Girls! Music! 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 “”) 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.

“It is my right to study an honorable career,to choose my partner, to build our life.  It is my right to work any jobWe must protect women’s rights.The rights of the womenand the rights of the childrenare 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.

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.

Apart from the duo “Emma’s Revolution,” none of us has ever taught together. We cobble a simple curriculum days before the camp begins and during the evenings it’s in session. None of the teachers speaks Arabic; translators must be present in each of our classes – two sessions each for song-writing, drums, keyboard and guitar. College students and several campers fluent in English are paid for this work and serve as co-teachers. In my classes several translators rotate, including 16-year-old Sabreen who, when she removes her hijab, reveals two long, thick chestnut braids flipped frontward over her shoulders, a beautiful contrast to her dark-brown eyes and brows that arch like birds’ wings. She has a rare combination of confidence and sweetness. At every turn she helps with little classroom tasks: when I want to illustrate song form and 4/4 time on the blackboard, she rushes to erase it clean. When I look tired, she runs to get a chair. She is one of eight sisters most whom speak perfect English they say they’ve learned by watching TV. Her older sister, Silvia, slender, dark and gentle, is a university student in Nablus just north of Bidya. At first she says she’s at the camp only for a day or two before she has to return for exams. She extends her stay two extra days; her large, kohl-rimmed hazel eyes sometimes brim with tears when she talks about having to leave us.

We’ve decided to introduce the girls to freedom songs written by their teachers; in turn the girls bring songs in Arabic. Especially popular is the Lebanese singer, Fairouz. Of the cross-over Fatima says, “We can make a mixed music. Our girls used to dress traditionally but now they have pants, trousers…” By the third day the girls have learned the line, “I want freedom!” in Sarah’s tune that goes to the rock melody, “I Want Candy.” From an “Emma’s Revolution” song, “Refugee,” about refugee women, we’ve had someone translate into Arabic the recurring line, “Hear my voice!” “Isma sohti!” the girls cry energetically whenever the line comes up. The musician-husband of a translator in one of my classes has given her sheet music for two Fairouz songs. The students and I choose a good organ sound and catchy Arabic drum patch, and we work up a medley that begins with an enthusiastic two-measure count-in on the open vowel, “AH!” “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah!/ AH, AH, AHH! AHHH!” shout the girls, smiling and clapping.

Like music students anywhere, the girls learn at different rates. Slender Wu’sal, sixteen, dark, shy, within a few minutes has sequential fingering in both hands on syncopated rhythms, as does Mayisa of the “Needle in the Groove” lead song. “Teach me everything you know, Ellen!” She sits leaning towards me over the keyboard, her narrow face cradled in her hands. “Come to Palestine and teach me! Don’t say you can’t! You must!” Iftikar, fourteen, small, dark and plain, hangs back bashfully until I give her extra time, making the girls give her space. I do this daily and she rewards me with shy, grateful smiles. I’M LOVE IFTIKAR, she writes one day in my notebook as we sit in the large group singing our freedom songs at the end of the day. “I love Iftikar,” I say, as she embraces me and nestles against me.

At the other extreme from Iftikar are the divas. These include Fatima’s three daughters. 19-year-old Shams, the oldest, is a tall, assertive young woman with a tough, boyish look and the voice of a young Nina Simone. She’s just won a music scholarship to the Edward Said Conservatory in Ramallah. Wherever she goes she’s in command, and for the final performance teaches all 30 girls the women’s liberation lead song from “Needle in the Groove.” Shams’ younger sister, 12-year-old Bara’a, is described good-humoredly by her mother as the “real leader” in the family. While we were still in the States we got a photo of her by e-mail: Bara’a wears a baseball cap turned backwards; gaiety, mischief and exuberance leap out from the computer screen. In person she’s small for her age, with a pointed face lit by huge dark eyes and, more often than not, an impish grin. The omnipresent backwards baseball cap mashes down her tousle of dark curls. Just before camp started, as the family was crossing a checkpoint, Bara’a stuck her tongue out at one of the soldiers who retaliated by detaining them all for thirty minutes. In camp she’s the popular center of any group she’s in; throughout the final performance she holds the mike for all the poetry-readers and singers when she’s not performing herself. Then there’s sixteen-year-old Wafa’a, fair and grey-eyed, silent at first, who discloses nearly-perfect English the third day of camp. I make her one of my translators and show her how to count off a group keyboard tune the girls and I have improvised. During the keyboard section of the final performance she’s the “band leader.” In a separate part of the program she also sings, sitting on the edge of a table in high-fashion cover-up — an olive-trimmed hijab and olive-colored jilbaab – one leg crossed languidly over the other, a Palestinian Edith Piaf.

During camp hours everyone seems to forget the occupation. The unemployment of fathers, the long hours worked by mothers who must now shoulder the family’s economic burdens; the omnipresent checkpoints; the friends and relatives in prison; other friends and relatives killed, are kept at bay by the pleasures of music. But bad news trickles in. South of us in Hebron settlers burn two Palestinian homes to the ground, preventing fire trucks from arriving. Closer to home we learn that delicate Sylvia, who went to Nablus for her exams, was made to stand in the August heat for several hours, a “human shield” in front of a soldier’s jeep. At dinner one evening with Silvia and her seven sisters, their mother says that before 2000 the family was very rich (the family’s better days still show in their attractive home with its burgeoning garden and flagstone walkway.) The father had a cement factory in the town: in 2000 Israel closed it down. Now he works in Israel a few days every month while his wife works in a sewing factory in their village six days a week, ten hours a day. She cares for the entire family including her invalid mother-in-law. Bone-tired all the time, she says she must work this hard because she wants all her children to go to college.

And then there are Asia, 16, and her 10-year-old sister, Mayisa who live in the village, Mas’ha. Round-faced, quiet and reserved, Asia is taking keyboard and guitar. Unlike the other girls she never takes off her hijab or her long coat. Each sister contributed a quilt patch to the “Needles” CD. Asia’s shows a red and yellow sun, red and green flowers, and butterflies: “Flowers make nature beautiful and I wish my country will always be beautiful.”  Mayisa’s patch features a sophisticated Matisse-like pattern of hands superimposed one on the other: “Because unity is strength,” reads her comment.

By the time the two sisters designed these quilting patches their home had become, in the words of one journalist, “a one-family Bantustan.” Mas’ha used to be the region’s most prosperous agricultural village. Its rich land and the abundant aquifer underneath made it a prize for Israel which staked its claim by building the settlement Elqana, confiscating much of Mas’ha’s land. Still more of the village land was confiscated to make way for the separation wall. In the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot (15 July, 2004), the late Tanya Reinhart wrote that the disposition of the wall deep within Palestinian land rather than on Israel’s 1949 border shows Israel’s real intent: ethnic cleansing, not security. “The current barrier cuts off 400,000 Palestinians from their source of livelihood and imprisons them in isolated enclaves,” wrote Reinhart. “With no means of subsistence, they will be forced to leave those enclaves over the next few years to seek employment at the peripheries of West Bank cities and towns. In this way, sections of the West Bank that border on Israel will be ‘cleansed’ of Palestinians.”

This is clearly the situation confronting Hani and Munira Amer and their children. Their home, the last house in the village, has the singular misfortune of directly abutting Elqana. Israel’s “demographic” problem – what to do with the Arabs? – condenses here into one small family. The solution: a Rube Goldberg-like prison surrounding the Amer house on all sides. The 25-foot-high concrete wall flanks the house on the side closest to Mas’ha, then leaves off abruptly only to be extended by a steel fence into which a locked gate has been built. The rest of the paltry land surrounding the house is circumscribed by steel fencing. Thus the Amer house is cut off from the rest of its village but contiguous with Elqana. (Israel briefly proposed putting the wall on the side of the house abutting the settlement, but the settlers complained that the wall was too unsightly.)

There is only one key to the locked gate on the Mas’ha side of the Amer house. When the children’s parents are out, the children can’t get in, nor can they when Munira is inside and can’t hear them calling. Thus they have sometimes had to sleep outside while waiting to be let in. The settlers are a source of persecution. Bullying by their children is constant trauma for the Amer children (settler-children stoned Asia one day while she was returning from camp.) In 2004, at 1:30 in the morning, adult settlers smashed the family’s water tank, solar panels and windows with rocks.

Asia trudges up the road ahead of us towards the gate, her guitar strapped to her back over her jilbaab. This is an Israeli army “security road,” which ends in a mammoth, yellow, steel-jawed barrier just beyond the Amer house: this bars the old road to Tel Aviv. (As throughout the West Bank there are Jewish-only highways to Israel for the settlers.) This is what Munira Amer sees as she walks towards the gate to open it for us. In the home’s tiny living room are a few small glories: a pappagallo bird rests in its cage. A philodendron hangs against a window set high against the front door above which ornaments decorate a little well. Munira leaves the front door open; beyond it all one can see is the wall’s obdurate concrete. A pretty landscape-mural, painted by girls from Flowers, gives some visual relief. The Amers’ real landscape – olive trees, fruit trees and flowers — is gone. Israel burned everything to the ground including the family’s greenhouse.

Asia’s voice is very soft, almost inaudible; she cradles her guitar as she speaks. “It is like living in a prison. We’re always in the house. Maisa and I play and watch TV all the time.” Munira adds that the family cannot visit friends in Mas’ha anymore, nor do visitors come to them. On rare occasions when they have tried to visit, Israeli soldiers have forced them to turn back. Will the family stay here? “We want to stay, of course,” murmurs Asia. “They want us to leave. They don’t want us to stay. Insh’allah [please Allah] the wall will go and we will live as we lived before.” What does she hope for herself and Palestine?  “First that the wall goes. Then the occupation. Then I finish university.” Munira says her daughter was “pushing and pushing” to go to camp; it’s the best Asia has ever attended. A rare smile of contentment crosses the mother’s troubled face as she listens to her daughter. Earlier this week we visited Fatima’s house and I’m reminded of what she told us: “No one in this area supports music. Especially for girls. So this will be our way of struggling against the occupation. Next year I want eighty girls! I promise myself, we will sing and we will dance.”

ELLEN CANTAROW has written about the occupied West Bank and Israel for U.S. publications since 1979. She is also a Boston-based pianist, singer and teacher. She can be reached at




Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.