Teaching the Piano to Sing in Nablus

NABLUS - An improvised road block. An armored jeep to the right. An armed soldier making circles in the air with his finger. These were the first sights that greeted the conductor, pianist and world-renowned musicologist Joshua Rifkin on his sortie to the West Bank last Shabbat. The soldier's finger was pointing downward, and car after car that approached him turned around accordingly, heading back the way it had come. There was no entry to the small village on the outskirts of Nablus, through which all travelers must pass, on the only road leading from Jerusalem to the city's main checkpoint.

There is no way past the soldier, and no talking to him either, but we have to reach Nablus. Rifkin has been planning this visit for three months, so I motion to the soldier from a distance, from inside the car, asking that I be allowed to come closer, to speak to him.

"Yalla, get lost. I've had enough of your nonsense," he shouts at us, angrily gesturing at us in response.

What can we do? Others who have been turned and have gathered on the slope of the road in front of the road block in semi-despair, offer their advice. A taxi driver from the village offers to drive us around the village on a dirt road, for NIS 70. We go with him, zigzagging along a winding, hilly, bumpy road riddled with potholes, and suddenly the impromptu road block is behind us, and we are on the main road to the city.

We cross the main Hawara check point on foot, wending our way through the sea of yellow taxis waiting in vain for passengers.

"We have been nicknamed the yellow city, because of those cabs," says Rifkin's host, Sami Hammad, who meets us on the other side. Hammad is the founder and manager of the Nablus the Culture music school, our current destination.

Rifkin planned to play Bach concertos and ragtime tunes by Scott Joplin at his piano recital at Nablus the Culture. Hundreds of music lovers were supposed to be here, but due to the war in the Gaza Strip and the accompanying tragedies, the mood in the city kept people away.

"We cannot go on as usual, as if nothing is happening," wrote Hammad to Rifkin. "In solidarity with Gaza, and so that your visit will not be interpreted as support for Israel, I ask you to reconsider your visit to this region."

Rifkin's decision not to cancel his trip, however, did not affect his friendship with Hammad. "If you decide to come to Nablus in spite of everything, I will be happy to meet with you, so that we can chat," Hammad wrote the American conductor.

"Every time, I reconsider whether I should come to Israel," says Rifkin as we go through the check point, "but this time, despite the war, I could not cancel, because that would not be fair to the orchestra that invited me and which has been so generous to me, and paradoxically, this is the only way I can visit the West Bank. I wrote to Sami that I would do what I could in order for my visit not to be interpreted as supporting the Israeli government and its actions." (Rifkin conducted a concert of works by Mozart and Beethoven Tuesday night in Rehovot and looks forward to two concerts on Friday and Saturday at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.)

Nablus is more besieged than any other city in the West Bank and suffers terribly. "Before the Israeli occupation, we were the cultural and commercial capital of the West Bank. Now we are nothing," says Hammad, "so a few friends and I decided to do something. This is part of our opposition: Israel's goal is to destroy traditions and culture - essentially our identity. You can put a man in jail, but you cannot imprison his spirit, so we will nourish this spirit."

International support has also passed over Nablus, which is an overwhelmingly Muslim city. "I call them the holy trinity - Ramallah-Jerusalem-Bethlehem," jokes Hammad. "The guests who come to this region visit those [cities], and Nablus is left out in the cold. But how much history does Ramallah have? 100 years. We have 9,000!"

This picturesque city stretches out in the valley between Mt. Eival and Mt. Gerizim, its homes spread out on the valley floor and up the sides of the hills, all along busy streets and spacious city squares. Unemployment here is 70 percent, and poverty and despair abound. Hammad, an engineer and metal smith, is also jobless. The music school, which has been closed for two months due to lack of teachers, was his main comfort, but the dozens of piano, string and wind instrument students are no longer studying. Only the piano technician from Paris, whose job is funded out of Europe, teaches the city's youngsters how to repair and tune instruments.

In order to make the most of this important musician's visit, Hammad invites his best students to the meeting with Rifkin. Omar, 15, brings the sheet music for one of the virtuoso pieces in the school's repertoire: "Prelude, Choral et Fugue" for piano, by Cesar Franck. Rifkin is astounded.

"Even I can't play that," says Rifkin, half-apologetically.

The two work together, and the lesson progresses.

"The piano is not an instrument that sings by itself," says Rifkin. "You have to teach it, to pull the melodies and the themes out of it."

Nablus the Culture is housed in a 19th-century building that once served as the headquarters of a Germany army position, until the end of World War I. Visitors can still see some German inscriptions on the walls, and a few mementos remain from that period, such as two porcelain plates bearing the crest of the Second Reich.

"Where are the teachers?" asks Rifkin, and Hammad tells him about the joint project with Daniel Barenboim, who supports a musical education program in West Bank towns. The program's teachers came to Nablus but did not come regularly, and the children's study could not progress.

"Barenboim was hoping that our best students would go on to play in his East-West Diwan orchestra, but I objected," continues Hammad, "so our joint project ended."

Rifkin asks why, since the orchestra is a symbol of the potential for Israeli-Arab cooperation. "Because it was only an illusion of harmony," says Hammad, "and ignored the real problems - primarily our lack of freedom."

"But participation in the orchestra could have helped the children," presses Rifkin.

"True," responds Hammad, "but everything has its price, and the price for this was more than we could pay: the political price. In any case what is important is not excellence for a few but the broadest possible education for anyone who hungers for music in this city that has no theater, no performances, no movies, nothing. I will find another partner."

Darkness falls. We wander the narrow streets of the casbah, the Old City, the glory of Middle Eastern culture.

The merchants bellow end-of-the-day discounts and gather at the entrance of the mosque, which worshipers are exiting after evening prayers. Hammad points to the rubble that remains from Operation Defensive Shield, in 2002, and to the ruins of the bombed-out soap factory.

"Soap was invented in Nablus, and sent all over the world," says Hammad. "Like I told you, the war is against our culture and tradition."

On his way home, Rifkin is full of emotion. "How can we bring teachers? That gifted student, after all, needs instruction," he says with the resolve and despair of Nablus stealing into his voice.