Music, resistance, and the turning tide

Pamela Olson
7 September 2005

This Saturday I visited the village of Badhan north of Nablus. (The 'dh' is pronounced like the 'th' in 'this'.) It's built next to a large mountain dotted with rocky outcroppings and pine trees and a steep ravine, and it's bursting with springs. One of the springs has been tapped by a mountainside restaurant and channeled into about fifteen waterfalls and pools. I sat on the fourth floor between two waterfalls and enjoyed lunch and black tea with sage and lemongrass, my view framed by the ravine, the green treetops spread below me, and the grapevines overhead.

Later I hiked down into the ravine, bushwhacking a bit until I stumbled on another little restaurant that had its tables and chairs set up in the river so that you could sit with your feet (and your nargila) in the water while you enjoyed your meal and coffee. Fig and orange and olive trees surrounded us, grapevines trailed overhead, and the proprietor and I chatted for an hour or so before I went on my way. He refused to charge me for the drinks and nargila.

Another guy showed me down deeper into the ravine, where we startled some slender white cranes and sampled cold, clear water from another spring. Later as I walked back up toward village level, I caught the view of the river's valley winding its way toward the Jordan River far in the distance, lined all the way with crops, groves, and homes spreading like velvet toward Jordan.

* * *

A couple of friends and I were watching footage of Hurricane Katrina's devastation the other night, and a Palestinian guy who's a paramedic said, "We [Palestine Medical Relief] should go to them. Really, I think they need help."

You know you're in a bad situation when a Palestinian feels bad both for what has happened to you and because no one is helping so many of the victims.

Of course, many of the National Guardsmen who could have helped the situation were in Iraq, much of the Guardsmen's emergency equipment (including non-armored amphibious vehicles) was in Iraq, and the money that should have fixed the levee this summer was cut from the Army Corps of Engineers budget -- and sent to Iraq. And FEMA is being run by a Bush crony who's previous job experience was running a horse club, a job he did so incompetently and corruptly he was forced to resign.

Storms and other disasters like this are going to keep coming as the world keeps warming up. This is likely just a preview of what's to come if we keep slashing and drilling and burning and handing everything to the government's pet developers like there's no tomorrow.

Especially if we keep showing such contempt for our poor, our humanitarian government agencies, and our civilian infrastructure. And if we keep acting like international jerks and making the whole world mad at us. Duct tape just won't hold all that together.

Maybe it's a kind of wake-up call to show Americans exactly how heartless, nepotistic, and corrupt their government is and how bankrupt and dangerous the current model of world development is, especially on the extreme right. 'Extreme' isn't even the word for it. They're like a comedy routine, a satire on extremism. It would be hilarious if it weren't true.

From an article about the national debate about what the government is FOR that must take place in the aftermath of the conservative agenda being fully exposed in all its horrifying callousness:

"The progressive-liberal values are America's values, and we need to go back to them. The heart of progressive-liberal values is simple: empathy (caring about and for people) and responsibility (acting responsibly on that empathy). These values translate into a simple principle: Use the common wealth for the common good to better all our lives. In short, promoting the common good is the central role of government.

"The right-wing conservatives now in power have the opposite values and principles. Their main value is Rely on individual discipline and initiative. The central principle: Government has no useful role. The only common good is the sum of individual goods. It's the difference between 'We're all in this together' and 'You're on your own, buddy.' It's the difference between 'Every citizen is entitled to protection' and 'You're only entitled to what you can afford.' It's the difference between connection and separation. It is this difference in moral and political philosophy that lies behind the tragedy of Katrina."

See the comic on my homepage for an illustration of Bush's ideological vision of disaster relief.

If and when the Mad Max days come for us, and we can't get all the rich white folks into the Titanic's inadequate supply of life boats, the poor will outnumber us and will be better at surviving on little, better adapted to extreme situations, and probably better-armed than we are. Personally, I think we should be nicer to them.

* * *

On August 21, the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, led by superstar Argentino-Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim and co-founded by the late Palestinian luminary Dr. Edward Said, played at Ramallah's Cultural Palace.

That in itself would be noteworthy, but what made it historic was that about half the musicians in the orchestra were Israeli. The rest came from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Andalusia, and they played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony like I've never seen.

The concert was broadcast live all over the world on Arte. The crowd was beyond-overflow, and Arte enjoyed its highest ratings ever during the broadcast. The music was breathtaking, and the concert was played under the banner "Freedom for Palestine."

Intermission speeches were given by Dr. Barghouthi and a senior guy from the Palestinian Authority. Barenboim also toured and denounced the illegal Apartheid Wall with Dr. Barghouthi earlier in the day.

I quote from a review in This Week in Palestine:

"Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, horn, clarinet and bassoon and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 were played to a packed concert hall with an audience that couldn't have been more representative of the Palestinian people. There were at least four ministers from the Palestinian National Authority, security offices in uniform, men and women casually dressed, others in proper attire, ladies with jewellery and gowns ready for a soiree dansante and others with the traditional headdress. There were children, foreigners, disabled persons, nuns -- you name it! Palestine was there that night."

The Israeli press practically ignored the whole thing, and very few Israelis heard that a Jewish conductor leading a largely Israeli orchestra was invited to Ramallah last month, and they all had the time of their lives.

The Israeli musicians' reactions documented in this article are beautifully typical. At first they said, No way, I can't go to the West Bank, they'll kill me. And later they laughed and said they'd never have forgiven themselves if they hadn't come and seen this lovely place for themselves.

"This is the realization of a dream. I feel as if I am becoming more and more leftist," says [Israeli musician] Yishai Lantner, "because now I understand that there is life here. They never show that on television."

Truth is a one-way valve. At least we have that going for us.

* * *

The weekend of August 11 was kicked off with a hip-hop concert, the last stop on a tour called Son of a Refugee, at the Ramallah Cultural Palace. The state-of-the-art Japanese-government-sponsored theater only holds about 700, and whenever there's a major event (which is rarer than it should be due to the imprisoning and isolating effects of the Walls and checkpoints), it's usually sold out within approximately 42 nanoseconds. People here are starving for culture.

The only way I got in was because a group of friends and I ran into the band at Sangria's back garden earlier in the week, and one of the girls flirted with the promoter and scored us free tickets.

The crowd at the show was largely high school kids, most of them from the wealthier strata of Ramallah society, plus some artists from the community, more than a few old ladies, normal working people, and a sprinkling of foreigners.

A trio of Israeli Arabs (indigenous Palestinians left over inside Israel after the ethnic cleansing of 1948) from Al-Lyd (or Lod) southeast of Tel Aviv started the night off. They took the usual hip-hop lyrics about discrimination and living in ghettoes (Lod is an infamously neglected community in Israel) and added the singularly Palestinian culture influenced by the crushing Israeli occupation. They sang about women's rights and murdered children, checkpoints and Walls, invasions and curfews, all devastatingly immediate and relevant.

Their lyrics came straight out of the updates and press releases I write, about real people trapped, humiliated, murdered so regularly, almost ritualistically, it's almost become banal. But every human tragedy is singular and devastating, and every crime against decency directly affects dozens and diminishes all of us. Tears came to my eyes more than once.

Then they transitioned to music about pride, resistance, art as a way to stand up and express your humanity, about the unbreakable spirit of the Palestinian people who have survived and even thrived against all odds. An affirmation of existence, an undeniable message that we are not terrorists, we are not aggressors, we cannot and will not be treated this way. We're mothers, we're artists, we're kids -- we're human beings. If you don't respect us, you don't respect yourself. You can say we don't exist, but here we are, beeotch.

The crowd went wild.

* * *

The next morning I headed with a Canadian journalist friend to a village called Bil'in, west of Ramallah, for a protest demonstration. The villagers, along with several internationals and Israelis, have been protesting the Wall that's being built on Bil'in land and will steal most of the village's land to build a new Jewish settlement on. The demonstrations have been going on almost daily since February.

We shared a service taxi with a clean-cut baseball-cap-wearing Palestinian from Tulkarem who's going to university in Jenin. We took him for a preppy American at first. He would have looked natural hanging with frat guys at an American university. But he turned out to be a soft-spoken, articulate Palestinian anarchist. We met up with several international and Israeli activist types at the ISM house in Bil'in.

At 1:00, right on schedule, we marched to the outskirts of town where the soldiers have put up a razor-wire-bale barrier that arbitrarily separates the part of Bil'in where we can go from the part of Bil'in where we can't go. Their little razor bale declares the part of Bil'in's land between the bale and the Wall (and the land and settlements beyond) a "closed military zone." All of a sudden it's "illegal" for residents of Bil'in to cross that line, 300 yards from the Wall being built on stolen private property that is actually (no quotation marks) illegal under international law.

An in-depth article about the protests, written by my Canadian journalist friend.

So we walked to the line with a huge model of the Wall carried among several activists. It had slogans painted on it and a scarecrow-like figure being strangled by it. A handsome young man named Rani Burmath, who was shot with live ammunition and paralyzed during a demonstration in Ramallah in 2000, manned the front lines in his wheelchair. He's been deliberately targeted with some of Israel's experimental ammunition at previous Bil'in demos. Bil'in residents believe they were being used as human guinea pigs for new types of non-lethal ammunition Israel was contemplating using against anti-disengagement activists in Gaza.

The Arab media enthusiastically interviewed a particularly eloquent young Israeli girl from Anarchists Against the Wall. She explained to them (in English with a heavy Israeli accent) why she was there in solidarity with the Palestinians and why the Israeli government does not represent her values and is not building its illegal anti-peace Wall in her name.

She and other activists walked freely around the traditional Muslim Palestinian town speaking Hebrew and wearing shirts with Hebrew slogans. Shy little Palestinian girls ventured a few friendly "Shaloms" in their direction.

My friend and I saw one Palestinian man greet a group of old village men hanging out in front of the market with a tongue-in-cheek "Shalom." The men smiled and shook their heads, probably bemusedly wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

"They steal our land and shoot our kids, and still we invite them into our homes and villages and hope for the best? What kind of schmucks are we?" I imagine them thinking bemusedly. But though sad and cynical because of all that's been done to them, they still apparently have a sense of humor and humanity about things.

At the last protest I came to a few months ago, several Israelis had taken over the same spot in the shade by the market. At one point a Palestinian man had walked up the road. When he saw the group of Israelis speaking Hebrew, he suddenly lit up in one of the warmest smiles I've ever seen.

"Salaam alaykum!" he said to them with an amazed kind of gratitude. I had the feeling he was grateful just because they were there, because they'd seen beyond the propaganda and recognized the Palestinians' humanity, something devastatingly few Israelis, even on the left, are genuinely able to do. They answered, "Wa alaykum as-salaam!" ("Peace be upon you." "And also upon you.")

Back at the front lines, the Palestinians, many of whom speak Hebrew, joined in with the Israelis' anti-Wall Hebrew slogans, and the Israelis joined in the English and Arabic ones when they understood.

After we were stopped at the line for a while, chanting and singing, we split into two cordons, one sweeping down toward another farm access road to the right. The soldiers stopped us there, too, and some folks decided to sit in the dirt road in front of them. This somehow angered the soldiers, who started busting heads and arresting people.

I had no interest in being arrested or roughed up, so I was hanging out in the less-enthusiastic rear-guard crowd just standing around observing. But pretty soon the soldiers started hurling things at us, completely unprovoked.

I turned to run, and as I did so, a heavy projectile hit me in the back of the right calf. It had been thrown from a distance of about 30 yards, and it came down at me from about 30 feet in the air. The impact almost caused my leg to buckle, but I kept running, not knowing what had hit me. It exploded behind me.

It had been a concussion grenade, aka sound bomb. They don't throw deadly shrapnel or noxious gas -- mainly they just make a nasty loud noise and scare the bejeezus out of people, especially if the person is uncertain whether it is the real deal or not. And they can cause burn injuries. We had to stamp out several brush fires in the olive groves set by the grenades, and a Palestinian woman who once got hit full in the face at a checkpoint was burned badly.

It left a nasty deep, black, baseball-sized bruise on my leg and a stinging abrasion that made walking painful for days. But more than that it rattled my nerves and crushed my mood. Nothing like a military-grade projectile hitting your body to remind you that this is not a game. People's rights really are being denied, and that denial is being and can only be backed up by overwhelming physical violence against living human bodies.

The message they were trying to get across: You are pathetic and helpless. We can crush you like an ant. Resistance is futile. We're taking your land, backed up by our guns and bombs, and you'd better learn to like it. If you get any more feisty, we can take you out for good, as we have already taken so many. And there's not much you can do about that.

Getting a big whiff of the excruciating tear gas a bit later had me heading back toward the village for good, although none of this really phased the more veteran demonstrators. Luckily the soldiers didn't use nerve gas or live bullets this time. The foreign presence protects the Palestinians from much worse at these demos.

As I was heading back toward town, I saw several kids heaving stones at the soldiers with slings. They were answered with tear gas and sound bombs.

All in all I was told it was more sedate than usual. The most recent demonstration was not even allowed to happen. Before people started moving toward the protest spot, Israeli soldiers raided the village pre-emptively with tear gas, sound bombs, and deadly rubber-coated steel bullets. I guess Bil'in has been declared a "no chanting zone."

An American guy named Kyle told me how bad it was at the FTAA protests in Miami and similar anti-corporate-globalization things in Canada and elsewhere, where the riot police actually disguised themselves as reporters and cameramen to get close to the crowd and then start busting heads. If you want to see the jack-booted goons on the frontlines who really keep things under control for the establishment against the justice-seeking masses, these are the places to go.

It's heartening anyway to know that against all these odds, the justice instinct is still there in so many people.

Sooner or later this occupation will go the way of slavery and Apartheid. One way or another. Either we'll find the path to justice or we'll destroy ourselves, and I think we're slowly starting to figure that out.

"Kids don't have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don't have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that."

    ~ Utah Phillips

* * *

This article is pretty shocking, partly due to its content but mainly because it was actually published in the Washington Post -- and such an article being published so prominently means the anti-war sentiments must be becoming more and more mainstream. Bush's ratings, which were worse than Nixon's during Watergate even before Katrina, seem to bear this out.

It's called Talking Wounded, about a young American kid who lost several friends before he himself was blown up by a roadside bomb in Iraq, and what he thinks about it.

This article is what the rabid right-wing pundits would have had to say about that notorious anti-America freedom-hater -- Rosa Parks -- if they'd been around back then.

These guys are as hilarious as they are effective at obfuscating and destroying meaningful debate about crucially important issues.

While I was writing this, I came upon a scathing anti-war column by Frank Rich in the NYTimes that was both frank and rich, and the most emailed article in the NYTimes for the week it was in print. It's called "Someone tell the President the war is over."

* * *

More on the IDF's killing and lies:

IDF soldiers admit to indiscriminate killing - (Guardian)

IDF kills five unarmed Palestinians and lies about it - (Haaretz)

* * *

Excerpt from Talking Wounded, by Peter Carlson, Washington Post:

...Occasionally the Americans would hear about a house where somebody was rumored to be storing weapons or building bombs. They'd wait until dark and raid the place.

"It was very intense and very fast," he says. "We'd try to be as quiet as we could until we got to the front door, and then you just have the battering ram and you open the front door and you run in yelling and pulling your weapons and try to gain control of the house as fast as you can."

Other patrols found illegal weapons on these raids, but Rodgers's never did.

"We did hit the wrong house quite often," he says. "We had these overhead maps, satellite maps, and when you're on the street in the middle of the night, it's hard to find the right house. In those instances, we'd say, 'Sorry,' and give 'em a card with a phone number to call the Army and we'd pay for the damages."

[I'm sure they are always compensated politely, immediately, and entirely, just like when Palestinian homes are wrongfully raided/damaged/destroyed by the IDF. (To quote Homer Simpson: "Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic.")]

In April, Rodgers's company was transferred to a tiny farming town about 20 miles away -- a place where no Americans had been stationed.

"We started looking for a building that would be suitable for a patrol base," he says. "And we took this building over. There was a family living there and we had to kick 'em out... They weren't too happy about it, but there was nothing they could do..."


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