East Jerusalem is a highly contested area. According to Palestinians and international law, it is under occupation by Israel, while Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its undivided capital. Both sides will attempt to claim it under a final (hopeful) peace deal.
I arrived in the region in the aftermath of the Gaza war otherwise known as “operation protective edge”. I was in fact scheduled to go in August but decided to do the Berlin leg of my trip first to avoid the imminent danger of the war and also in the understanding that it may not be the best time to come together to make music while a war raged on. I arrived in Israel in late October. What I found was a region still very much suffering from the tremors of the war.
During the time of my stay, there were three terrorist attacks in Jerusalem as well as a lot of Israeli reprisals, arrests and clamp downs. Two of the terrorist attacks involved hit and run incidents where a Palestinian driver drove his car into a bus stop full of people. The third incident involved two men going into a synagogue with axes and guns and murdering several people during prayers. Other than the obvious tension on the streets of Jerusalem and the riots, there was a massive police and army presence and especially in and around the neighbourhood where I was scheduled to do this song making experience.
Many people had warned me not to go to Beit Hanina because it was too dangerous, indeed some of the recent attackers actually came from Beit Hanina, a suburb ofEeast Jerusalem. But despite the warnings I decided to go. Many of the “terror” warnings are overrated and plus, I was a foreigner not an Israeli.
I had first come into contact with Amal Bac, the principal of The Promise School through my cousin from Jerusalem who had done some work there. I had heard that Amal liked to bring new activities to the children so I decided to get in contact. I wanted to create a song with Palestinian young people – to understand their story and give a voice to their song. I was invited by Amal Bac to come and visit The Promise School.
My fears about travelling to Beit Hanina were allayed when I entered the school. I immediately felt an amazing heartfelt energy emanating from the walls. The smiles on the students faces, the embrace and welcome of the vice principal in her office, the cool energy of the young teachers walking around. This was really like any other school! Except no, this was not like any other school, it was exceptional – something truly special here… I could feel it.
When I met Amal I understood why. Here was a living Palestinian Buddha if such a thing exists.. Her outlook, her demeanour, her philosophy. Amal started the school herself and it is one of only 3 or 4 schools in Palestinian Territory that teaches the israeli syllabus as opposed to the traditional Jordanian one. The reason for this according to Amal is that she wants the students to be have the option to attend western universities including Israeli universities. When I asked her if this was seen as politically questionable her reply was basically that she understood it was but that “we are in education, we want to give them education. We want to make it so that they can fulfill dreams in their life. This problem is not going to go away, so why not let us do what we know how to do… give education”. She just wanted the best for her students despite the politics and war. “At the end of the day we want to live and the Israeli people want to live. I dont know why the goal is to make Jerusalem on fire. Live.. We can talk together, we can dance, we can work together, we can eat… Why the money we take for the settlements and the weapons why not take it and put it on human beings!… At the end we all belong to humanity”. This was her attitude. I want to elect her as the next president of the Middle East.
After a morning coffee and a catch up with Amal, we proceeded to meet the young people we would be working with to create the song.
These were a group of 15 and 16 year olds from grade 10. A really lovely group of young people who made me feel totally welcome. They helped setup the room and the PA and then we started warming up by with dancing around the room, following the leader to the sounds of Barbatuques amazing Brazililan music. We then warmed up our voices with some call and response singing with electronic beats in the background. Once all warmed up we moved to storytelling.
I asked the young people what they loved about living in Jerusalem and also what was difficult and finally what they hoped for.
The thing that struck me was the general sentiment of wanting to just live in peace and freedom but also the more extreme views of some of the kids who called for revenge and intifada against “Jews”. While these types of views were confronting, their statements were said with such adolescent naivety and ease that at times I hardly noticed them as controversial, though at other times I do admit feeling a little dizzy and out of my depth.
On the other hand, several of the young had a more friendly moderate view of Israelis.. Amazingly they were able to look beyond the conflict and occupation to see a shared humanity. It seemed to me that these were the kids who had had relations with Israelis in the past, beyond simply encountering them as soldiers being stopped for 2 hours at a time at checkpoints each day going and coming back from school from places like Ramallah.
The other thing that struck me was the intense religiosity of the more dominant voices in the group. Despite being a secular co-ed school, it seemed the default view was that God would bring justice and a better life. You can hear this in the chorus “they have weapons but w have God. God will help us make a better life. One day Palestine will be free! Hora!”. When I think about it, many other political struggles around the world including the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the States, faith in God was a feature of many Freedom songs. No difference here.
Some strong sounds were made interpreting the themes of Love and Difficulty. One group made the sound of “difficulty” crying out “waaaah” and the sound of “hope” with an ascending “ahhhh!”. The sound of ” Love” was made by a group of girls who heartily sang the melody “this is love this is love”. As a rhythmic basis to the song, we hear a traditional Arab rhythm pattern played on their tables. After these sounds were made, the group laid down their verses and their chorus.
And then I went into the editing room/have just come out of the Brazilian jungle to put these sounds together. After working with the human sounds the group made, I felt like the song needed an extra help to really capture the emotion of the young people. In the vein of a lot of hip hop music, I decided to ask Amal for some Palestinian songs that the young people were currently listening to in order to sample some of these and use these samples in the track. I ended up choosing Hussein el Deek Gheirik’s track Ma Bekhtar (listen to the full song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDkU8NzYWPQ ) and brought in some of these samples.
The songs title “make a better life” is taken from the last line of the chorus – a simple but deeply human message.
Take a listen and let me know what you think in the comments below. It may also be worth listening to the song that was made the next day by Jerusalem students of the same age but this time on the Israeli side of the fence.
Lastly I want to acknowledge Samantha Freeze who helped capture the day on film, was always there for moral support and even at times as a co facilitator. Thanks Sam!
Peace in the Middle East