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Making Music and Laughing Till the Tears Run

On Friday January 25 the Lebanese artist Marcel Khalife played before a packed hall in London. He played on a night that a bomb blast in Beirut killed six civilians. A night when Egyptian police unsuccessfully attempted to block up a hole which desperate Palestinians from Gaza had knocked into the Gaza-Egypt border. He played two days before Lebanese gunmen shot and killed seven Lebanese civilians. He played while Lebanese soldiers stopped, checked, humiliated and refused Palestinian refugees entry into their camp that has been chaotically and completely destroyed by the Lebanese army and Fatah el Islam fighters. He sung while 200 Palestinian refugees from Iraq huddled in freezing winter conditions in some god-forsaken strip of no-mans land between Syria and Iraq, and he sung a week before a twin suicide blast in Baghdad killed over 50 people.

And the audience listened. Palestinians embraced Lebanese, Iraqis embraced Palestinians, Lebanese embraced Iraqis and the three flags, symbols of the bloodiest regions in the world at the moment and witness to the most sever injustices, were placed on the stage floor side by side and the people of these countries stood up and sung with Marcel Khalife:

Pull together the will is strong
The boat is calling freedom

O fishermen, Haila, Haila
Pull together the will is strong.

It was hard to leave the hall dry-eyed seeing how the people of these war-torn countries had been miraculously united for a brief two hours by the power of Marcel Khalife’s music.

Ramzi Aburedwan, a Palestinian refugee living in the West Bank, also has that power. Sitting on a rooftop in the heat of a summer night in Ramallah 2006, I remember watching him as he played an improvised viola solo to a small, mostly foreign audience. He was suddenly interrupted by the explosions of Israeli gun-fire in the street below but he kept playing while the shooting and bombing grew loader beneath us. He refused to stop. Until a young man rushing across the rooftops whispered in his ears. Only then did Ramzi drop his viola and turn to the audience. ‘We will stop now’ he said. ‘A man has been shot outside and is bleeding to death. It seems the Israeli soldiers will not allow anyone to approach him.’

The audience of visiting French and German music elites stood crowded in the small courtyard of the music center. Visibly shaken and afraid. Those of us who lived in the city rushed outside. Were met with roving tanks and shooting. And at length the site where the young man bled to death.

‘This is the reality’ Ramzi was saying to the visitors. ‘This is how we live. But it doesn’t destroy the music in us.’ And I pictured his agonized playing above the bombs of the invading tanks.

The Israelis are killing the Palestinians and in the chaos of the region unbalanced by the Western backed Israeli war machine, the Lebanese are starting to kill the Lebanese again; in the hell that the US invasion of Iraq has created in Iraq the people there are killing each other as well while the Palestinians are continuing to be ground into the earth by just about every people of the world and yet Marcel Khalife sings:

We love life if we are able to find a way to it

Mohammad Shams came to sit with us and share argile one evening. It was biting cold but we had a fire which served multiple purposes: warmth, coals for the argile and light, as the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in the north of Lebanon is still without electricity.

Mohammad quietly told us how he had been sent back from the checkpoint at the entrance to Nahr el Bared three times that day. On being asked why, he gave that curious expression that one can not help but associate with the Palestinian people, an expression of bemusement at a situation that could only happen to a Palestinian.

‘The soldier told me he didn’t like my face.’ Mohammad said. He had gone back to the end of the line and after an hour had reached the same soldier who told Mohammad that he still didn’t like his face and he was turned back again. And again. Mohammad finally walked six kilometers around the perimeter of the camp to a second checkpoint and entered from there.

Mohammad Shams had watched his father bleed to death during the fighting in the camp last year. His father had been walking up the main street and a sniper had shot him. Mohammad had run to him but his father was dying. Mohammad’s brother had been caught in the center of a shell explosion a day later.

Mohammad had carried his brother to the small medical clinic that had remained open in the heart of the camp. The nurse in the clinic told me how he had seen Mohammad running into the room where wounded and dying were lying together.

‘The doctor had said to me in the morning that we could only treat the patients who looked likely to survive,’ the nurse said, ‘There was only the doctor and myself and we simply could not deal with the mortally wounded. We had no resources and no time. It was a terrible situation. But what could we do? I remember Mohammad coming in with his brother. He cried out to me. We are friends. We live on the same street. But the doctor told me that Mohammad’s brother was too far gone. I could tell anyway. Mohammad begged me to save his brother. He was shouting and pulling me and crying like a child. All I could do was hold him and let him cry.’

Mohammad used to be very excitable and full of stories. Now he sits quietly most of the time. He works in the day loading piping onto trucks for the rebuilding of the camp. But rarely talks. Only this night he told us how the soldier didn’t like the look of his face.

He gave me a CD to take with me when I left a week later. Boys from Nahr el Bared had got together some songs about their camp and had recorded them.

Early one morning we walked to the sea side of Nahr el Bared. Through a moon-scape of destruction before dawn. The broken buildings jutted into the early morning grayness of the sky. As we waited for the sun we saw in a broken little corner of the camp a small fire being coaxed into life. We approached to sit by the fire with the fisherman and his wife and three of their little ones. We sat there while the sky slowly lightened and the hideous twisted ruins of the camp became visible.

‘Do you fish still?’ I asked the fisherman. ‘I will’ he replied. ‘When I have made my net again.’ He pointed to a pile of fishing line slowly being sewn into a sea net. He told me how when he had returned to the camp after the fighting he had found his old net. It had a few holes in it he said but otherwise was good. The Lebanese soldiers had approached him and grabbed the net off him and had cut it to pieces in front of his eyes and had tossed the bits into the ruins around them.

‘It was worth around $1500.00.’ That curious look of bemusement and a shrugging of shoulders. The hot coffee and the smoke of the fire and silence for a while. The pile of un-sewn netting behind us and a ravaged camp around us. As we picked our way through the rubble on our way home I heard a peel of laughter. It seemed strangely out of place in the ghost like surroundings. But then there was another and suddenly it wasn’t at all out of place. Laughter ringing out of the rubble and then shiny little faces poking out of a hole in one of the blown up houses around us. Children playing in the ruins. As they always have. Playing and laughing and their peels of laughter were like the bird chorus on a bright spring morning in some virgin forest. Music to our ears. We laughed too and waved to them as they played hide and seek.

And there were the nights in Bedawwi Camp when we played the CD the boys had made and the kids all danced dabka to the music and taught me the steps and as we tripped over mattresses and blankets in the tiny crowded rooms that are the homes now of the displaced Nahr el Bared refugees, we laughed until the tears ran.

We love life if we are able to find a way to it

There will be more killing of course, more injustices and humiliation and mass punishment of innocent civilians. But there will also be the moments of unity. Small moments of laughter and shared music, greater moments when a whole sea of suffering people roll over the man-made boundaries that are supposed to imprison them and show the world what the world ought to have already seen; and small pockets of hope as when the union of the strife-filled Arab-states was achieved in a London hall on a cold winter night.

It is increasingly difficult to spread a view of the recipients of so much injustice in a light other than that of violence and killing. But it ought not to be the case. It is just that mostly we listen to tales of violence more than to the tales of civil non-violent resistance that exist in every one of these war-torn countries. And yet it is so often the case that these later tales are the ones that are most real and important to the people who live them.

The boat is calling freedom.
O fishermen, Haila, Haila
Pull together the will is strong.

ELIZA ERNSHIRE can be reached at eliza.ernshire@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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