16 September 2007

We Will Sing and We Will Dance

Girls! Music! Palestine!

"It is my right to study an honorable career,to choose my partner, to build our life. It is my right to work any job. We must protect women’s rights. The rights of the women and the rights of the children are hidden in the shadow of the law".

(From the lead song, “Ala Dal’ona,” on the CD, “Needle in the Groove.”

“It’s very important to be here, because where there is darkness it’s nice to make light.” – Fatima Khaldi, co-founder, Women for Life, northern Palestine.

In Salfit district in the northern West Bank, the women’s educational organization Women for Life with its girls’ spin-off, Flowers Against the Occupation, in 2005 conceived the idea of a girls’ summer music camp. Music camps for girls were unheard of in this rural, deeply-Muslim area where girls don’t usually learn musical instruments. Getting to concerts in Ramallah is made impossible by Israel’s curfews and sieges; its maze of checkpoints; its draconian internal closures (sealing off villages from each other) and external closures (sealing off the West Bank and Gaza from Israel.) Despite such obstacles Women for Life co-founder Fatima Khaldi, the girls from “Flowers” and Boston-based Hannah Mermelstein pushed on with the camp. (See The Boston Globe Magazine, 7-22-2007, “Counter Tourism,” an article about Mermelstein and fellow Bostonian Dunya Alwan’s “Birthright Unplugged” tours of the occupied West Bank for American Jews.) They produced “Needle in the Groove,” a sixteen-song CD whose lead, a traditional Palestinian folk tune rewritten by Khaldi as a women’s liberation song, is sung a cappella by two of her daughters, Shams and Mayisa. The rest of the pieces are freedom songs by American women folk-singers. The CD’s liner notes include photographs of quilt patches designed by the girls and the musicians. Proceeds from “Needle in the Groove” sales helped fund the camp. (For more detail about the CD and photographs of girls in “Flowers Against the Occupation,” see Needleinthegroove.org.) Mermelstein recruited five American women musician-activists to teach at the camp – DC-based Pat Humphries and Sandy O of the folk duo “Emma’s Revolution;” Andrea Prichett, a guitarist from Oakland, California, of the band “Rebecca Riots;” Sarah Allen Pella, a Seattle-based rock drummer of the band “supermodelumberjack,” and the Boston-based writer of this article, a pianist. They raised money for the trip and donated instruments to the summer camp and Women for Life. The camp’s pilot session took place this past August.

I know the girls will love the keyboard, a “Roland Oriental.” I’ve found it in a Ramallah music store owned by musician-teacher Omar who tells me he’s also “Palestine’s first stand-up comedian.” “It’s professional quality!” he assures me as I lose myself in its Arabic drum patches, organ and oud sounds. I phone Fatima Khaldi who’s in Ramallah on business, announce I’m buying the keyboard, and that Omar’s driver will take it north to Bidya, seat of “Women for Life.” Fatima arrives within the hour, wrapped in hijab and jilbaab – the long, straight Muslim cover-up coat most adult women wear in rural Palestine even in the sweltering August heat. She has a deeply-lined, warm, mobile face, and almost immediately we’re in conversation about her life (divorced, a social worker, raising five children by herself – heroic in rural Palestine), and the music camp. It will be a strike against the occupation, she says. "I know that one day Palestine will be free. You agree, don’t you?” Her eyes rivet mine. I hesitate a second and then: “Yes, it will be free.” Does she know about our Civil Rights movement? Martin Luther King? She nods. I begin singing “We Shall Overcome,” and she chimes in, eyes shining.

It used to take less than half an hour to drive from Ramallah to Bidya. Now, because of the checkpoints and other hazards of the occupation, it can take upwards of an hour. Omar’s driver hurtles up the narrow road at 60 miles an hour circumventing Huwara checkpoint, notorious for Israeli soldiers’ abuses. The West Bank in summer rises around us, its austere Mediterranean beauty reminiscent of parts of the former Yugoslavia. Twenty years ago and more, I used to drive the length and breadth of the region, feasting my eyes on these steep, stony hills lined with their unbroken traceries of dry-wall terracing and olive trees billowing green and silver in the breeze. Israel’s colonization of the area was well underway then (the region’s rich land and abundant aquifers made it coveted territory for the occupier) but you could still travel all around and view an unspoiled loveliness. No more. The names of settlements come up with dizzying regularity – Elon Moreh; Ariel; Tappuach; Revava. At one point as we drive north, a gigantic menorah rises like a fist in the middle of the road, announcing Israel’s messianic dominion.

The settlements sprawl throughout the district like so many California red-roofed suburbs, encircling all the Palestinian villages and towns. In the late 1960s the Allon Plan and World Zionist Organization’s Drobles Plan stipulated that Israeli settlements should ensnare and divide all Palestinian living centers from each other. To annex the settlements to itself Israel has slashed the region with its separation wall. The World Court declared the wall illegal in 2004 but Israel bludgeons on with construction to date, separating hundreds of thousands from their land. This is as true in Salfit as elsewhere; to Salfit’s north the wall has encircled all of Qalqilya, obliterating the economy of a city once famous for its peaceful commerce with its Israeli neighbors. A million olive trees, which formed a large part of Palestinian agricultural sustenance, have been destroyed since 1967 (many have been uprooted and resold in Israel.) Half a million have been destroyed since 2000, many for the wall. Gashed by the staggeringly ugly, 25-foot-high concrete barrier, criss-crossed by wide, Jewish-only highways that enable the settlers to access their colonies without having to come in contact with Arabs, pockmarked with hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints, the region’s ecology has been devastated, its beauty defaced, and the agricultural sustenance that used to be the backbone of its economy crushed.

It takes us 45 minutes to reach Bidya, a hot, dusty little place, its main drag flanked by homely shops. The back of the building housing Women for Life’s offices gives onto a lot reminiscent of poorer sections of Bedford Stuyvesant in New York City -- two small battered-looking grocery stores flank the building. Centuries-old traditional Palestinian architecture was low, made of regional stone. It had lovely features among which, gothic-arched living quarters. You can still see it in Jerusalem’s Old City, in East and West Jerusalem, but it has all but vanished from most of the West Bank. Because Israel has confiscated so much Palestinian land, new Palestinian construction is often vertical, adding third, fourth and even fifth floors to already-existing structures. The effect is ugly and out of harmony with the surrounding landscape. Exhausted with the heat, we cart keyboard, amplifier, keyboard stand and mike to Women for Life’s suite of offices on the fifth story. Fatima’s 17-year-old daughter Mayisa, one of the two a cappella singers on “Needle in the Groove,” bounds up to me. "So,” she says in perfect English, grinning, “you are going to teach us?"

Piling out of group taxis, thirty 12-to-18-year-old campers arrive daily at a local boys’ school in the early morning sunlight, dressed in full cover, seemingly oblivious to the August heat wave that muffles the region. The school’s students have cleared out. The camp’s social code is simple: girls and women can’t perform in front of boys and men so the camp is gender-exclusive. The dress code is honored by girls and women alike. We teachers wear long-sleeved shirts when we’re in public. In the school everyone sheds cover-up. The girls emerge in T shirts, Indian over-blouses, jeans and trousers, running shoes and sandals, and an occasional pair of stiletto heels. Some wear baseball caps turned backwards. They overflow with energy, intelligence and wit, and they’re hungry for everything we show them. When their exuberance gets really high we “ride on two wheels,” as one of us puts it, trying to teach while still giving the girls room for fun. My own students punctuate our class sessions by crowding around the Roland “Oriental,” playing it from all sides, hands collapsing from correct “piano position” into stabbing forefingers and waving wrists as they simultaneously program and play the keyboard. Omar has given us a lousy power cord that keeps falling out of the back, so several girls take charge of reconnecting it and getting us back into drum-and-organ mode. They’re like endless popcorn: their energy keeps bursting from nine till three while their teachers wind up every day wet with sweat and aching with fatigue.

Please read the rest of this heart-warming story of hope and perseverance here. And if you're interested in doing something meaningful to support these young people, you can buy their CD here.

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