to the point of real annoyance, atmosphere is a relief. It seems like Turkey as a whole is making a truly valiant and remarkable effort (at least, what I see in Istanbul) to impress the world (and the EU) with the beauty and worth of it's culture, land, and people. I'm staying very near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.
The trip here was just awful. Every foreigner leaving Israel is subjected to massive amounts of unnecessary, stressful, and useless interrogation. All the luggage is emptied, picked apart, and examined. You are instructed to strip down to the minimum clothes so that they can check in detail for any metal or bombs on your person. The questioning is really the worst, because Israel really doesn't like ANY foreigner who comes to work, especially in Palestine. They will interrogate you endlessly to find any holes in your story. Stress central. What I really hate is that fact that I'm being attended to by at least 5 or 6 people (on top of this, at 4am) who are being paid well ... to do something unnerving and irrational, all under the bill of American tax-payers. YES!!!! I am paying for my OWN interrogation. This whole experience is really awful sometimes ... but on the other hand, I have a very good passport . . can you imagine just what it must be like for somebody with a Palestinian ID, or really any other disadvantaged country?
In any case, it is ridiculous that it is taking the court system there so long to grant work permits for the Conservatory teachers (already YEARS into the process, apparently). Music is not terrorism.
About more general things. In the US we have this system of food preparation that negates any realisation that the meat that we are eating is actually from an animal. Either you buy a nice clean package in the supermarket, or you buy a hamburger where a brown undefinable patty (really . . who knows how much soy meal they put in those) is hidden by rosy tomatoes and wilted lettuce and melted kraft singles . . if you are brave, you can even venture to buy a fresh whole trout. . . but usually the typical American family opts for canned tuna which is nicely transformed into a mix of mayo, pickles, and bread to hide it.
On the other hand, in Palestine, when you go to a meat shop, there is generally three or four carcasses (goat, sheep . maybe cow) hanging in the shop window. Sometimes they have a hook with organs as well. Disconcerting at first. It's become normal to me now. PS I’m vegetarian.
That's the meat situation .. . now vegetables are another. Fantastic. Real. They taste like something. Eggplant with garlic and little cherry tomatoes, squash, peppers . . . hmmmmmm.
The people change with the seasons in Palestine. Not them themselves, but their attitude and way of life. In the winter things are much less aggressive. The streets are quieter now that it is colder and it gets darker sooner. People drink "qahwe" together in the streets (coffee,. . a VERY important drink here) from plastic cups from the little vendors, plus they eat steaming broadbeans and corn in the evening after prayer from roving vendors.
My students are shaping up slowly. The beginning orchestra is now starting to play something that is recognisably Tchaikovsky, which they will perform in a few weeks, and the choir is singing better every time that we meet. That one bass I talked about still doesn't sing on pitch most of the time, but now we have an agreement that when he is really off and I hear it, I catch his eye and make a very small motion for him to cut out for a bit. In April the Choir of London will be coming to Palestine to do a series of Mozart concerts including the Magic Flute and the Requiem. I will be preparing the choir to perform with them in the Requiem, and this should really be a huge motivation for the choir members themselves. . to sing along side a European ensemble is really a big deal for them as I have gathered.
Their inspiration for this opportunity makes me realise how damn LUCKY we are as western musicians in the US and Europe to have the opportunity to perform and rehearse together so easily and so often.
Hugs and greetings from the wonderful dove-filled skies of Istanbul.