Song of the Land

Palestinian Muslim worshippers. (Jamal A. Wilson)


Our house is located close to the mosque of ‘Azza refugee camp and so we hear the muezzin or call to prayer five times a day. Even though the sound is loud, you get used to it and we usually sleep through it in the early morning. During the day Tamer enthusiastically shouts “Akka, Akka,” after hearing the sound of “Allahu Akbar!” He then listens to his own echo.

We know the Moslem sheikh who sings the call to prayer because during Mary’s pregnancy of Tamer he used to help her carrying vegetables after she finished shopping near ‘Azza. The sheikh is also known to our Christian neighbor who while sitting on his veranda used to play the mouth organ during the silent curfews last year.

Our neighbour is interested in collecting Islamic prayer songs; he and the sheikh share rare Islamic music casettes. Because the Moslem prayer music has not been written down since the prophet Mohammed’s time, many variations in melody and rhythm have emerged. Here in Bethlehem too the prayers somewhat differ from mosque to mosque. Some Palestinian municipalities oblige the mosques to have the prayer calls sung at exactly the same time, like in Hebron, but in the Bethlehem area there is among the mosques significant variation in time.

This has the effect that the songs “wave” across the land. When at a sleepless moment one has the chance to hear some well-delivered calls to prayer against the backdrop of a silent early morning the effect can be stunning - as if the voices of the mosques are traveling across the country. Somehow, the sounds then succeed to evoke the waving hills of Palestine, with its towns, villages and eastern desert - as if the landscape is allowed to breathe.

But this last year the sheikh of ‘Azza got a broken voice and now he sometimes barely succeeds to reach the end of the prayer. In a way, his voice represents the brokenness of the people, their near-suffocation as a result of the traveling obstacles and now the Wall that cuts into the land. Mary too has pain on her breast and sometimes talks unnaturally loud because she is much concerned about our upcoming Christmas journey to our family in Holland and France.

A sheer endless list of problems pursues her, relating to passports for the family including her 80-year old mother, changes in a birth certificate, Jordanian authorization, EU visa, and of course circumventing any permanent or mobile checkpoints on the way to the Jordan Bridge. Today the hills of Jordan, some 40 kilometers away, are clearly to be seen in the sky They look so close, but it will take Mary, the children and my family in law a day to approach them.

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I too get a lump in my throat when at Jara’s birthday party we all look at the old photos from a time when it was still possible to take a desert journey, travel to the Sea of Galilee and enjoy the distant vistas of the sea and the land. “Those were the days,” Mary is fond of saying. When almost ten years ago Mary and I announced our engagement, we sent out a photo in which we lazily stretched ourselves on a desert hill near Jericho that was covered by spring flowers. We looked out from above a mountain rift across the twisting and turning lines of the wadis and hills that descended towards the east. An expanding image of waving lines, almost musical.

At home we still enjoy the slow melancholic waves of traditional Arab music. In advance of this year’s modest Bethlehem Christmas, we listen to the consoling sound of the Lebanese Fayrouz singing Christmas songs in her characteristically deep and solemn voice. She seems to capture the feelings of the people here who want to breathe and sing but barely can. Like the muezzin, Fayrouz’ songs somehow evoke the moving hills of Palestine or Lebanon. Lately, at a course in Al-Arroub refugee camp near Hebron, a girl showed me a diary in which she wrote about her dream of flying across the Palestinian hills towards Jordan in order to bring back a just peace. Other youth too tell about their dreams of flying away, dreams that are obviously related to the situation.

Next to the well-known melancholic Arabic songs, other traditions, more joyful, are those in which people rhythmically clap and sing to celebrate the uplifting moments of community life. During birthday or wedding parties, at picnics, bus trips or after the building of a house or on the occasion of the return of an imprisoned son, young and old easily burst out in joint clapping and singing. Those moments are rare now but have not completely disappeared.

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The Peace Center in front of the Church of Nativity, where Jara follows an Arts course, regularly offers concerts of visiting musicians or singers from all over the world who come for a very low fee to express solidarity with the people of Bethlehem and Palestine. Some months ago a world-famous Czechian pianist offered a concert for a small crowd, at one point strategically choosing a loud Rachmaninov piece to overcome the emerging voice of the outside muezzin.

Last week Mary and her friend listened to the French Jane Birkin (partner of the deceased Serge Gainsbourg) who on behalf of her family and friends thanked the people of Palestine, Bethlehem, Gaza, and so on - thanking so much that a friend whispered Mary in the ear: Is that not a little exaggerated, why should she thank us? We should rather thank her. In fact, moneywise too, said Mary, since the entrance was 3 dollars, nothing compared to the 50 dollars people had to pay for the same concert in Tel Aviv.

The concert was indeed heartwarming, with much clapping. Much more heartwarming than the modern music videos which you nowadays see on TV wherever you come. Almost each month a new Arab music satellite station starts competing with the existing ones. Our neighbor and friend remarks that this competition for TV audiences presses the producers to make the videos more sexy - mainly in the Arabic manner, with more bellydancing movements. Many youths have little to do and just watch TV whatever the program. “That monster that keeps people passive,” a Bethlehem University lecturer remarks in a discussion about the problematic role of TV. Yet our neighbor disagrees and says that at least people learn better English.

On my way back from Jerusalem yesterday an Israeli soldier at the Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint is generous to the waiters and let them pass by without looking closely into their IDs. “Yalla, baba, ya tasrih!” [come papa, oh permit!] he keeps repeating rhythmically at the approaching workers, waving with his hand, as if they are lazy school students. He looks drunk without having had a drink. That same evening Jara and I go out to listen to sudden rhythmic shouting and car honking on the streets. More than in the past, Jara has become somewhat afraid of strange sounds, and I think it is best that she sees the source of the sounds: this time, Fatah students who loudly celebrate their student council victory at Bethlehem University.

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Jara herself regularly sings the Palestinian national anthem “Biladi” [my country] at school. The anthem is more gay and fast than the Dutch one she still has to learn. She warns me to stop singing “all the time,” as she thinks that my singing children songs takes away the more serious attention she deserves. Mary says to me that our neighbor, who once listened at a distance to my children songs thought I was praying, like the muezzin. “Are you Moslem, papa?” Jara lately asked without any special reason.

Meanwhile, Tamer has already thoroughly destroyed his electronic piano and now plays his own Rachmaninov with fingers and fist going high in the air then striking down hard on an old computer key board.

Toine van Teeffelen is a Dutch national, married to a Palestinian, and is a local coordinator of the United Civilians for Peace, a Dutch initiative to send civilian monitors to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.