First Violin / Ninety Tali Fahimas

A visit to the Edward Said Conservatory camp in Bir Zeit makes one think how much both Israeli and Palestinian children would benefit if they could spend their summers together, making music.

A visit to the Edward Said Conservatory camp in Bir Zeit makes one think how much both Israeli and Palestinian children would benefit if they could spend their summers together, making music. During the summer, hundreds of Israeli children and teenagers take their musical instruments, say goodbye to their parents and leave home for a variety of music camps scattered around the country. In places like Zikhron Yaakov, Kibbutz Eilon and Givat Haviva, they study in master classes, practice in ensembles that range from chamber music groups to symphonic orchestras, sing in choirs and write music, classical, rock or jazz. For years now, institutions like the Jerusalem Music Center, Matan and Keshet Eilon, Musical Youth in Israel and the Tel Hai Piano Workshops have used the summer break from school to bring together students and teachers for both professional and social encounters.

Palestinian children and teenagers from throughout the West Bank also follow a similar path - not as many of them as in Israel and not with such a large selection of events, but with the same sort of musical-social framework. A visit to one of these summer camps last week, in the village of Bir Zeit, on Ramallah's outskirts, brought into focus the similarities and differences between these initiatives. After an intensive day of music in the company of dozens of children, and a moment before the final concert in a parking lot rigged up as concert hall, it was possible to dream, vainly, for the moment, of how the children from both sides, as well as their music, could benefit from cooperation between them.

Driving to Bir Zeit along back roads, and making the necessary detours to avoid the jammed roadblocks in the Qalandiyah area between Jerusalem and Ramallah, one almost tumbles from the height of the winding road between the arid hillsides into a lush wadi that is entirely green, which separates the village from the ridge that rises to the east of it. The descent is steep, the signposts direct drivers to the innumerable Jewish settlements that hunker there out of sight, visible only from the glittering, well-fenced roads that lead to them, which can be seen from the old main road. And here we are, climbing up from the wadi and reaching Bir Zeit.

Walking through the town's streets, which are shaded by large trees, one can imagine just how pretty it must have been at the beginning of the 1990s, before the Oslo agreement and the roadblocks and encirclements that came in its wake. As if living in a kind of Cambridge of the Middle East, thousands of students from throughout the West Bank and Gaza filled the now-silent streets, on their way to the university that was located here, to the cafes or to study in their rented apartments. But today, the way to Bir Zeit has been blocked, and the students have had to find alternatives at universities in other towns. Bir Zeit University has also moved to new quarters in Ramallah, which has only further decreased the numbers of its students. The summer music camp at the old dormitory quad, which stood abandoned for a long time and has only lately been energetically refurbished, is therefore a somewhat consoling injection of encouragement for Bir Zeit.

Three camps have actually been held here during the past three weeks, all of them sponsored by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Palestine. At the first, participants studied Arab music, under the instruction of one of the most important Palestinians now active in the musical world, Simon Shahin; the second camp was split between jazz studies with teachers who came from Sweden and intensive rehearsals by the Young Palestinian Orchestra, which next month will be joined by instrumentalists from the Palestinian diaspora for another summer camp in Germany; and the third camp, which just finished up, brought together children from isolated and impoverished places, such as the Askar Refugee Camp near Hebron and the village of Duma south of Hebron, as well as from Jericho and villages in the vicinity of Ramallah and Bethlehem. These children, most of whom had never left their villages or refugee camps, and some of whom had never seen a musical instrument before they were approached by the conservatory teachers, gathered here to practice playing string instruments, to experience playing in an orchestra and to sing in a choir.

The campus buzzed with children and music. Every time a door opened in the three-story building, it revealed a different group: in one room, the entire string orchestra; next door, a group playing darbuka hand drums; in the room to the right oud players, and to the left the choir; and in the spacious garden very small girls could be found practicing the oud. A team of teachers, most of them Palestinian, conducted it all intensively, and the children worked hard, too.

A number of schools made difficulties for their girls because of the camp's mixed dormitories, but neither their parents nor their teachers gave in, so that in the end they all came. And in the evening: the concert. Between 7:00 and 9:30 each of the participants played an instrument or sang, and the excitement was great.

On the way back, it was hard not to muse about the chilling efficacy of the separation system Israel has built, denying the freedom of movement not only to the Palestinians but also to its own citizens - in this case, its musicians.

Israeli instrumentalists or teachers will not come here to listen to what their colleagues are performing, to exchange views with them, to hear their students singing or to play music together with them. After all, a web of fears predicts bad things for any Israeli who dares to visit a Palestinian town or refugee camp; and anyone who insists nonetheless on coming will encounter fences and walls, barriers and generals' orders, all of which are meant to prevent him from doing so. If after all that, one disobeys what is an immoral law, and ends up entering the West Bank, one risks enduring a fate like that met by Tali Fahima: persecution, arrest, violent condemnation.

Thus it happened that even the 90 enlightened musicians who have just published a statement against the occupation noted that "peace is made only with enemies." Enemies? What enemies? All of these courageous people should, like 90 Tali Fahimas, enter as one man to visit their musical colleagues, and learn who their real enemies are: those who deny the encounters and freedom. Perhaps in this way they will topple the walls and bring peace closer.