Archive for August, 2010

After over 30 hours of planes and airports, I am happy to be back home safe in Texas.  I picked Lynne up at the airport yesterday, as she has returned from her work in Africa.  Except for Lynne recovering from a recurrence of malaria, we are in good shape and enjoying a few days of rest before the beginning of what looks to be a very busy semester at Baylor.

There is certainly plenty for me to think about as I process the summer’s events and travels.  It is funny the odd little things that stick in one’s mind as I reflect, and the fact that they aren’t always the big things that we will all remember .  Hezha’s Birthday on the back of a car in Iraq in the middle of the night, complete with violin accompaniment.   Boran’s father playing me a Kurdish folk song on his guitar at the Fine Arts Institute.  The ice cream on Bliss street in Beirut.  The many unique cats I encountered in all three countries. I particularly remember the Dean of the Fine Art’s Institute in Erbil pointing to his wall and lamenting that he “has no degrees” there from qualified teachers.  I pictured future diplomas in Baylor’s Green and Gold , but promised I would help somehow, even if the colors ultimately end up being Purple and White, or Orange and White, or…

Most of all, I will remember and miss my new friends…until we meet again.  (I am tentatively planning a short trip to both Iraq and Syria in December.)

I was severely limited on Internet this summer.  Even when it worked, it was sporadic and bandwidth was usually nonexistent.  So, I am now going to upload a few videos and pictures as an Epilogue to the summer’s most memorable moments, and since folks have been asking for more.  It should be much easier to upload now that I have good bandwidth (knock-on-wood).

I will continue to use this blog as a way to update any news as it relates to the American Voices mission, or to the welfare of the students whom I introduced to readers over the course my blog entries.

A special thanks goes out to all those that supported me over the last two months.  (You know who you are.)  Even simple emails helped me make it through the few low spots.  I am truly appreciative.

Now…on with the show…



The drive from the Erbil airport upon arrival in Iraq.


Hezha’s 19th Birthday Celebration.

It is midnight, but Happy Birthday, Hezha!


The students arrive at the opening of the YES Academy in Erbil, Iraq 2010

Bruce Walker works with the cellos at YES Academy, Iraq.

Students practice at the Ministry of Culture in Iraq.

My advanced piano class in Iraq.

Teaching students to play and name intervals in my piano class for beginners in Iraq.

These two girls were very talented.  Their piano teacher is a violinist at the Institute.  Certified piano teachers are not to be found in Kurdistan, a problem I would like to help remedy.


Ms. Carol works with the Broadway Kids class in Iraq.  They are always the hit of the show.

At first, Michael seems a bit harsh.  But he knows that one of the challenges of the YES Academy is how to get students, often from different religions or ethnic backgrounds, to work together as a team and not as individuals.  The result is always a good show and a bonded group of dancers.

Boran and I shoot video for the new Erbil airport.  The airport intends to have TV’s throughout the airport promoting cultural life in Erbil.

People following my blog learned the fate of these two dogs, and that Iraq was full of highs and lows.

At a party, the students mock a local pop violinist.  Apparently this imitation was right on, much to the delight of the listeners.

The local KFC…”Krunchy Fried Chicken.”  I had a nice chat with the owner, an Iraqi who for most of the year lives with his family in England.

The Water Man delivered water to the Ministry each day.  I did the math…1.2 million Kurds in Erbil, each drinking 5 to 8 bottles per day, equals a lot of plastic, and one huge environmental problem.  Plastic bottles litter much of the city.




Agathe watches Amjad read during a lesson.  Agathe won third place in the Syrian piano competition only a few days after our workshop ended.  At ten years old, she was the youngest competitor.

Syrian piano and voice students pose after their recital.

“Yung Chris International” demonstrates some of the dancing that will be on the finale Gala.


Anne-Marie Condacse and I perform under unusual circumstances, not the least of which was the great distance between the pianist and soloist, and a TV cameraman that liked to startle the pianist by placing his camera over the pianist’s shoulder.  Thankfully, the crowd was large and enthusiastic.

The bazaar was closed on Fridays (holy day), but I was interested in the workings of the “tea guy”.  When I took this picture, I hadn’t even noticed the interesting sign in the background.


Mosques broadcast the call to prayer several times per day.  This was my favorite singer and chant during my travels.  The mosque was just outside my AUB dorm window.  (sound only)

I met many interesting cats during my travels, and couldn’t resist photo ops.


We had a blast wandering the inside of the “Mussaylha” castle during our private showing.


Bruce is thrilled to be standing in the sea at sunset.


Another view of the spectacular sunset the night of our arrival in Beirut.


Aram is concerned that the man may be drowning.  Is there a lifeguard in the house?


Yes…yes…rest easy….there is a lifeguard.


A sermon at the Umayyad Mosque on holy day in Damascus.


Hezha and Omar enjoy our day at Jeita.


No, this isn’t a scene from the Matrix.  Hezha and I have a little fun with the mirrors in the elevator of the Virgin Megastore.


Ira Spaulding hides behind his Kabab at dinner in Beirut.


The tree outside my piano studio at West Hall on AUB campus.  Yes, this is one tree.


Omar graduates from his first book of piano lessons.


This isn’t the way I remembered Snow White.  I wondered what the Dwarves were packing.


More graffiti near campus.


The cats of AUB.


Don’t worry, little one.  Tell your friends (and mine) that I will be back.

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Everybody should just take a day off.

The idea is especially appropriate for folks here in Lebanon, which includes the faculty here at American Voices.  Finally, Sunday brought such a day and a chance to catch up on the news I have neglected for many weeks.   The campus was quiet, so I sat and enjoyed a diet coke and read the paper.   There was a price to pay, however, for both my decision to catch up on the news and for eating my breakfast “in public”.

It took me a minute to realize why I was receiving an unusual amount of attention from the locals here at AUB.   At one point I counted 12 of them…each with his or her unique tactic for finding their way to my breakfast sandwich… all  surrounding me like generals strategizing battle tactics and placing their army.

A hungry onlooker

When the woman responsible to feeding showed up with food, it became clear that it was all simply a case of mistaken identity.  Within seconds I was abandoned.

Sharks without fins

Reading the news was a degree more threatening than the hungry kitties (if not by as much as one might expect).  Yesterday, the Israeli army and the Lebanese army exchanged fire across their border south of here…a minor event if not for the recent tensions building in this region over the last couple of years.  (These  specific shots were fired …wait for it…wait for it…over a disputed tree.)  The overall strategic reasons for regional tensions  (primarily involving Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel) are complicated, but the immediate worries center around an expected verdict  from a UN tribunal, previously expected to be handed down in Sept. or Oct., that is charged with investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister.  Recently, a respected German source published an article suggesting that the verdict has been essentially reached, and that long suspected members of Hezbollah (as well as Syria) are among the guilty parties, thus escalating worries that the announcement may come sooner rather than later.  A reaction from Hezbollah is expected, and Israel has made it clear that they intend to flatten “all of Lebanon” should this occur.  I am somewhat comforted by the notion that Hezbollah has much to gain from unrest here, and thus are pressuring the media to fan the flames of unrest.  Regardless, with my departure only a few days away, I am looking forward to my final concert tomorrow night and heading home.

The arrival of a van for 10 faculty offered us a way around Lebanon on our Sunday off, and we took advantage of it.  First stop, the great cave Jeita.  There is a lobbying effort by locals who think the site should be one of the 7 wonders of the world.  I haven’t seen the other “wonders”, but find it hard to imagine other places of such awe inspiring beauty.

Picture taking was not allowed inside the cave.  However, a few of the students took pictures anyway (names withheld to protect the guilty).  However, no pictures I have seen do justice to the enormity or color of the place.  After exploring the upper cave, we ventured downward to the lower cavern, and its massive lake.  It was another first for me…I had never before driven a motor boat in a cave. The gardens surrounding the cave were a nice place to relax after our healthy trek below.

The people on the walkway add perspective to the vastness of the space.

In the gardens outside of Jeita Grotto.

Our next stop was the town of Harisa (The coast of Lebanon is pretty much one continuous metroplex) and the cable cars to the top of the mountain, where sits the Notre Dame of Liban, a large statue of the Virgin Mary that towers over the city of Junieh below.  The view was fogged in for most of the day, but we were lucky to get a clear view for the hour we spent on the summit.

The ascent to the mountaintop above Junieh.

The statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the city of Junieh below.

A woman takes a picture of the Virgin Mary statue.

It is hard to argue with the way the Lebanese eat, and Texas has no hold on portion size.  Just the “dessert” at our stop at the seaside restaurant was enough to make a meal.  Our table was showered with fresh fish, chicken, beef, and my favorite part of the meal… the “Fruit Bombardment”.

“Fruit Bombardment”  A welcome tradition in many Lebanese restaurants.

During lunch, I finally got some quality time to visit with Aram, who was one of our string students in Iraq.  Aram is a fine violinist, so I was surprised to hear that he was in a serious car accident in Erbil in Feb.  (see my post “I Found Matt”.  I have added a couple of links to videos of the Iraqi violin players).  Aram was the only survivor of the accident, which resulted in the loss of two of his closest friends.  His arm was severely broken and he was restricted to a cast for 5 months, a potential career ender for a musician (Everyone in Iraq has a story).  Today, he is volunteering for American Voices here in Lebanon and taking violin lessons, along with Omar and along couple of our other new friends from Iraq.

Ater lunch, we managed to drag ourselves from the table with great difficulty, and headed to the unusual French castle, “Mussaylha”, that sits overlooked below a highway bridge just north of Harisa.  We thought it was closed, but the owner saw us wondering around the fence and offered us the key to the place.  We had a splendid time during our private showing, and ran around like children playing fort for the first time.

Castle “Mussaylha”

If only we had this place when we were kids.

On the way home, we stopped for a Swim in Byblos…the site of an ancient Phoenician seaport, the oldest port in the world, dating from 3000 BC.  Aram and I forgot our swimsuits for the swimming beach, and we opted for picture taking instead.

Aram takes pictures of the swimmers near Byblos.

Omar’s first trip out of Iraq and first encounters with the sea leave him in love with swimming.

Yesterday, Omar, Hezha, and I went for a leisurely lunch in one of the many restaurants below the upscale Crowne Plaza Hotel here in Beirut.  We spent most of the time recapping the events of our Sunday adventures, while trying to escape the frantic news on the TV and media.  Towards the end of our lunch, and our brief armchair analysis of the political situation here, I said, “Geesh, Guys…as I look around at the street outside, it is hard for me to imagine the chaos that war here has brought in the past, or how it might ‘look’ in the future.”  We all just looked at each other like we knew the solution…a day off like we experienced together on Sunday…as Iraqi’s…as Americans…as Lebanese…as fellow humans.  As if on cue, the alarms were set off and we wondered outside to see what all the commotion was about.  We still do not know the cause of the fire, or whether anyone was hurt in the incident, but the timing was chilling.

So, as I approach my departure set for Sunday morning, I feel a strange mix of an eagerness to see my home and family, and a heavy heart.  As I think of leaving my new students and friends, I realize that this summer has put a personal face on what was otherwise a vague and faraway place and people, and given me an even greater resolve that I should, and can, make a difference.  I look forward to working to facilitate ways for these surprising young talents to receive accreditation so that they can return home to rebuild their country, while at the same time hoping that the arts contribute to a day when they won’t have to rebuild at all.

In the meantime, I suggest that everyone take a day off.

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