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Archive for July, 2010

A Song Without Words

My first footsteps into the Mediterranean Sea were even sweeter with the memory of the Syrian Gala concerts still fresh on my mind.

On Friday night, the piano and voice students of American Voices were at their best.  It is no exaggeration to say that each and every student made the best music I heard from them all week.  Their achievement was especially gratifying since, for about a third of them, it was the first time they had ever performed in a formal recital.  The fact that the audience contained over two hundred enthusiastic listeners made their musicianship and composure under pressure even more admirable.

A highlight of the concert was our special guest, Mohamed.  Mohamed studied piano with me in Iraq several weeks ago, and he coincidentally arrived in Syria with his mother, father, and two sisters for a regional piano competition.  We were elated when we discovered that we were even staying at the same hotel, and we arranged that Mohamed be included on the Syrian recital program along with my other students.

While in Iraq, I grew close to Mohamed and his family.  His mother and two sisters were ever present in the hallways of the Iraqi program, always making sure Mohamed felt supported and often checking in with me to insure he was making progress.  I was disappointed that I had not been able to spend more time with his father (who I will refer to as “Mr. Mohamed”) since he had to stay at the family’s home in Baghdad for all but the end of the American Voices teaching sessions.  In Syria, we made up for lost time.

Mohamed and his family attend our recital.

On the night of the Syrian student recital, Mr. Mohamed invited me to an outdoor balcony attached to the concert hall where we could chat outside the noisy preparations going on inside.  We had become comfortable enough friends to speak of the Iraqi war, his experiences, and the future of both his family and his country.  (For most of my trip, people have seemed surprisingly anxious to express their opinions on such matters.)  Mr. Mohamed, a pharmacist by profession, explained how many of his colleagues had died in the collateral damage of the fighting, and how he had to sell his pharmacy since it was on the border of an area of continuous fighting between Iraqi and American forces, and their enemies.  When I asked exactly who Iraqi and American forces were fighting, his answer was that “one cannot say that they are Sunni or Shiya, nor Christian or Muslim, nor Iranian or Arab, not Taliban or Al Qaeda.  They are an alliance of people who feel they are fighting for their version of the country’s future…as are the people on both sides.”  Today, this partly means people in support of the current incumbent president, who – as Americans following current events already know – lost the reported election held some months ago.  The incumbent lost by a small margin but, much to the frustration of many Iraqi’s, he has thus far refused to step down.  (Parliament met to decide the final election outcome the day before I left Iraq.  Thankfully, they postponed the decision 15 days, which came as a great relief to me.  Immediate violence in Kurdistan would be unlikely, but I didn’t want to find out.)  Iraqis are aware of the danger of civil war, and are thus wary of outside influences towards that possible outcome, such as from neighboring Iran.

I could go on, but the political aspects of the Middle East are far beyond the scope (or goals) of this blog.  I mention such conversations only to highlight two important points that have hammered themselves home since the first day I arrived:

First, that a true understanding of the political turmoil in this region is vastly more complicated than the average American will ever gain from typical media sources, or without substantial effort.  Even as I sit here in Beirut, locals attempt to explain the large number of factions who were (and are) involved in a Lebanon civil war (that at the moment is cold), as well as the sources of tension between Hezbolah, Hamas, Israel, and the Palestinians.  In virtually the same breath, these citizens caution that not even they fully understand the complexities of current alliances. “It would take one living here for at least two years,” a man told me this afternoon, “and even that probably won’t make things much clearer”.

Second, and more important to my role here, is that the healing capacity of music is far stronger than I ever imagined.  In spite of Mr. Mohamed’s recent loss of friends, his business, and even the potential loss of his country, here is a man who drove his teenage son through a war zone for piano lessons, and then took his entire family to Syria to support him in a piano competition.

Just two nights before my Syrian students took the stage with Mohamed Jr., I ran into his two weeping sisters in the hallway of our hotel.  When I asked what had happened, they managed enough English to explain that Mr. Mohamed had taken the family out for dinner, and that on the taxi ride back to the hotel he accidentally left his wallet on the seat of the Taxi while helping his family exit the vehicle.  By the time the taxi drove off, it was too late.  As a result of the incident that night, the family lost over 1200 hundred US dollars (an equivalent buying power of about 10k in the states).  When Mohamed Jr. took the stage to play his Chopin Waltz on the night of our recital, it was no surprise to the people sitting next to me why I had a tear in my eye.  Some things are just too difficult to put into words.

Mohamed plays the Chopin Waltz we worked on in Iraq.


Saturday night brought the Gala for the faculty, the student orchestras, and the dancers.  The scene was the outdoor Amphitheater on the outskirts of Damascus.  With over a thousand people in attendance, the atmosphere was electric.  The highlight for me was performing with Anne Marie Condacse, who sang a well known aria from La Boheme.  Anne Marie may be slight in build, but she large in talent and grace.  We are planning other collaborations for the coming months.

Final preparations for the Syrian Gala.


After the concert, our students treated us to a night at one of the well-known Damascus cafes.  Saying goodbye to my students was naturally difficult.  My student, Rada, presented me with the gift of a beautiful wood inlayed box.  Apparently, she overheard me at one of the local bazaars, and discovered that I am a sucker for hand made boxes.  We left the students with heavy hearts, but talents of gold.  We spoke of another trip to Syria in the near future.  The notion comforted us all.

The next morning, most of the American Voices faculty hopped on a bus and headed back to Beirut, where we had landed two weeks earlier.  We left under the watchful eye of the country’s president, whose picture was usually visible from most parts of the city.  This time, the trip went more smoothly, even if during the day the borders were more crowded than they had been during our night crossing.

Goodbye, Syria.


The scenery of the route was gorgeous, and it was nice to have a relaxing drive in order to gather my thoughts about my experiences during previous two weeks.  I still had Mr. Mohamed’s stories fresh on my mind as we approached the outskirts of Beirut.  As we descended along the hills leading into town, we began seeing homes and businesses with battle scars from the previous civil war, and evidence of ongoing conflicts with Israel.  In fact, pretty much any building over 15 years old has at least some minor damage…a constant reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.

A war damaged home.


I am no expert on the Middle East, nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn last night.  I am especially glad I didn’t stay in this one.

Our arrival at the American University of Beirut (AUB) was a welcome sight.  AUB is the “Harvard of the Middle East.”  The buildings do indeed have an “Ivy League” feel to them.  I especially like being able to wake up to a view of the Sea from my 6th floor room, and the fact that the campus is “cat friendly”.

Walking to piano class.


The student soccer field, with the sea in the background.


The cat waits for a handout.  There are dozens of cats at AUB, and even have their own special “rights”.


It is hard to walk 50 feet without seeing one of the many felines that roam the campus.


Once we settled into the dorms, we headed straight for the water.  A 5-minute walk down a campus walkway ends at the rocky AUB beach, where students take a break from the heat.

We then took a short cab ride to the sandy beaches near “The Raouche”, and an evening view of the rock itself.

The “Raouche”


Classes for the Lebanon program began yesterday morning.  About 10 students auditioned and were accepted into my studio.  Our work towards preparations for the final Gala concert began in earnest.  (The recital hall where the concerts are to take place is an ornate chapel that contains both American and Hamburg concert grand pianos, and will be great motivation for all of us.) After lunch, we were surprised by a visit from members of the US Embassy.  Several of the students performed, and all were duly impressed.  One of the embassy staff is from Houston, and we had a nice chat.

Members of the US Embassy (to my left) visit my piano class.

Tonight, Omar arrived from Iraq.  He decided to come to Lebanon for good company and his first piano lessons (I promised).  It was his first trip out of Iraq… his first time on an airplane.  We are now heading to the beach so he can view the sea for the first time in his life.  The coming two weeks look to be a busy yet enjoyable finale to a memorable summer.

A  Song Without Words

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It is Gala time in Syria, beginning with the student piano and vocal recital tomorrow night.  The program looks to be strong, with works ranging from early Beethoven to Rachmaninoff.  Some of the pianism here is remarkable.

Ayham Hammour plays his Scarlatti brilliantly.

Most of the students are Russian trained, though they lament the one-dimensional aspect of their training.  As a result, almost all of them would love a chance to study in the States, with the additional motivation that options here are limited for even for the best pianists.  This is the case for most students graduating from high school in Syria, regardless of discipline…too few positions available for higher education.  This leaves a tremendous number of bright students with nowhere to turn.  Perhaps this explains why these young talents are so dedicated to returning to Syria to insure she thrives, regardless of where they ultimately study.

While the piano and vocal areas of American Voices are running relatively smoothly, other areas, such as the Broadway and dance groups, are hitting unexpected snags.  This is not to say that the pianists have not had some disappointments.  Initially, the Gala concert scheduled for the night after next (on which I will be performing) looked to be a delight, with the gorgeous 9 foot Yamaha grand to be moved from the conservatory to the 2500 seat outdoor amphitheater.  Two days ago, word came down that the risk associated with moving the piano was too great for the (only) concert grand in Syria, so one of the dozen 7 foot Hamburg Steinway B’s were to be moved instead.  Yesterday morning, the piano shrunk again into a 6 foot Yamaha baby grand.  Today, we learn that an upright piano will be in place for the concert.  Let us hope for a robust sound system, and the inspiration of a large crowd.

This could pretty much summarize the American Voices experience…its strength:  its ability to adapt to unfortunate or unexpected circumstances to successfully enrich the lives of the students, the community, and the faculty.

I can usually count on finding John in this pose several times per day.


A good metaphor for the kinds of problems we have typically encountered this summer lies in the “Great Air Conditioner Fiasco” of two days ago.  Air conditioning is a must in this part of the world.  This goes double for the students and faculty of the Broadway and Dance segments of the American Voices program, non of whom share the luxury of us pianists who can simply sit to practice our trade.  So, when the air conditioner in the only dance rehearsal room went missing (actually only one part of the unit went missing), it became questionable whether or not the old adage “the show must go on” would keep its sacred status.  The situation seemed fixable enough when the Minister of Culture himself made a call and laid down the law to the people responsible for the “repair”.  Yet, after the promise that the unit would be returned within the hour, two days passed with no relief for the dancers.  An almost total (and understandable) meltdown by dance faculty member Michael Parks at the morning faculty meeting didn’t do much to remedy the situation either.  Nor did the suggestion that we acquire fans, as it is popular myth here that fans cause stomach problems.  Speculation went so far as to suggest that the dean of the whole fine arts complex was upset that American voices would not double the salary of the conservatory staff, even after they had already been paid the amount agreed to months ago, and thus he sabotaged the air conditioner unit.  And, as unlikely as this scenario may be to this specific situation, such a circumstance is common in this part of the world, and it is exactly the kind of “moving target” this organization deals with a hundred times per day.

Members of the Children’s Music Theater thank John for acquiring an air conditioner for their work space.


Thankfully, the evenings bring a break from the heat, with cool air that makes going out on the town after a long day of teaching a true joy.  Shopping in old Damascus is a must for any first time visitor.  Besides the incredible history of the old city, vendors sell wares that are as unique as they are insanely cheap.  And, for those opposed to walking, a cab ride to virtually any place in the city costs a dollar.  I have walked the market from one end of the great mosque to the far side of the Christian quarter several times.  Each jaunt is its own adventure in bartering, people watching, and sightseeing.

One of the remaining Roman gateways to old Damascus.

A typical market scene in old Damascus.


A man smokes Hookah (water pipe) at one of the many cafes in the old Damascus market.


This church steeple stands at one end of the great mosque in old Damascus.  The site was once a temple to the Roman God Jupiter.  It then became a Christian church before the mosque was built.  The view is through one of the remaining Roman gateways to the city.


The cat was annoyed at my offer for the silver broach.  The shop owner was pleased enough that we enjoyed tea and a long conversation in his shop.


Today I was “kidnapped” by my students, who took me to lunch away from the tourist fray to a more typical residential district.  For the evening, they took me to the “Art House”, a super high-class (and extraordinarily unique) art gallery, café, and concert space.  A conversation with the site manager and a snack with CEO of the Syria Trust for Development brought up the likelihood of a concert here next year, along with a possible tour of several of the cities of Syria.

A view from the rooftop cafe above the “Art House” concert space.  The site hosts a robust concert series each year.


Another view from atop the “Art House”.  The settlements on the mountain side are illegal.  With time, the people living there hope to legitimize their claim to the home and property.  The locals claim that the giant flag holds a Guinness Book  record for size and/or height.


Night view of Damascus from the mountain top.  Citizens gather here each evening to relax and take in the spectacular view.  This photo captures only a fraction of the sprawling cityscape.

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It is 8:30 Thursday evening.  We pack our gear into three cabs for the drive to Erbil airport.  Time to leave Iraq.  It is hard to leave old friends, but we eagerly anticipate the new ones awaiting us in Syria.

Goodbye to Old Friends


New Friends Await…


We pass through the first checkpoint…a dozen concrete barriers that we must navigate like one finding their way through a maze.  Soon, we pass the second, and the guard lets us pass with a wave.  We exit the taxis, and move our gear 100 yards towards the first metal detectors and baggage checks.  Only Mark has his baggage examined, and we load onto a bus for a short trip to the main airport terminal. As we enter the terminal, we must again pass through metal detectors, and have our baggage searched.  Straight ahead, the ticket counters.

At the counter, we plan to check in all six of us as a group in order to avoid baggage weight issues.  As I check my first (and only) bag, I hear the group moaning to the baggage manager as he declares that we cannot check in as a group.  Carol yells that I must check her third bag as my “second”, and I place her bag on the scale to attempt to do so.  The clerk grabs my carry on and yells that I cannot check it as a carry on.  It is too heavy.  He strips the bag from my hand and places it on the conveyor belt.  I grab it in protest, and explain that there is no way I am checking the valuable electronics as baggage.  The group then begins taking what we can from my carry on – which was well under its weight upon arrival in Erbil – and redistributing items into other luggages.  As we continue to attempt to check Carol’s bag, we are told that we cannot do so, because it is also overweight.  It isn’t, but the group struggles to explain to the baggage manager that I am allowed two bags, and that Carol’s is my second.  In the confusion, Mark sneaks his carry on by the airport staff.  His is much heavier than any bags among us.  The line at the counter, which was non-existent when the process started, is now quite long.  An Arab man loses his cool, to the extent that security is called to escort him away screaming.  We are apprehensive enough considering what is in store for us this evening, so we are off to a bad start.

Somehow, Carol gets her third bag checked with an extra baggage charge.  In the confusion, they forget to charge her.  We sit down for a rest, have some ice cream, and then pass through the third and last baggage check before boarding.  I lose some hair gel during the inspection, but otherwise we are clear.

The plane is scheduled for a 10:55 pm departure.  We board at 11:30.  We take off at 12:10.

It is a two hour flight to Beirut.

We arrive around 2 am.  We deplane and head towards passport checks.  Another 30 minutes pass as we gather luggage, and head towards the exit where John awaits.  (He is supposed to be in Syria, but he has not secured a Visa.  Gene was turned away at the boarder only 24 hours earlier.  His visa has also expired)

It is a challenge packing all of the luggage, John, the six in our group, and two local helpers into three small cars.  Security is pressuring us to hurry.  We manage, and with a short drive, we find ourselves under a highway bridge at 3 am in the morning.  There are more than a dozen men here with cars of all makes, Mercedes to 1974 Chevy Impala… Syrian “taxis”, who make a living making several runs across the border each day for clients brave enough to hire them.  First, a price must be negotiated. John stands by with a satchel full of cash.  American Voices helper Mahmoud (whom we affectionately call MahMoody) does the talking.  The scene looks like a late night drug deal about to go wrong.

Syrian “Taxis”


We agree on a price.  Bruce and I get the 74 Impala.  Bruce is in the back with his cello and a rather large bag in his lap.

Every bolt in the Impala rattles.  The wheels are unbalanced.  We drive, often over 100 miles per hour, in the dark, swerving through traffic and mountain curves, which mostly consist of large trucks struggling to ascent the mountain pass for entry into Syria.  Another coat of paint and we will hit them.  I am too tired to care.  Bruce somehow sleeps in the back seat.  The windows are down, and the chilled air of our ascent is welcome respite from the 125 degree Iraqi heat.

We reach the Lebanon border.  Thankfully, the taxi driver leads us through the process of filling out our pink cards.  We are off again and shortly reach the Syrian border.  Time to fill out the blue cards.  Again the taxi drivers help, tough it is clear that they are now fatigued as well.

Finally, there it is…Damascus…as the sun rises above the mountains.  The scene is beautiful.  But, we know we will enjoy it more once we sleep.

Such was the “Night Crossing”.

Our 6 am arrival at the Fardoss (Paradise) Tower Hotel was a pleasant surprise.  We feel like we found a quaint French Hotel in Paris.  Fine food, clean rooms, and staff that treat us like kings.  This IS paradise after Iraq.

A few of us found some time to venture to the “old city” yesterday.  We explored the Umayyad Mosque.  The history of the site is rich, including an ancient temple to the “Storm God”, a Roman temple to Jupiter, a Christian church, and a Mosque.  The complex is said to include the remains of Mohamed’s grandson, and the head of John the Baptist.  By my favorite part of the venture was people watching in the square courtyard.

The Courtyard of Umayyad Mosque


Women mourn at the the place where all the other heads of those who fell in Karbalā are kept within the Mosque


The “Head of John the Baptist”?


A young boy chases a bottle in the mosque courtyard


Father and son at the mosque


People watching at the mosque.  Women wear a variety of head scarves, from traditional to modern, to none at all.


Today we began the institute.  Since John and the veterans were not able to be here two days ago, they were not able to do planned preparations and we are starting well behind.  However, the facilities are amazing.  Apparently, the president of the country is quite a supporter of the arts, and is a friend of the conservatory founder.

The Conservatory of Music


The conservatory was told to spare no expense, and to “purchase what you need.”  The results are rooms full of Hamburg Steinways, and Yamaha concert grands.  My teaching area includes two harpsichords, a forte piano, a Hamburg Steinway B, and a 9 foot Yamaha.  They all seem well maintained, so I assume that there must be a decent piano tech here as well.

The Hamburg Steinway in my Conservatory studio


On average, the students are very well taught – mostly within the Russian tradition –with many ready for graduate study or a Bachelors in piano performance.  The next few days look to be very enjoyable.

Paganini welcomes visitors to the Conservatory

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A few unexpected minutes of internet time.  So, I can elaborate a bit…

The Gala is finished, and I think that it is fair to say that American Voices pulled off another unlikely success.  As mentioned in my last entry, the finale concert was performed for a packed house, and the concert hall was full of local politicians and VIP’s.

The audience gathers for the Gala night performance at Peshawa Hall

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John enjoys the concert with the Minister of Culture.

If I learned anything these last two weeks, it was that Iraq is an emotional place, full of a passionate people.  Hi highs, and low lows came daily.  Perhaps my most unexpected high came the night before last, when I discovered the”Speedway Bar and Grill”…  a state- of-the-art, formula 1 style, racetrack complete with go carts capable of “80 miles per hour”. 

At the “Speedway” in Erbil.

Another view of the Speedway.

The manager of “Speedway” happens to be the father of one of our Amercian Voices students.  The student works at the Bar and Grill, and after dinner he asked the three of us, Michael, Niaz, and myself, whether we would like to take a spin.  Mike and Niaz weren’t so sure, but I jumped at the chance.  (I grew up like many boys, wishing to be an Indy 500 driver someday).  So, Mike and Niaz watched from the balcony while I sought to teach Mario Andretti a lesson on how to hit each curve’s apex perfectly.   I have no idea how fast I was going, but with one’s posterior only an inch from the ground, I felt like a human bullet.  The course was “designed by and American racer”, though I was never sure to which racer they were referring.  I was mostly fascinated by the fact that such a place could never exist in the States.  Besides the liablity that would be involved in such a business, the juxtaposition of the bar and the racetrack brought surreal conversations to mind.  “Here are your drinks, Sir.  And here are the keys to your racecar.”

Only in Iraq.

Inside the “Speedway Bar and Grill”

Michael and Niaz get a “lesson” in racing from the balcone.

Just call me “The Streak”.

Then there were the lows.  The city is littered with hundreds, if not thousands, of stalled and unfinished construction projects.  The veterans tell me that most were in the same state last year…large cement skeletons of what should have been.  The marketplace would never invent such a scene.  The only explanation I can come up with is the lack of accountablity and the corruption that thrives here.  My guess is that the scenario goes something like this:  Reconstruction, or oil money, comes to Erbil via Baghdad.  Politicians in Baghdad take their “cut”, then the local politicians here do the same.  Each building is under contract, and the construction managers skim off the top of that.  Each supplier does the same, even while managers deliberately overestimate costs.  Before you know it, the project is broke and abandoned.  And though all I have is conjecture, the locals tell me that I am right on, yet there is nothing they can do about it.  Of course, a few projects get restarted when the next budget is arranged, but most are left exposed and deteriorating.

The Erbil landscape is littered with unfinished building projects.

One of the toughest of scenes was the two dogs that wondered the median in front of the “Modern City Hotel” for most of the week.   The two whitish, Lab-like, dogs were clearly in distress, but stayed patiently with the 5 meter wide grassy median.  Perhaps they stayed because the cement roads around the grassy area would be too hot to walk on, or because the traffic was too dense to cross. Or, maybe they did recieve handouts from passers by that I never saw.   But when I expressed concern to a number of locals, they were ambivalent.  Apparently, our neighborhood was primarily islamic, and I was told that the religion does not allow dogs as pets.  From what I understood, dogs are not looked upon favorably in this culture.  Regardless of the rational, I was held back from assisting them only by the fact that I would be helpless to take them with me, and that I would only prolong their suffering.  Both died the day before yesterday when the temperature here hit 129.5 degrees.  I suppose that, with most people here having lost family or friends over the last few years, one can understand that in the vast scheme of things two dogs aren’t a priority. For me, it was a struggle.

Thankfully, this morning brought another unexpected high, when I was invited for a meeting with both the chairman of music and the dean of the College of Fine Arts here in Erbil.  The chairman (Mr. Zaza, who also happens to be Boran’s father) gave me a tour of the school (which he founded), and he even sat down to play me some of his original compositions based on Kurish folk tunes on his guitar.  Simply delightful.  We all spoke of future collaborations and a mutual interest in having he most talented students receive degrees in the States in order that they may return here to help establish the arts community.  The school is new, having only begun once they were out of the suppression of the Saddam regime, and the cost of the “Brain Drain” has been tremendous.  As of now, creditialed faculty are extremely rare. 

So, as I sit here waiting for my departure this evening, I have much to think about.  My new friends, the rich and unexpected culture here, the complexity of Iraqi politics, and the fact that I feel that I made a difference in a way that would be difficult to match so quickly  in most better established places. I already look forward to returning.

We cross the Syrian border tonight.  I will send an update as soon as I am able.

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Night Crossing

Lots to tell, but only a few seconds to tell it.  We had to change hotels yesterday, and though this one is nicer, there is little internet access.  Hoping to publish this should I get a window of access somewhere in town.

The Gala concert was a success, with a full house.  It is amazing how many VIP’s were in attendance, including the British and French consulates, and the Governor. 

The most worrisome part of the trip begins tomorrow night, when we depart Iraq around 10pm and head for Lebanon.  We then get in cars and make a night crossing of the border into Syria.  I hear unpleasant stories about this process, and since all of the American Voices veterans left yesterday, only us “Newbies” will be making the border crossing together.  We don’t know what to expect, and best of all we  don’t even know where we are staying.  Nor do we have a phone.  We hate to do it this way, but given the way this place works, it is the only way. 

I should take a lead from Mariano Abello, who ventured to Suli yesterday with his students, and no arranged trip back.  He said, in his wonderful Spanish accent, “you know, it is like gravity…you throw it up, it finds its way back to earth.”

Here is hoping for a soft landing.

Stay Tuned.

Note:  The Syrians block web access to many sites.  I have no idea whether or not WordPress will be blocked.  But I plan to pick my student’s brains for “proxies” that will allow me to keep this blog up to date.

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I just have to share a few “unusual” stories.  But before I do, I want to make a shameless plug for my prize student at the Yes Academy, Miss Boran Zaza.


Boran handled herself with poise through a very rough week, and in the process still managed to be productive at the piano.  After seeing her work as assistant manager for the YES Academy here in Iraq, interview with the media, film for the airport, work as my translator, and prepare for her performance tonight (and possibly at the Gala tomorrow), I was gratified to see that she got her due in the Kurdish Globe a few days ago.

Despite what the article says, Boran has never really had a teacher (just a “poor helper” for a few months of one year).  Her father is a classical guitarist, and I suspect that is where she gets her sharp musical instincts.  Her dream is to be the first professional piano teacher in Kurdistan.  We are working to try to get her to Baylor for her Bachelors in Piano Pedagogy, but the hurdles will be formidable, to say the least.  If not, she may possibly study in Europe.  You can read the article here:

Kurdish Globe article.

Boran at YES Academy Press Conference.


Boran and her best friend, my other translator Heja, took me to lunch yesterday.  Heja is from Suli, a few hours north of here. They told me a couple of funny stories I want to share.

First, that at the Fine Arts Academy Suli, the cleaning crew decided to do the Academy a favor.  Apparently, they were charged with cleaning the practice rooms and washing the floors.  While they were at it, they decided to do the “right thing” and help the piano faculty by cleaning the pianos…inside and out with the water hose.  Luckily, they were stopped just they were about to move on to the nicest grand piano.

Musicians will get the humor in this one:  Boran also told me that she was recently supposed to do a recital with a cellist from another city.  When he arrived for the first rehearsal, the cellist began playing the part written for the left hand of the piano.  When Boran asked what was going on, the cellist said, “that is how we were all taught to play it.” The cellist thought that the cello part, along with the treble clef part, was to be played by the pianist.

And while on the subject of funny stories, this from John Ferguson, founder of Yes Academy, who relates that he was in Afghanistan last year to play a piano recital.  When he walked on stage, there was the concert grand, sitting on three chairs, with the legs sawed off.  Apparently, the Taliban had been there at one point, and had sawed the legs off the piano thinking that it would ruin it.  The piano was fine, and the concert went on, even if the piano was “at a slight angle.”

And finally, my favorite story…

Robert, a music researcher from The Hague, occasionally bops in here at the “Modern City Hotel” from some research he is currently doing in Iraq.  At lunch the other day he told me that had been in Afghanistan some years ago for some research on local folk music.  He and some friends were driving in an area active with Taliban.  They were listening to a Tracy Chapman tape in the car’s cassette player, when they suddenly turned a corner into an unexpected Taliban checkpoint.  They immediately scrambled to remove the tape and put it under the seat of the car.  The Taliban have banned all forms of music, and to being caught with the tape could have been fatal.

One of the Taliban guards stuck his head inside the car and happened to see the tape sticking out from under the seat.  He demanded that the remove the tape put in the player for him to hear.  (It could have been readings from the Koran, which would have been ok.)  On hearing the tape the guard said, “It is ok, you can move along.  That isn’t music.”

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…and he is right here, and for the last few days he has been my partner in crime for some rather upbeat expeditions. But more about Matt later.

I finally figured out the secret to getting out to see things. It is not that I could not “solo” in relative safety if I wanted, but I suspect doing so here would be a lot like being a pilot, or even sailing my boat. No problem most of time, but when/if things go wrong it is certainly nice to have an experienced co-pilot or a first mate…or in this case, someone that speaks the language.

The first few days of the YES Academy left me with the skewed view that I would not only be working nonstop, but also be sequestered in my room the rest of the time. The working part is almost true, but I found some reprieve in the fact that there are no pianos at the hotel. In this regard, I pity the string faculty, who can bring both their instruments and students to the conference rooms surrounding the hotel restaurant. By 6 pm, I am pretty spent on most of the nights since I arrived.

In the couple of nights since my walk with Omar, things really changed. It seems that the secret is in the students who, since they got to know me, are offering to take me out to see the city and beyond. In fact, I was invited to Suli this afternoon (since we had to close shop early due to another event at the Ministry of Culture), but I chose instead to relax in my room in order to write, email, and perhaps catch up on a little sleep. Besides, it looked like there would be plenty of options after dinner anyway, and the thought of driving at night for the 2 and half hour drive we would have to make coming back from Suli is a fairly risky proposition, with or without my Kurdish students present. I will save that trip for the 13th or 14th, when the Academy here is finished and we can leave earlier in the day.

The fun started yesterday morning, when film crews arrived. The new Erbil airport apparently wants a film to show on the video screens for arriving passengers in order to promote the life in Erbil. So, Boran (see my post “On Runways”) and I, at least for a brief moment, felt like “movie stars.” (So, the next time you arrive in Erbil and look up to see somebody that looks familiar on the big screen above…) Much of the day was spent in “hurry up and wait” mode due to constant interruptions by media or power outages. I either relaxed with the faculty, or humored my security guard friends.

Boran plays for the cameras.


Brad waits for the power to return in order to restart filming his segment. The power was off for much of the day.


Brad, Matt, and Omar relax during lunch break.


It takes some time for a Texan to get used to, but men holding hands is ordinary in the Middle East, even among soldiers.


Matt shows his famous video to interested students.


Once our workday ended, Aimee (our American Voices PR and all round “go to” girl), Matt, and I decided to adventure to the Citadel on our own. Omar could not join us due to another function, but he escorted us by Taxi to the site of the ancient Ottoman fort and handed us written instructions for the taxi driver in order that we might find our way home.

The site is magnificent, and it is claimed that the walls of the fort house the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Much of the site is off limits due to the crumbling nature of the structure…that is, until we came along.

Somewhere between the entrance and the paths inside, we accidentally found our way beyond the roped off areas. Soon, we were alone inside the maze of the city, and ultimately worked our way to a rooftop overlooking all of Erbil.

We took in a spectacular view, even though we did begin to worry that we could feel the crumbling rooftop vibrate with each step we took.

Overlooking Erbil from atop the ancient city.


Matt Harding and Brad descend the Citadel overlook


Gingerly, we worked our way down, and after finding a way out through a roped off area we should have never breached in the first place, we ventured to more closely examine the giant statue that dominates the fort’s entrance.

We couldn’t resist a chance to video “the little dance” with Matt at the foot of the statue, and he happily joined in. Just as we began our “dance” we realized that the sound we heard coming from the distance was Friday evening prayer, a tradition in Islam. Though it was apparent that many of the people standing around were not particularly reverent about this fact, we got a little nervous that the guards standing only a few meters away, or a few not-so-easily humored civilians, might not get the joke. The last thing we wanted was to be disrespectful.  (And yes…I will upload the dance here once I figure out how to convert formats, and can keep the internet working for more than 10 seconds at a time.)

In what was probably just me wishful thinking, I suggested to Matt that I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody recognized him. We finished quickly, and planned to make our way to street level post haste, when a group of young Iraqi boys asked if we would take a picture with them. Sure enough, they had recognized Matt, and I suddenly felt more relaxed.

Now, about Matt… in case you have not guessed, Matt is the Matt of YouTube fame. Some years ago, Matt began what he calls a “silly little project” to do his “dance” in various places in the world and video record it. His project snowballed, and now he has quite a huge following, with over 30 million views of his video, and even corporate sponsorship. Matt came to Iraq to video his dance with a couple of the groups of American Voices. The result of his work is a message of unity that will bring joy to even the most crusty Salts out there. It is colorful and creative, and I invite you bring a smile to your day, as well:

Once we arrived back at the ranch, it was time for dinner and a shower. But dinner had barely finished before one of my students (and consequently, one of my two translators) walked up to my table to invite me to a flat in town for some Kurdish Barbeque. I was rather tired, and certainly wasn’t the least bit hungry, but something in me told me I should attend, and that I needed to judge this erroneous claim that Texas didn’t have the best BBQ. So, off we went to a large apartment complex, “Naz City”, with American Voices faculty members Mike and Marc, and about 15 Iraqi students. (The students here are almost all male, and the bulk range in age from 18 to 27) The evening started out rather sedate, with us three faculty doing most of the talking. But as things got rolling, the chatter turned to Kurdish folk music and their unique tuning systems. At that point, one of the more talented violinists in the group gave us a treat to remember. First, he played (improvised) a Kurdish folk song. He was later joined by a singer for a Persian love song, and the evening ended with and improvised Turkish Tune. He played with an intonation and warmth as gorgeous as anything I have ever heard from a string player. Keep an eye out for this space. When I figure out how to convert the video files of our private concert, I will post a sample here:

Tonight was equally pleasant, with Matt, Omar and a couple of my finest students accompanying me to the 12th century Mudhafaria Minarethat sits in the middle of a huge complex of parks.

Mudhafaria Minaret

After driving endlessly around town afterwards, as we walked from the parking lot, a rather odd looking, and very large, clown of some sort was doing its thing in front of the entrance. I think Matt and I thought exactly the same thing instantly. He grabbed his camera, made the proper settings, handed it to me and I filmed his dance right next to the clown. As Matt put it…”When I add the words ‘Erbil, Iraq’ beneath this video, the startling contradition of what people usually expect to see from Iraq might make their heads explode.”  The juxtaposition of Matt’s dance, the clown, and the passing traffic will be an image I won’t easily forget.

It was a wonderful way to end the evening.

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It is hard to believe that I am a hard day’s bike ride from total chaos. Mosul, which lies a mere 50 miles to the west, scarcely more than a drive from Waco to Hillsboro, is by all accounts a lost city. Several bombings and killings per day are commonplace. While American and Iraqi troops work to continue progress in Baghdad, a risky six hour drive south, networks of extremists thrive in Mosul, threatening the local population in ways that make the days of the Chicago mob tame by comparison. But here in Erbil one might hardly notice, thanks to the Peshmerga forces that protect the roads in and out of Kurdistan.

New buildings line the streets here, often several within a kilometer. The economy is booming and people are hard at work, even if that work is often on “Iraqi time” and would be called, by much of the West’s standards at least, inefficient. Still, one feels safe here, with no indication of threat, if not for the cement barricades and armed guards that stand at the entrance of most government buildings and ministries, such as the compound where we at American Voices are sharing the fruits of our trade. One could feel quite distant from trouble…that is, if the people here didn’t have stories. And everyone in Erbil has a story.

Since my arrival, the worst I have had to deal with are the constant power outages, rare internet connectivity, a new ipod that lasted only 4 days, and the relentless – yet gratifying – requests of students starving for attention. Oh yes, and an infected finger, likely from the hangnail I impulsively removed several days ago, a nuisance with the potential to derail my time at the keyboard…that is, if it were not for the appearance of our American Voices volunteer Dr. Omar, who gave me an antibiotic pack and an antiseptic cream, and at no charge.

Dr. Omar is from Mosul. Last evening, Omar offered to take me to dinner and show me the sights of Erbil, an offer that I couldn’t refuse, as another night of chicken, rice, and naan at the “Modern City Hotel” was more than I could bear. Besides, the chance to talk to another local away from the chaos of our makeshift music building offered me a welcome chance to see Iraq through the lens of those that call this home.

Indeed, Dr. Omar has a story.

Our dinner conversation was easy, like two old friends separated by distance for a time but who picked up the conversation right where they left off. Even though I had heard the outline of Omar’s successes, it was quite another matter to hear the cost directly from Omar over our plate of delicious Saj.

Omar’s family is well-known in Mosul. His grandfather was the first professional physician of the city, and patriarch of what would become a long line of family doctors, including Omar’s mother, her brother who lives in Baghdad, and ultimately Omar himself.

In 2004, Omar’s grandfather passed away from natural causes and Omar’s mother wished to have her father’s funeral in Baghdad. So, Omar and his family (which includes a brother and two sister’s) made the drive to Baghdad to stay with his uncle during the period of the funeral.

After two weeks, Omar and his family returned to Mosul, except for his mother, who wished to stay longer in the city with her brother, and the city where she had raised Omar during her work in med school years earlier. For the whole family to stay in Baghdad would have been too risky since at the time it was common place in Mosul – and indeed much of Iraq – to return to find vacant homes stripped of their furnishings by the desperate neighbors or criminals.

The phone call that brought Omar the news of his mother’s death was devastating. Apparently, US and Iraqi forces had engaged enemy combatants near his uncle’s home in Baghdad, and a stray missile caused a fire in the second story of the flat, critically injuring her.

Omar’s uncle was working at the hospital that day, and once he heard news of his sister’s situation he earnestly commandeered an ambulance. As the ambulance approached a bridge near the home, both Iraqi and American troops opened fire on the vehicle. “It was a blessing that my uncle wasn’t killed as well,” Omar explained in a rather matter of fact manner. Nevertheless, the reason for his seemingly distant emotions became evident as the rest of the story unfolded.

“What should have been a quick ten minute trip from the hospital to the flat had taken two hours.”

Suddenly, Omar had to stop our conversation to gather himself. After a long pause and obvious effort, Omar raised his head explain that his mother died an hour after admission to the hospital due to lack of fluids that could have easily been dealt with had the ambulance arrived in time.

To say that this moment in our conversation made the conflict in Iraq “real” to me would be an understatement, but Omar mumbled that for him this was just the beginning.

Omar is a Christian. Typically, this means a family and a network of friends, as opposed to a “tribal” network that is more common in Mosul. This often leaves Christians more vulnerable to the terror networks that thrive in Mosul, as they have fewer allies to protect them from outside threats.

“Assalam aleikum” (“Peace be upon you”), a voice spoke in Arabic, when Omar answered the phone one day. “I did not want to kill or kidnap you or a member of your family because we know that you are helpless and can’t defend yourselves, we just want to take your contribution in peace. This is why I have not killed you. Now listen, I have thirty injured soldiers who need passage to Syria for treatment, at a cost of $3000 US dollars each. Have the money by tomorrow after Friday prayers.”

Omar responded, “But we are orphans.”

The answer was, “Manage it with your family!”

Even if Omar and his family had had the ninety thousand dollars, in a cash only society, as Iraq is now, getting the money would have been impossible. Knowing he would surely die, Omar packed what he could and fled to Erbil where he had a friend who offered him a space to live while strived to get back on his feet. Omar has only returned to Mosel once, and not since 2008. As of a few weeks ago, he is now a doctor.

After dinner, we walked — got lost, in fact — in Iraq’s largest municipal park. The park is spectacular, with a lake, large fountains, huge yellow trees that would look more suitable in the Appalachians in the fall than the 110 degree Iraqi summer, and a large memorial to the only terrorist attack in Erbil since 2003, an attack that killed 98 people including the newly elected Prime Minister of Kurdistan.

While we searched for our bearing, I asked Omar about his future plans. He expressed a desire to do post doc work in Europe or the US. More importantly, he expressed his desire to return to Erbil to be part of the rebirth – the birth, really – of a revitalized Kurdistan. Omar is not Kurdish, and when I reacted with some surprise at his desire to return, he expressed, “I believe the Kurdish people are the most generous people in the world.” On this point I have no reason to disagree with Omar.

As we wandered past the large green where hundreds of people were gathered in the dark to watch the World Cup soccer match on a super- sized screen, Omar said with pride, “two years ago you would not have seen a soul here. Now just look at them.”

Finally, we came upon what I hoped to see, the monument to those that died in the 2004 bombing. At the entrance to the walkway to the giant marble slab inscribed with the names of the dead are two large stones, standing like threshold guardians to the slab itself, as if demanding that those that pass be worthy to read the names of the dead. One is in Arabic, and one in English. The stones read : “Freedom is not Free”.

Just ask Omar.

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A Dry Heat

…as if it matters.  This could be Las Vegas.

I must admit that I was not the least bit apprehensive until I arrived at the Houston airport.  It seems that the lack of sleep, combined with too much caffiene led to a round of nausea.  It is possible that the “farewell” Chicken Fried Chicken did not help the situation.  I nearly said farewell to the Fried Chicken.

But, after a 9 hour flight to Frankfurt, and another 5 hour leg to Iraq, I am safely in my hotel room, and so far the air conditioner works!  The room is ok, though with the caveat the the name Modern City Hotel may be stretching the credibility of the marketing campaign. 

The people have been quite pleasant.  Nothing particularly stands out, other than the fact that I *think* I was shorted 5000 dinar while buying toiletries for the week.  Trying to make change from dollars to dinars while making a purchase at the same time was too much for my weary brain.  But there is an app for that.  App Tool Box Pro currency converter to the rescue.

Otherwise, there are lots of young folks with lots of enthusiam at every turn.  There was even a nice applause as the plane landed.  Dress is quite diverse, with women in every possible wardrobe arrangement.  Many of the kids enjoy baseball hats with Skulls on the teeshirts.  Little rockers in the making?

Tomorrow is orientation day.  Then, the students arrive. 

Stay Tuned.

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