Cameron and Kristina Sing on Streets and in Homes of Palestininan Refugee Camp on Southern edge of Damascus, Syria -- October, 2003
|Walking in the huge "Muhayim Filastini" -- Palestinian refugee camp -- south of Damascus, Syria, I was accompanied by my three strongest allies: my singer, my oud and my familiarity with the streets of the Arab world.
Kristina is my singer, my oud is my oud and my familiarity comes from a lifelong curiosity to be with every kind of person in every kind of way so that I can find out WHO WE ALL ARE!????
It was just a short time before a Palestinian man pointed toward my oud case and asked for a song.
Warning: don't carry an oud with you in the Arab world unless you are prepared to sing. You will tire yourself out from the effort of declining invitations.
I sat in a little plastic chair in front of a tiny grocery store and withdrew my oud from it's case. Kristina and I began to sing Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese songs as the crowd grew around us.
A group of grade-school age children in their blue school uniforms gathered around close. Their favorite of the styles I could offer turned out to be Lebanese line-dance music. We returned to sing "An Nadda" over and over again at their insistence.
One of the men who had initially invited us from in front of his store had assembled a plate of appetizers for us to snack on, but the singing would not stop. The children screamed for more and more until the crowd grew to such a size that unpredictable crushing waves of appreciative onlookers could have accidentally squashed me and my oud and my singer.
Eating the offered appetizers was not possible in this situation, so we accepted an invitation to climb the stairs across the street to enter a bare room wherein we met and drank tea with six brothers, one sister and their mother.
The 14-year-old sister was the only one in the family who spoke any English. But it didn't seem that her English was really any better than our Arabic. They were uproariously enthusiastic about the idea that Americans would show up on their streets singing Arabic music.
There are several of these Palestinian refugee camps surrounding Damascus: Kabr Essit, Jaramana, Khan Dannoun, Khan Ashieh, Sbeineh and Yarmouk are among them. They were created in 1948. Several hundred thousand Palestinians are living in these camps hoping for the day when they, or, as they explain hopefully, at least their children, can return to the towns from which they fled.
Returning to the streets, we made our way back toward the "old town" in the center of Damascus. Late that night I found myself playing another musician's oud and singing in the Umayid Palace Restaurant in the old traditional musical style with a Syrian audience appreciatively singing along as the qanun player and I discovered melodies familiar to both of us.
We stopped for two nights in Latakia on our way to Aleppo. The hotel owners' family of 25 or so people gathered on one of the balconies of the hotel where Kristina and I and one of the uncles took turns leading the singing. Later that night the women took Kristina back into their rooms and kept her laughing for two hours while they played with each other and the children.
I went with a few of the men to inspect ouds at a local workshop. The father had been making ouds there for the last 40 years and now the son is taking over the work.
The following night we went to watch the young men and women dance "dabke" at a large seaside restaurant. Every day we are amazed at the glimpses we get into this Arab world. I don't think I have ever seen young men have as much uproarious fun as these guys did doing these highly improvisational but also traditional line dances.
What can I say... you had to be there...
And sometimes you just can't bring yourself to drag out the camera and poke it into the situation...
Now we are in Aleppo... this is a place which has been continuously inhabited for at least 5000 years... some suggest 8000... It is the home of one of the most highly prized musical traditions in the Arab world: "qadoult arabiya."
Ramadan began today. We stayed in the room to catch up on much needed sleep. We had breakfast with everyone else immediately after the sun set... We entered a restaurant about half and hour before this time so that we would be certain to find a seat... We sat at a large group table with a Syrian couple...
An oud player and a singer appeared just before sunset. The singer sang the call to prayer for us in the restaurant and we began to break our day-long fast by eating dates...
One thing I have noticed about the Arab world is the respect the teenagers have for the elders. I'm reminded of Margret Mead's observations in "Coming of Age in Samoa". I've yet to see a teenager make an angry or critical remark about his or her parent. It probably happens occasionally but I've yet to witness it.
The other day in Lattakia, Syria I was "kidnapped" by two young girls, probably about 16 and 17 years old, and taken up to their apartment. The young sisters Rana and Hessin were eager to introduce me to their mother who obviously was loved dearly. Three aunts were there visiting along with several cousins of all ages and an uncle or two. The house was full of people all smiling and using whatever English they could come up with to communicate with me. They kept asking me to sing to them either the Lebanese "dabke" song "An Nada" or a Fairuz song "Atini Nay" or "Nassam Alaina." When a new person came in I would have to sing another line. They would all smile and giggle. They couldn't believe an American knew their music. Rana and Hessin and their mother would all say from time to time "I love you Kristina!" I felt so welcomed I honestly felt like crying, they were so sweet. At some point Hessin and I laid down on her bed with her English book and I helped her with her pronunciation. And she helped me with some Arabic words. She told me that she wished very much to learn English but that she did not have a good teacher. At this point I was fantasizing about staying here and making a living as an English teacher. I think if I were to stay I would have a network of hundreds of female friends within weeks. I can't help but notice the contrasts in our cultures. I think the Arab ways are usually misunderstood by Americans. The women travel in different circles than those of the men. The men are more on the streets. The women travel more between the houses, but they seem to have a lot of power. In Egypt, our Canadian friend Pat who has lived and worked in Cairo for six years claims the women are the ones who are in control. She tells us, for instance, that most women and their families insist that the husband-to-be buy and completely furnish an apartment before he can marry. A new bride almost always steps into a marriage with a new home, and a few thousand dollars worth of gold jewelery (which is hers to keep if the marriage fails).
Cameron Writes about the latest Musical Adventures:
A phone call to Julian led to the reference to Ibrahim... Julian, the resident local French/Swiss qanun (middle-eastern zither-like instrument) player, had been playing music all night with some Greeks so he went back to sleep after my call... "call me later and tell me what happened," he said...
Here is what happened: Ibrahim came to pick us up an hour later in his little covered Suzuki mini-truck and carried us, along with a friend of his, into the outskirts of Aleppo... somewhere... we sang improvisations... mawals... along the way to Ibrahim's oud factory.
Four young craftsmen were working together in the workshop, manufacturing the instruments. Several of Ibrahim's 6 children scooted about. The oldest is eleven, the youngest is 3 months: four boys and two girls. The second youngest boy climbed over us like a little monkey. Kristina couldn't believe how strong his wiry little arms had become. Ibrahim grinned at him, picked him up and treated him to an acrobatic flight up over and around his head and shoulders.
We tuned and played four different types of ouds and I was impressed that we had found a high-quality factory here in Syria. Ibrahim, who is a highly skilled oud player as well as maker, spent an hour trading melodies with me and showing me the fine points of microtonal note pitches deep in the land of maqamat (ancient Arabic musical modes and decorations)... He complimented me by telling me that my playing already sounded Arabic, which he conceded was very difficult, and added that if I were to spend only a week working with a local master teacher, I would put the details together on another level in my own playing. Regardless of where I may be in my progress as an oud player, I found myself hypnotized by his musical energy. I watched his face depart from the business at hand and become the pure expression of very ancient purely Arabic tradition. During these times he seemed to forget that my Arabic is only that of a two-year-old and spontaneously launched into in-depth explanations using the fine points of Arabic musical terminology. I nodded as if I understood, not wishing to interrupt his flow of words and music. Somewhere inside of me a whole new arena for learning was being created.
After an hour or two of oud playing, the moment of sunset was approaching. Ibrahim invited us upstairs to his home where his wife had been preparing the first meal of the day: to be eaten immediately after the sunset call-to-prayer. We took one oud with us upstairs. Ibrahim spoke English better than I spoke Arabic, but not by a whole lot. We would gently nudge meanings this way and that with a mixture of words from both languages. After we discussed the world situation briefly, Ibrahim laughed, picked the oud back up, and said: "...the only things you and I will ever be able to change in this world will be the music!"
The meal was served to us by the children. They were a smoothly functioning adjunct to the flow of work. They also took turns caring for the 3-month-old, who also seemed quite content. We never saw any of these children exhibiting anything but playfulness, love and caring for each other. We just can't help noticing the contrast with family life in America where children reach their limits of compassion for each other so quickly and seem always so eager to make their contributions to the family work-load as short as possible. This family seemed to have boundless mutual energy for generosity with each other. All I can do is tell what we see... That doesn't mean that conflicts don't arise... But we just didn't see them...
Kristina took her turn holding the baby and then was invited by the children to go and hang out with Ibrahim's wife. This mother of six had been preparing the meal, but the children did all the serving. Things here are obviously worked out according to some ancient formula that still works.
Ibrahim told me proudly that he had succeeded in purchasing a home for each of his children. He volunteered the prices of these homes: equivalent to $16,000 US dollars each. The boys flowed constantly around him, watching and listening and learning. They were never demanding or interfering in any way. The daughters flowed equally smoothly through his loving energy. They spent more time helping their mother... or so I am told by Kristina who was spending time in another room with the women and girls...
Could it be that these ancient social structures are based on responsible family behaviour with an expectation of guidance from the wisdom of the elders? Could it be that the children are integrated into this structure and perform useful functions within it from such early ages that their pride in their own contributions replaces the opportunities for rebellious behavior? The constant pushing to "test the limits of parental authority" which is so embedded in our American children's way of life seemed completely absent. Is that why the life on the streets even late at night is so safe here?
One of the young sons fell asleep in the middle of the floor. Freeform nap-taking apparently replaces any firm concept of "bedtime." People are out and about all day and all night. Several two-hour naps here can replace our eight-hour rest period, which we so cherish in the West.
Syrians are a little more introverted than Egyptians. They think perhaps twice instead of just once. We Americans seem to need to think ourselves into exhaustion. Maybe that's why we need more sleep. Perhaps that underlies our habit of experiencing constant stress. It's certainly not that you could ever find more horn-honking and tightly interwoven traffic patterns than we find here... Yet the workmen on their ladders still seem relaxed in their faith that the automobiles whizzing past only a foot away from their legs will always maintain the necessary magical cushion of safe space.
Much later the same evening we entered a restaurant back in the center of town (for lunch at midnight) and recognized the oud-player's instrument as a product of Ibrahim's craftsmanship.
Yusef, the oud player, soon deciphered our familiarity with Arabic music and began "talking to us" with his oud-playing and with his eyes... This is a deeply ancient Arabic way of communicating and Aleppo is the place where this is still happening. We laughed and smiled as the "messages" entered our souls. He switched from one musical mode to another... and then another... artfully... to make his musical points.
Soon we were invited to sing and play a song. One thing led to another. We met a rare breed: another American. We laughed about the silly misconceptions which lead Americans to always congratulate us upon returning "safely" from Syria or other places in the Arab world. He, like us, tries to explain to the Americans back home that it's much safer in Syria than in the States. He is an Arabic-music-loving gentleman who works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC. We also met Bachir, a co-owner of the restaurant in which we had just been playing and singing. He laughed with us about the idea that Westerners have about safety here. He said that even Europeans now are sometimes arriving filled with the American and British propoganda and inquire if it's safe for them to go out of their hotel rooms. He told us about real estate transactions commonly conducted on the streets where citizens are busy counting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash in public places with no fear of robbery. He gave us our midnight "lunch" for free in exchange for our music and our friendship.
He told us more about the incredible melting pot of Middle Eastern cultures here: Armenians, Greeks, Turkoman, Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Syrian Arabs, Jews (we met a couple of them), Palestinians... etc etc... But no McDonalds, Coca Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken or American automobile dealers...
It's kind of like living inside an exotic history book... but with modern sexy Lebanese music videos dancing lively on the TV sets... and women's clothing stores filled with risque outfits while a mix of conservatively dressed and more modernly dressed females walk the narrow labyrinthine ancient cobblestone streets...
Bachir took us down the stairs under the restaurant into a furnished cave with ventilation holes carved up through the ceiling... "We can guess that this cave has been inhabited for 5000 years now... we don't really know..." Archeological diggings are showing that Aleppo may actually have been continuously inhabited now for 8000 years...