Fiddlers From the Roofs

Since Osama and his friends started music lessons with Wafa Yunis in Ara, they no longer throw stones at soldiers in Jenin. And the IDF has opened checkpoints to ensure they get to class.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

Israelis from the center of the country leaving to spend a weekend up north see Wadi Ara as nothing more than the road that takes them from Hadera in the south to the edge of the Jezreel Valley in the northeast. The road is winding and many prefer to drive along it quickly, and if possible bypass it and take the road that goes via Zichron Yaakov and Yokne'am. But anyone who looks around while driving through the area can see there is life on either side of the highway; and anyone who musters up the courage to turn left at the first traffic light will enter the village from which the wadi takes its name: Ara.

A short drive up the narrow and pothole-filled access road brings visitors inside the town, across a small square and then past a giant electricity pylon, and then - if the car windows are open - you will start to hear some sounds - unusual and as yet unidentified. Another 50 meters and the picture becomes clear: these are the sounds of a violin. A left turn down a dead-end dirt path leads to the one-story building from where the sounds are emanating, already quite loudly now, and a peek through the usually open door reveals the origin of the sound: six boys playing musical instruments in a spacious room under the energetic baton and thundering, rolling voice of their teacher, the violinist Wafa Yunis.

Yunis' music center in Ara, her hometown, opened against all odds. Yunis has been a music teacher in local schools for over 30 years and ran a similar center under the auspices of the Culture Ministry and the local council. Those were better times, when even Jewish children would come from the surrounding communities, such as Katzir and Karkur, and Yunis set up an orchestra that played with the Hadera Youth Orchestra in the Meis al-Rim Gardens in the Wadi before an audience of 800 people. But the budgets dwindled, and Yunis had to deal with the red tape and foot-dragging of bureaucracy, and then the second intifada sealed the fate of her center.

Now, after taking early retirement from the Education Ministry, she decided to reopen her music school - this time as her own nonprofit organization with no government involvement. Friends helped, ads in Haaretz were given to her for free, and as a result contributions started to stream in: musical instruments including violins, an oud, organ, accordion and piano, furniture, a stereo system, television and a little bit of money. In the building she rented - "I still haven't started paying rent because I'm waiting for a budget from the Education Ministry. NIS 40,000 a year, that's the whole story," she says - the donated items stand, and atop each one is a little handwritten thank you note to the donor. "Now I'm waiting for a cello and a contrabass," she says.

A sweet boy

The first children to start studying at the center actually came from across the Green Line. "I met a sweet boy on the street in Jenin," says Yunis, "and asked him what his name is. 'Osama,' he said. He led me to a nearby pharmacy, where his father works and I asked the father for permission to include the boy in a book I wrote "For the Sake of the Children of Peace," in which there are interviews of children from cities and towns in the West Bank and Israel, from kibbutzim and refugee camps, and all of them talk about peace. The father and son agreed and that's what happened - and then afterward I came up with the idea of inviting him to take music lessons at the new center. Through him, I got to his friends and they are my first students."

How did you get into Jenin, isn't it prohibited?

Yunis: "True, the Israeli government bars its citizens from entering the territories and vice versa. In my eyes, it's a cultural crime. I wrote to the prime minister and voiced my objections to this. How will you make peace when you prevent meetings, distance the two peoples from each other, I asked him. I, as a musician, say to the government: Shame on you. This prohibition is unjust. That's why I must go there and say: Here I am, against your wishes.

"Whoever wants to make peace must cross the checkpoint and stand up against the government's decision regarding this separation. I hope musicians follow in my footsteps, both Israelis and Arabs. If every one of us in the profession were to contribute one small thing, everything would change. I feel I opened a new page. Every Friday, children arrive here from Jenin, just a half-hour drive from here. They cross with a permit via the checkpoint and learn to play the violin, and the day is not far off when Israeli children will go there. I bring in Palestinians and say: Please, let me introduce you. True, these children threw stones, but only inside Jenin and only at soldiers. There they will not stop fighting and will not despair; but here in Ara they don't throw stones."

Osama and friends, Baha, Sa'id, Abed and Seim, from the nearby village of Zubeida, and Ali from the Jenin refugee camp - all 14- and 15-year-olds - confirm this with a smile.

Did you throw stones at soldiers?

"Yes," they answer almost in a chorus.

Why, you don't like Israelis?

"What do you mean," answers Sa'id, the mischievous one of the group, "We like and we want peace. We just object to the soldiers."

And do you continue to throw stones now?

"After we started to study here, we don't throw stones at anyone anymore, not even at the soldiers," he says.

In the boys' hometown, Jenin, the rumor about the Israeli journalist who interviewed them in Ara spread, and outside Osama's home his friends gathered, excited, running through the streets of the city, violin cases in their hands. Only Ali was missing. An IDF army patrol had taken over an apartment across from his home in the refugee camp, it's impossible to call him and he is stuck at home.

In the entrance, the family members drink coffee together.

How are you taking this adventure with the violin?

"Excellent, we're pleased," answers Osama's uncle. We all go up to the roof of the house to play a little. "Here," says the uncle and points to the valley spreading north, "in front of you is Marj Ibn Amar. You call it the 'Jezreel Valley.'" The valley seems enticing from this new perspective, as does the sea, which is visible less than 30 kilometers away. The children play, time passes and Ali's absence begins to upset them. Osama volunteers to take us to him.

On the way to the refugee camp, Jenin's beauty is visible past its poverty - in the broad white squares that are neglected and in the beautiful Arab homes where destruction is apparent. On one of the approach roads to the camp an army jeep stands with its high-beam lights on and the engine idling; its soldiers, wearing full body protection and helmets, signal us to come closer, and inspect our documents with inscrutable faces. Not far away, on the slopes of the potholed road that leads to the camp, several children huddle as if they are discussing what to do about the jeep.

The smell of tear gas in the air indicates they will not sit with their arms crossed. Like Osama and his friends before they started taking violin lessons with Wafa, they are planning to renew their childish attack against the symbol of the occupation.

Ali's face lights up when he sees the unexpected delegation that has come to visit him, and immediately removes the violin from its case and plays over and over again the musical phrase he learned from Yunis. His mother is not pleased about his new path. "Now is the test season and I'm afraid the playing will interfere with his studies," she says worriedly. Since his father stopped working in Israel and fell ill, the family has needed financial assistance, and Ali's studies are an important investment for the future. However, she is appeased when the sounds of the violin are heard, and she smiles. Ali takes the case when he says goodbye to us, peeks out the courtyard gate and points to another jeep with lights on that is patrolling the village along the top of the road to the left and at the closed shutters of the second-floor apartment opposite them.

Forget the nightmare

It seems that while at the music center in Ara, the boys forget the nightmare of Jenin and play joyfully.

What would you like to do in Israel?

"Ride on the train," "Go to the beach," "Play computer games," "Visit a school," "See a soccer match," - these are the wishes of 14-year-old kids who have never experienced most of these things, and Yunis intends to realize every one of them for the boys. "Their permit is to visit anywhere in Israel, except Eilat, from morning until evening," she says, "and I've already arranged a meeting with a school in Hadera and I've renewed ties with the Youth Orchestra to have a joint session. But there is time, and first of all, they have to make progress in their playing."

The Israeli authorities went out of their way to facilitate matters for the Jenin children; even during a closure the head of the Civil Administration ordered that the usually closed Barta'a checkpoint be opened for them. "There are things that even override a closure," he said in a phone conversation. It is impossible to withstand Yunis and she never accepts no for an answer.

How do you do it?

"I use the charm of the strong Arab woman," she laughs.

And in the meantime, she says, "The children are progressing nicely. They are learning Umm Kulthum and Palestinian debkas and wedding dances. They have a strong desire for contact with the instrument, to produce the right sounds."

Of her motives she says: "My parents were born here before the establishment of the state, we are also Palestinians and it's my obligation to offer a hand. In this project, I see myself as protecting the Palestinian people and the children in particular. I have strength and I have a profession that knows no borders. Israel doesn't want the world to know about Palestinian culture."

During all the years of occupation, the government hasn't allowed the Palestinians to prove themselves in music, education and art. "And the situation in Israel is no better," she adds. "In addition to the discrimination, there is also weakness and apathy among the Arabs in Israel, and that infuriates me, and I'm infuriated by their deep slumber. The local council leaders receive budgets, so why aren't there any cultural centers?"

Perhaps the residents themselves don't want it.

"That's not right. Everybody wants it. And not just music; they want libraries, museums, galleries; and I still haven't heard of a single Arab council head who opened a cultural center since 1948. I have harsh criticism of the state, but also of my own society."

Yunis' lobbying isn't stopped by senior positions and she has even approached President Moshe Katsav. "I respect him. I met with him and we speak on the phone. When I call, they put me through to him right away."

She has a lot more to say but the kids are waiting for the rest of the lesson: she is missing instruments that are still lying in the basement of the Ara-Arara local council from the days when she operated a music center there and she hasn't managed to get them back. Nevertheless, she continues the lesson with what there is and the children are happy to carry on, albeit not at any price. "The theater in Jenin opened now and they will start offering music classes there too," she says, "and I suggested they continue studying with me there, but they refuse." Ali smiles, but with a serious look: "If I don't study here, I'll stop playing the violin," he says and the others nod in consent.