Some sounds

Things I’ve recorded over the past month or so, for your perusal.



Walking into the grotto, amongst Russian pilgrims, at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.



From the Beirut hippodrome, after horse number 3–which I incidentally put 2 dollars on–won by a nose. Controversy insued.



From the corniche in Beirut.



A man from the neighborhood where my school is located was released from an Israeli prison the other day- a matriarch-looking member of the family sang a welcome, through tears, before collapsing.



Last week’s student concert.



Yours truly, more than halfway there.


A while back, when still living in Montreal, I decided I needed to start writing songs. The question, “…and do you write your own music?” which people often posed to me, when discussing my musical pursuits, had been grating on me for some time, and it seemed like the right moment to start, at the risk of never starting at all. Upon arriving in Palestine this Fall, I placed it high among the year’s goals to create a performable set’s worth of music, at the very least for showing myself that I was capable of it, and potentially for the sake of actually performing it for audiences, say, on a tour through North America maybe, on a motorcycle, perhaps. Anyway, five months into my sojourn here–and a rough three years since my decision to start writing songs–the process is coming along: I’ve written a handful since arriving, and already have enough to fill a bar-room set, if circumstances required it.

Yes, but what does it mean to be writing songs in Palestine? This place, with it’s abundant fodder for thought and emotion, could be a major source for artistic inspiration. Or put another way, this place, with it’s overbearing political and social problems, might instill an obligation to write about the current situation. You know what I mean: if you’re in a militarily-occupied land, surrounded by a pressing environment of injustice, structural violence, actual violence, sky-high unemployment, etc., it feels insane to get upset about the weather, or to get wrapped up in your Russian novel, or to pine for your lover back home, or to write navel-gazy songs. Get real, right? One feels that the music I write should at least have some politcal implications, draw some inspiration from my peculiar surroundings.

But I guess that’s not the way things are. From the very outset of this project of coming here, I intended to eschew this tendency of getting totally wrapped up in the situation, to lose track of all else beside Israel and Palestine. I’m not saying I want a superficial relationship with my environment, and be impervious to the ugly–and beautiful–realities that surround me. I’m not talking about not thinking about problems, about maintaining ignorance. I’m talking about a measured relationship to my environment. The other day, for instance, I was with some Israelis in Tel Aviv, in a kitchen, and the conversation could never stray for more than five minutes or so from politics–there are so so many scandalous/inspiring/maddening/intriguing poltical things to talk about on any given day. That kind of shit drives me crazy.

So I’m resistant to this feeling of moral obligation to politics that comes with being here; and as of yet, I haven’t managed to distill inspiring or provocative things about life here into anything solid, aesthetically.

So what do I write songs about? It’s much more about the weirdness of being far away from home, and nostalgia, than about anything particular concerning the place where I live. And it should be said that whether or not I even know how to write a song about something is up for dispute. So though I would tend to eschew a navel-gazy attitude while in a meaningful, thought-provoking environment–just as I would avoid an unhealthy, obsessive attitude–the songs I’m writing look inward much more than they look outward.

Fortunately, my job provides ample opportunities for songwriting. On any given day, at least one student is often absent, leaving me frequently in a situation where it’s just me and the piano. (Stares at piano, looks around empty room, says to piano, “Well, there ain’t much else for us to do,” gets to work.) The other day, it was a bone-chilling 7°C (45° F) or so, and raining, and this consituted a rock-solid excuse for everyone to stay at home and cower. Only one of my six students showed up (the daughter of the woman who runs the school), so my afternoon was spent at the piano, wrangling with song lyrics. So even when I don’t plan to write, I write, so songs are getting written, which is great.

Enough musing and ranting, here is a song for you, recorded in Jenin. I hope you enjoy it.


What’s in a name? I’ve thought, on occasion, that the sweetest rose is the one with no name at all: no frame for one’s appreciation, no lens for one’s perception. Just it, and you. But, alas, as long as we need to talk to one another about this or that thing, we will need names. Take the land I’m living in: sweet as a jasmine flower, bitter as a raw olive, but what do you call it? The West Bank? Palestine? The Palestinian territory (or is it territories)? Judea and Samaria? This is the kind of thing I silently agonize about. More problematic than this is what you call that place over the green line. Israel? Not palatable for many. ’48? Too ambiguous. Inside? Too spy-novel. Most of the time I just end up saying something along the lines of “On the other side of the, you know, the…” before intentionally trailing off. At least, for the question of what to call the whole area–many would, according to their allegiance, simply call it Israel or Palestine–an elegant solution, via a three-piece-suited British foreign correspondent I chatted with recently at midnight outside the American Colony Hotel: “So, what have you been up to,” he asked, after awkwardly lighting the cigarette he had given me (a ritual the body language of which is totally unfamiliar to me), “in Israel and Palestine?” Israel and Palestine. Works for me.

The nuances, ambiguities, richnesses and intentions of names is more than just a personal point of bemusement. The struggle for power in Israel and Palestine is being fought on this front, just as it has been in many places and many times before. And it plays out in interesting ways, for the spectator. Take the disputed capital: ירושלים (Yerushalayim) to the Israelis, القدس (Al-Quds) to the Arabs. But on all official signage, sandwiched between the Hebrew and English, the name in Arabic is given as اورشليم – القدس (Urshalayim – Al-Quds). No one–no one–actually calls it اورشليم (Urshalayim). It’s an Arabic name bestowed on the city by the Israeli authorities. This kind of absurdity is something Montrealers know about. Mountain Street downtown, for instance, named for a bishop called something-or-other Mountain, was renamed rue de la Montagne, a laughable mistranslation. But the thing is that it worked: only those whose parents called it “Mountain” call it “Mountain”. To everyone else, the story, whatever history there is behind it, the feeling of calling it “Mountain Street”–a nice feeling, incidentally–is simply gone. Other Montreal street names, like Dorchester and Craig, were totally erased and replaced.

But back to Israel and Palestine! (Tangential daydreams about Montreal are something I’m accustomed to, at this point). Some would probably prefer that the signs for Jerusalem bear only Urshalayim in Arabic, or, better yet, no Arabic at all. And this is where the picture, and vandalism, come in. It’s one of the first things I noticed when I arrived here: this puzzling graffitti, blotting out names on road signs. You see it everywhere. Who does it? What does it mean? It takes time to figure this kind of stuff out, but I’m starting to get there, three months in. I would say that roughly 40 percent of the official road signs in the West Bank–if that’s what you choose to call it–are vandalized, with names either spray-painted into oblivion, or stickered over, or what-have-you.

Why? Because there’s so much in a name. Names are stories, they are repositories for collective memory, they are something to share with our ancestors, our various communities, and our unborn descendants. Places–like people–need names, just as they need stories, and we all know that whoever controls the story of the past has a firm upper hand in the present. Just think of Orwell, or your high school American history textbook. So with this peculiar variety of vandalism, people take the struggle over names–and the collective power that they bear–into their own hands. Fascinating and nefarious, no? (Incidentally, as you can see, the vast majority of the graffitti blots out the Arabic. Such is the tide of history.)

As for me, with such a barrage of names I could be conveniently placed in a position to forget it all, to learn no names, and just smell the rose as it is. But, in the end, I guess that’s not really what I want. And in any case, this land is anything but a blank slate.

Sorry for the poor quality of the photos- they were taken from a speeding vehicle.


Each Tuesday, a contingent from Al-Kamandjati in Ramallah goes up to Al-Kamandjati’s Jenin center to teach. The photos above were taken, and the musings above carried out, on the ride up there. Here’s a short video I took at the school in Jenin- It starts at the window of the room where I teach, and ends at the window of the large hall. Note the Chopin overlapping with the Qur’anic chant.


(Scroll down for something to listen to while you read.)

I was walking home the other day, and I must have had a particularly clear mind or something, because I had the most uncanny feeling, upon arriving outside my house, of stumbling abruptly into a scene from a movie: my landlord, the esteemed Abu Jaafar, was standing in the narrow driveway with a couple of young kids, flagging in a tractor with a flat-bed trailer attached (some work was being done that week to seal the roof of the house to prevent water leaking into the house during the rainy season). Within a moment of my arrival and set-up as a semi-interested bystander-spectator (there were several of us), a chorus of “Khalas! Khalas!” (“Enough! Stop!”) was raised by Abu Jaafar and the kids, the trailer headed straight into an exposed water pipe. But the driver didn’t hear, and upon the collision, a fierce jet of water went shooting into the air and the street.

Water. It’s a big deal in Palestine, where for five months out of the year not a single drop of it comes out of the sky. Political wrangling, military maneuvers, social and economic strife: water is at the root of a lot of issues here. And despite the phenomenon of the Ramallah bubble–impervious to the general existential problems of Palestine–I nonetheless find my relationship to water has shifted since arriving. I just find myself thinking about it. The black solar water-heaters on the roof are supremely impractical, so my showers here have been cold showers: Water. The big tank above the house overflows unpredictably, sending streams on to the roof and down the stairwell: Water. A minor health condition which I need not get into has me washing my feet–mystical, no?–in the morning and before bed: Water. Although I used to make an effort to conserve when showering and flushing the toilet in Canada, here it takes on a new moral–and financial–imperative: Water. And when, during my first week in this apartment, I was doing laundry, and thinking I had the damned washing machine figured out, I lay down in the living room to listen to some music, and soon after removed my headphones to the unnatural sound of a babbling stream, finding the hallway inundated with water, it felt downright mythological. Or Freudian…

“Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? […]Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of the story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

I’ve been reading Moby-Dick since a few days before I arrived here. Water, water, water.

So, not all that surprising that when I began meeting with a Palestinian language partner (we meet several times a week to speak Arabic and English in turn), I should find that she works for a water-rights organization. It’s called Life Source, and advocates for Palestinians’ right to water access in the face of a situation where Israel–having such a big army and all–controls most of the water. Last week I tagged along with her down to Susya, in the southern West Bank, a village facing the most dire water-related preoccupations, in contrast to my fanciful, contemplative water-related reveries. The residents of Susya were removed from their homes in the 1980s, after the area in which they lived was declared an archaeological site. Now an Israeli settlement of the same name stands on their old land, and they live in tents and caves on a hill nearby. They are hounded by settlers and the IDF, which recently demolished several of their makeshift homes, as well as two cisterns, one dating from the Roman period. Zayneb–my language partner–took me down there, equipped with my camera and audio recorder, to do some documentation of the cisterns’ destruction. It felt like the wild west: hot, dry, and rawly prone to violence; and it felt like the furthest from water I’ve been since arriving here. Melville would have considered it a sorry, barren place indeed. (You can look at some photos below, although I was unfortunately too shy to photograph the people we interviewed or the interiors of their tents.)

Well. Now it’s mid-October and the rainy season is upon us, bringing with it, no doubt, a whole host of new watery thoughts and rituals. If what I’ve heard about the rain’s gifts is true, I’m eager to see the landscape transform from beige back to green.

A song I’m working on, about water–I’m far too shy for now to post my music with lyrics and all, so the melody is whistled.

In Palestine

(Scroll down for something to listen to while you read…)

So, maybe a few opening remarks on what will hopefully, with a little luck and diligence, be a year’s chronicle of my stay in this place. I’m not sure yet what the character of this thing will be- perhaps we’ll discover it together.

What to say, primarily? Given the gravity of the political environment here, there is an abiding pressure to talk about the situation: about politics, about problems, about big things. It could seem trifling to merely discuss the events and preoccupations of my life here–this or that food, this or that humorous or embarrassing interaction, this or that minute encounter with the military occupation, or, say, the view from my roof at sunset, the barking of dogs in the night, the ubiquitous sight and scent of jasmine petals–in the face of political events and preoccupations, not to mention occupations.

I’m not keen, however, to add my voice to the cacophony of chronicling and commentary that abounds on the subject of Israel and Palestine, and don’t intend to build a soapbox. I’ve met plenty of intense people since arriving here, those that are roped up and caught up in the situation, those who came here to embrace and/or appropriate the struggle. But you and I know that I’m not one of them.

So: if you want, you can check in here from time to time to see what I’m doing, and what I’m thinking about, and hopefully no one will be too offended this way or that.

For now I won’t say too much. I arrived here a month ago, to teach piano at Al-Kamandjati, a music school located in the old city of Ramallah. Lessons started about a week ago, when perhaps the most surprising thing to happen to me since my arrival took place. Facing my first student, and posing a simple question to him, a certain lurking suspicion which I had been harboring was confirmed: the kids don’t understand English. So I’m teaching in Arabic. Go figure.

I live in an apartment with a fellow teacher from Al-Kamandjati, with a large roof and a sweeping view overlooking the neighborhood of Al-Tireh and many hills off in the distance. Sunsets are particularly magical.

And all is well. All eyes are on Palestine this week, with the government hoping to reach recognized statehood this Friday, just as Israel did back in May of 1948. On the BBC they said 80% of Palestinians support the measure, although in the month since I arrived, I haven’t met a single Palestinian with a positive feeling about it. Like so many things pertaining to Israel and Palestine, I’m not totally sure what I think–I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for smooth sailing.

Sounds from the alley behind the Al-Kamandjati center in Jenin, around nightfall. Sorry for the low levels.