Khaled Jubran, a composer and oud player who lives in Jerusalem, returned from a concert in Cairo last week, where he performed before a sold-out audience at the old conservatory, built in the 1920s. Next month, Jubran will perform in the emirates of Bahrain and Oman - in the Arabian Desert, across from the palace of the sultan of Oman, who is in the habit of listening to concerts, unseen, from one of the palace spires. ("A thousand and one nights," Jubran laughs).
Tomorrow, at a benefit concert in London for the Palestinians, he will mark an important milestone in his career: Playing a joint recital with the celebrated classical guitarist John Williams, perhaps the greatest in his field today.
Jubran's current recitals are built around his composition "Mazameer" (Psalms), which he is also recording for a disk together with a gifted 18-year-old student of his. He composed the work for a variety of combinations, solo and ensemble, of two Arabic musical instruments, the oud and the buzuq, both from the same family of stringed instruments. "Arabic musical expression has always been vocal; we do not think along solo instrumental lines," he says, "and now I want to give center stage to the instruments, to redeem them from the auxiliary roles they have always played in support of the singing stars."
His compositions break new ground. "I compose specifically for these instruments, for their special tuning, for their unique ability." Indeed, "Mazameer" displays the hypnotic quality of Arabic and non-Arabic music rolled into one; his music utilizes the modal system of classical Arabic music, known as maqam, including the quarter-tone intervals found only in this music, and at the same time reflects modern thought, free of Arabic forms and scales to the point of atonality.
`Discounts for soldiers'
Jubran was born in the Galilee village of Rama and got his start from his father, a musician and instrument maker. He studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; he subsequently joined its faculty. Jubran left two years later and began teaching at a conservatory in Ramallah. He now has his own music institute on the outskirts of Ramallah. "I teach in Palestine; the institute is a registered nonprofit supported by foundations - that's how it is with culture in the Third World - and I live frugally," he says. He has appeared at the Mozart Hall of the Hugo Wolf Academie in Stuttgart, Germany, the Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah and on other stages around the world, but has avoided performing in Israel.
How is it that a musician like you, an Israeli ...
Jubran: "No, not Israeli. A person with an Israeli passport."
Nevertheless, how is it that you, who appears in places like Stuttgart and Cairo and Bahrain, does not appear here, in Israel, in the Mann Auditorium [in Tel Aviv], for example?
"I could not play as long as there is a closure in the territories and my people are oppressed. This people called the Palestinian people, from whom I get the sounds for my music, from their cities and villages, from the streets of Ramallah and Dahiat al-Barid, with the scents and the human landscape that are unique to them - how could I sell that to Tel Avivans?"
Okay, then not in Tel Aviv. In Nazareth. Or in the village in the Galilee where you were born.
"I'm not interested in Nazareth either. Or in Rama. Because the fate of the society into which I was born has been decreed. It is wilting, about to wither. The Arabs are becoming a quasi-touristic minority that makes hummus; an Indian reservation that offers `rustic hospitality,' `Druze pita' and `discounts for soldiers.' Our society is so crushed, so disintegrated from within. They fight over who is liked the most by the Jews.
"As far as I'm concerned, I don't mind if they don't know who I am here. Let the Sultan of Oman know who I am. Let they audience at the Sakakini auditorium in Ramallah know who I am. In an old Arab house with colorful floor tiles and a hall with 80 seats - that's the audience that I like; before I perform for it I tremble with fear, and when it applauds it is real and when it cries it is real."
Jubran does not take advantage of the nightlife in Israeli cities, does not eat in restaurants here or do his shopping at the local supermarket. "Outside the home, my only connection here is with the barber where I have my hair cut," he says. "The rest is formal: I pay property tax and I have an Israeli passport that I don't even want."
So why don't you just throw it away, and be done with it?
Jubran: "Because I'm an exploiter, okay? And because it's a little more convenient than a Palestinian passport, even though it causes me to be unwanted in places where I am dying to play - like Damascus, or Tehran."
At least it gets you freely into Europe.
"What's the value of that if they give me such a hard time at the airport here? There's a line of people entering the country, and they tell you with extreme courtesy to stand off to the side. I've already become expert in the principles of airport security. I want them to stick a white sticker on my suitcases, not a red sticker. And I want them to not open up the suitcase because of something suspicious like a mug that I bought in East Jerusalem, and for them not to ruin the musical instruments with those machines, with the air pressure, which they use to check Arabs: Your suitcase goes in, they determine what sort of inspection it needs on the basis of whatever level of security they decided is needed, and boom! It flies out. That's why I now prefer the five-hour trip to Amman, and then to fly from there. So don't tell me that the blue passport helps. In the end, this is the embodiment of my attitude toward Israel, this is my entire Torah on one foot - the discrimination at the airport.
"I have a lot of anger at the Israelis. What I've seen in the past four years is disappointing, makes me contemptuous. You are suffering, too. You have this settler mentality, even in Rishon Letzion. You close yourselves off behind checkpoints and fences and army and Shin Bet. It turns out that Israeli society is not interested in accepting an other, or of listening to me. For you, I'm still the terrorist who speaks a language that remains unrecognized.
"And me, I've fallen in love with Hebrew. It is the language of all the classic translations that I've read and it is the language of my harmony teacher, Naftali Wagner, who for me is a demigod, and of Menachem Zur, my composition teacher. But when I am stopped at a checkpoint in this language, even my Hebrew breaks down."
Fear of Western ruthlessness
In an interview three years ago, Jubran expressed his opposition to collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian musicians, in the territories or in Israel. He said that the collaborations were meant solely to assuage the consciences of Israeli intellectuals, that the programs flourished because of large budgets, and that they reflected a cultural colonialism. Jubran's statements were met with sharp responses from Jewish and Arab musicians who work together. They said that the collaborations enriched both sides, musically and politically.
Recently there has been a collaborative effort between young instrumentalists from Nablus and a girls' choir from the Jezreel Valley. Don't you think that something good could come out of this?
Jubran: "Musically, most certainly not."
But this way, children from both sides get to know one another.
"Ignorance about the other side is your problem, you need to solve it, and I won't help you do so. And musically speaking, presenting `sucking up' to the other side as a common cultural fabric simply leads to ludicrous results. The very term `Jewish-Arab ensemble' sends us back to Mapai of 1950s, to the whole attitude of `sectors.' I hope that in an independent Palestinian state, we won't resort to creating a Jewish-Arab ensemble. It's pathetic."
So you're a purist, opposed to any mixing between East and West?
"Of course not. Without a Western musical education, without the textures of Schoenberg and Debussy and the music of Bach and Mozart and Orlandus Lassus, I don't think I could have composed my works or approached Arabic music the way I have. Arab musicians have always been influenced by the West - the question is how, and whether the same, superficial, worn-out inventions and expressions are still used. I am on the weak side of the divide, for fear of the ruthlessness of the West. I am saying that before you come and force collaboration on us, give us a chance to get to know ourselves. The Third World is hungry, and it is dangerous to cram it all into us, all at once."
That being the case, what will you play with John Williams?
"It seems that the program will consist of his recital in the first part of the performance, and mine in the second half. But we have been corresponding quite a bit now, before the concert, and in one letter he asked me if I knew of a piece that we could play together, as an encore, as a show of solidarity - even though we would be taking the risk of crossing stylistic lines, something that he is as opposed to as much as I am. So I suggested a light piece by the composer Anouar Braham, something that is a little Spanish and a little Gypsy - nice, light, noncommittal music. When a musician of this caliber proposes something, you can't refuse, right?"
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