Summer Epilogue (2011)

Though the American Voices workshops were cut short this summer, the Jordanian program was a huge success.  It is exciting to see how our presence in Jordan still reinforced the awareness of our work last year in the other countries we visited in the region.  I get daily emails from students eager for us to return next year.  Fingers crossed, kids!

Just as I posted last summer’s epilogue, below are additional pictures and video from some of the highlights of our time in Jordan.

I will continue to use this space to keep people updated on things related to the American Voices experience and mission.  If you have enjoyed reading about our work and my adventures, please consider a small tax-deductible donation to American Voices.  Our work can only continue with the support of music, dance, and theater lovers like you!



A special thanks goes to the Alfred Music Company, and Mary Beth Parker of the Waco Piano Center for their generous donation of music to the American Voices program.  Thanks to them, many boxes of music were donated to the Jordanian libraries this summer.  In this picture left to right:  Mark Thayer (St. Louis), Andreh Maqdisi (Syria), John Ferguson (AV founder and Big Boss), and Aram Kawa (Iraq).


Greg Hurley (East Carolina University) takes command of this Jordanian military orchestra rehearsal.


Sarah Hamade arrives for the final Gala concert.  The concert sported an audience of 1000 people and live Jordanian TV broadcasts.


The Children’s group opens the string portion of the Gala program.


Ira Spaulding (City College of New York) gives final instructions to the children’s choir before they take the stage for their portion of the Gala concert.


Ira leads the children’s choir in an American favorite.  They have a bit over a week to prepare their performance from scratch.  The children are always crowd pleasers.


The American Voices string program is huge, consisting of several orchestras.


The intermediate orchestra prepares to take the stage.


A student invites us over for traditional “Mansaf”, a delicious dish traditionally eaten with your hands.  Here, we are taught the proper technique.


A surprise guest.  The man in blue is Jordan’s Minister of Labor.  He was one of the few cabinet members to survive the government’s dismissal in February.


The family gives me a tour of their home, complete with many antiques from their travels to India.  Bruce gives a nice explanation to the Minister, describing American Voices and our mission.


A night at a Lebanese restaurant with my “Groupies”.


Some fun with the locals along one of the street markets.


Making baked goods and Naan bread at one of the local shops.


The local cherry salesman takes a breather.


A trip to the local pastry shop.  Yum!


Waiting for handouts.


Heading to Petra.


At Petra, just looking at these women was enough to give me heat stroke.


This little guy was always waiting for our return to the hotel.


The intermediate piano class throws me a farewell party.  I think I need to learn the proper way to wrap the shemagh they gave me.


See YOU next year!

“Thank You, Welcome to Jordan.”

I must have heard that phrase a dozen times a day while in Jordan, whether in taxis, restaurants, or buying souvenirs.  The Jordanians are without question the most hospitable people on the planet, which is why I quickly realized what the travel guides meant when they said that I could walk anywhere in Jordan without fear and in confidence…which is why I decided that I was going to see Petra one way or another, even if I had to go it alone.

Indeed, it did look like would have to go it alone.  Ira (voice), Bruce (cello), and John Cramer (violin) all were headed to the Dead Sea on our one day off from teaching in the American Voices workshop (Fridays are holy days in the Middle East).  Marc (violin) needed to chill at the ranch, and John Ferguson had a date with the local TV folks for interviews (grandma used to say that it is hell to be popular).  I had no idea what the few others had yet planned. Regrettably, I scarcely saw Michael and Rick  (Broadway and Dance) since they were working at another venue and not at the Cultural Center.

So, on Wednesday I began looking for ways to get to Petra by taxi.  My first quote was from the hotel front desk, for $150 dollars.  This would include the three-hour trip there and back, and 7 hours to look around.  This seemed like quite a deal for someone who can barely get from airports to a hotel in most cities for less than $50 bucks.  And this quote was for 6 hours of driving through the desert!

By early Thursday I had secured a quote from a taxi for $100 dollars.  Wow, things were looking up!  Then, the night before the excursion, I had discovered the “Jet” bus service (thanks to Omar, my favorite front desk clerk), which would also get me there and back with 7 hours to explore, but for a mere $20 US dollars.  That was it. I was going to Petra, and on the cheap!

As fate would have it (and I do mean fate), the Lebanese students — affectionately known as my “Groupies”, which include Sarah, Pascale (“mom”), Tony (“Toooony”) and Joe — decided that they would join me.  Then, at the 11th hour, American Voices instructor Greg (Viola) decided he would also opt for Petra instead of the Dead Sea.  (The Dead Sea was only a 45-minute drive from our hotel, and we still had hopes of getting out there after work later in the week.)  It looked to be the perfect getaway.

Mistake number one:  Don’t stay up too late the night before the trip.

I woke up Friday morning after a short 4 hours of sleep, and headed with the kiddos to the jet bus station.  No problem, I was too jazzed to even notice being tired.

Mistake number two:  Don’t skip breakfast before you go to Petra.

Since the hotel restaurant didn’t open until 7am, I figured I would not worry about breakfast.  After all, I rarely eat breakfast in the States, and had done so only in Jordan since it was so convenient, and lunches usually consisted of lots of bread and fries…with perhaps a touch of meat thrown in for symbolic reasons.  (They wanted it to appear that we were eating sandwiches.)

Once at the bus station, Rania (my prize student and American Voices volunteer) surprised us by showing up, and the seven of us were on our way at 6:30 am.


The bus stopped at “Midway Castle”, a chance for snack and souvenirs.  These boys were enjoying a nice game of soccer in the parking lot.


By 9:30, it was clear that we were nearing Petra due to the drastic changes in terrain.


The approach to Petra.


Mistake number three:   Don’t skip a real lunch.

Thankfully, my Lebanese Groupies had the time and foresight to bring some naan bread and cheese.  I had figured that there would be places to get something to eat at the entrance of Petra.  However, there were only a few stands selling snackity items, but nothing with real substance.  I figured we wouldn’t be doing anything so strenuous anyways, so it didn’t bother me at that point.  We hung out under a tree, and put on suntan lotion and ate some of the snacks.


The third of the series of “Indiana Jones” movies was filmed at Petra.


As we stood in line to buy tickets for entering the park, I marveled at the cost structure.  If you are Arab, you pay one Dinar.  If you are not Arab, you pay 50 Dinar ($70 US dollars).  I wasn’t amused, as I saw a metal plate on the side of one of the information booths that read:  “USAID”.   But, I was going to see Petra regardless of the apparent injustice.  There would always be time to pester my Senators when I got home.

As we began our trek, it didn’t take long to see the first evidence of the ancient civilization that once thrived here.  Petra is peppered with tombs, which were dug into the rocks.  I could only imagine how much time and effort just one of these tombs must have taken to prepare.  Surely it gave a different perspective to the phrase, “digging your own grave.”


One of the first tombs along the trail to the “Treasury”.


Frequently, we were approached by camel, donkey, and horse and cart drivers soliciting us to buy rides to the main attraction, the “Treasury”, and beyond.  5 Dinar was the going rate for the trip to the Treasury (Interestingly, it would become 7 Dinar on the way back).  There was no way that I was going to plop myself on one of those little donkeys.  The sight made it pretty easy to spot the likely Americans, as well.


I did not take this particular picture, but I could have.  USA…USA!!!


Just as with dog and cat owners in the West, they say that after a time camel owners begin to resemble their camels.  Matching smiles?


Mistake number 4:  Ok, in the end, it may be ok to conserve a little energy and to accept a little help up from the “staff”.

As we entered the Siq (“the shaft”) the signs read that we had a 2 km walk ahead of us to reach the Treasury.  But, the sight was so spectacular that the trip seemed to go by in seconds.  Petra is a protected city.  The only practical way in is through the Siq.  The Nabataeans created an elaborate hydraulic system in order to get water into the city.  They also sold the extra water to travelers along the spice routes nearby.  Water was brought into the city via gutters carved along the Siq from aquifers just outside the city.


The “Siq” (The Shaft).  Note the water gutters carved along each wall.


Another view of the “Siq”.  Again, note the gutters for water along the walls.
I would learn the hard way that the horse carts aren’t such a bad idea.


The cats at Petra find a way.


I happened to glance up just as a bit of the Treasury could be seen through the end of the Siq.  I began filming from this point.  Few experiences have taken my breath away like my approach to the Treasury.


The detail still visible in the Treasury is amazing.  This was built 2000 years ago.


A closer view of the detail of the Treasury.


Mistake number 5:  If you are going to continue past the Treasury, plan ahead.

The Monastery sits atop the highest point in Petra.  From one side of the mountain, you can view the Rift Valley, the spot where Moses pointed out the Promised Land.  From the other side, one looks down onto a large portion of the city of Petra.  (It is estimated that only one percent of the city has been excavated.)  So, my “Groupies” and I did the calculations, and we felt that if we didn’t linger, we could just make it to the Monastery and get back to the bus by the 4:30 departure time.

Mistake number 6:  If you are going to the Monastery, be in shape.

For the next several kilometers, the terrain was relatively flat, hindered mostly by the occasional sand we had to walk through, and the fact that the sun was beginning to take its toll.  Though the air somehow felt cool, the direct sunlight warmed the skin…  a strange sensation, really.  Regardless, I still marveled at the sights.


A woman rests in the shade along the trail.


More tombs along the trail at Petra.


Joe and Tony took off for this temple.  At first, I thought they had mistaken it for the Monastery.


I must get dropped by AT&T at least twice a day.  Yet, Joe was getting good reception even out here.


Another cat climbing along the rocky ledges.


Thankfully, this part of the road was flat, though the sand sometimes made walking more difficult.



Looking back from where we came, this whole mountain range was carved with city dwellings.


I had heard about the steps up to the Monastery.  All 900 of them.  At this point, I have to admit that I was somewhat concerned that I spent too much of the year sitting on piano benches, and not enough time riding my bicycle.  As Rania and I pondered our time constraints, we finally decided to make a go of it and head to the Monastery.  At this point, Greg had already turned back, and the others had crept ahead.  I had been worried about Greg (last year he seemed particularly sensitive to heat), so I was somewhat relieved that he wouldn’t be joining us on this part of the journey.  Little did I know that he wasn’t the one for whom I should have been worried.

Mistake number 7:  If you are going to the Monastery, make sure you have time, and do not hurry.

The trail up to the Monastery isn’t terribly exposed, but the cliffs along the trail are a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted.  One wrong step and there will be no second chances.  The thought of sitting up on a donkey seemed rather appalling, even if they are famous for their sure footing.


Rania and I try to decide if we can get up to the Monastery and back in time to catch the bus back home.


Along the trail, there was the occasional drink stand manned by Bedouins still living in the mountains, or the Bedouin women selling their crafted jewelry.  (I would have loved more time to buy gifts.  For 2 dollars one can buy a beautiful pendant, or ring.)  The final drink stand again doubled the price of water for foreigners.  This time, I let the sellers know of my displeasure.  I could only imagine that I seemed polite next to what other passers buy might have expressed at this point of the journey.


Though he had one broken leg, this cat was eager to charge me double what the Arabs paid for bottled water.  I had to resist breaking his other leg.


It was a struggle, but we made it to the Monastery.  Interestingly, there were few other people around.  Hmmm….


Standing in the doorway, I add a little perspective as to the size of the Monastery.



I figure that on the return trip I got within 300 yards of the park entrance.  300 yards, with 20 minutes to spare.  Easy.  Though I was “damaged”, I thought that I was just naturally fatigued.  But, it was also clear that I was shutting down… fast.  Suddenly, the horse drawn carts didn’t seem like such a bad idea.  (I should have noticed that the locals were beginning to offer me free return trips on the donkeys to the parking lot.  I figured that they were just looking for tips.)

Finally, I asked Rania to grab a cart.  Screw it… I had earned the right to relax those last few yards, right?

As I waited in the shade behind a rock, I began to feel strange.  Then, I tried to stand up, and whoop…nope.  Have a seat, Bradley.

The cart didn’t come, and I was really worried about holding everybody up from the bus.  So, I took an offer for a horse.  Note to self…it takes as much energy to stay on a horse as it does to walk.  I figure we made it about 5 steps.  I had to get down.

The next sound I heard was an ambulance siren.  I was really upset at the thought that it was for me.  Greg (who had made it to the Monastery after all… by wisely taking a donkey) and the rest of the gang were already at the bus, joking that the ambulance was probably for me.  They didn’t yet realize that it was.  I was still in denial.  However, by the time I got into the ambulance I knew that I was in some trouble.

The ambulance attendants asked me to sit down so they could take my blood pressure.  Immediately, they became worried, and Sarah was particularly insistent that I needed to go the hospital.  My blood pressure had cratered, and the alarm was going off of the pressure meter.

You remember my post about Bruce and the discussion over Pepsi or Pepsi light?  Well, the next 10 minutes were similar, as the attendants debated with each other (and my Groupies) as to whether I needed rest or a hospital.  One of the attendants was sitting on the edge of the portable bed  generally reserved for patients to lay on.  As I felt myself slipping, I said that I needed to lay down…fast.  The attendant broke off from his conversation with the Groupies long enough to say, “just a minute.”  I think the last bit of energy I mustered was spent politely removing him from that position.

As I lay there, it suddenly dawned on me that heat was the issue.  (Yes, I can be slow) Yet, there was no I-V, my hat was still on, and my shoes were still on.  So, once I realized what I needed, I turned to Rania and whispered…”water….forehead…shoes.”

Sarah made a dash for juice, and Rania sponged my head.  As the attendants explained to everyone that I should just rest there, Sarah returned with juice and asked, “so what happens to him during this ‘rest’?”  At that point, it was a mad dash through the mountains to the nearest hospital.  They never even strapped me into the bed.  It was all I could do not to roll off the cart.  I didn’t see stars, but dollar signs, as I imagined what the bill was going to be for this experience.  I figured foreigners were likely to get charged double, or worse.  Hey, it worked for everything else, why not medical care?  At the lowest point, I remember actually saying my goodbyes.  This was it…I was going to snuff it in Jordan without a chance to say goodbye to my family or friends.

As the cool air of the hospital (a clinic, really) washed over me, I began to feel a bit better.  The doctor saw me, and immediately said, “heat stroke.”  It was hard to walk, but once my vital signs were stable I was dismissed (too soon).  In their usual helpful manner, the Jordanians had already arranged another bus, which was waiting a few miles below.  Though I was gouged by the taxi driver for the trip to that bus (for 20 dollars…a fair price had we been in America), I didn’t argue, and managed to stumble onto the bus for the 3 hours trip home.

This should have been the end of this story, except that the air conditioner on the bus went out about half way back, and for some reason I began to crash again.  The girls were quite worried, as was I.  Rania once again sponged my head, and Pascale (affectionately known as “mom”) did some sort of “reflexology” she learned from girl scouts on my hand.  Sarah fanned me, and gave me juice.  In all, I credit the girls for doing as well as I did.  They are extraordinary individuals.

Rania’s father is a prominent pediatric surgeon in Amman, and he met us at the station, insisting that I go to their flat so he could check me out.  After some rest, and delicious pasta Rania’s mother made (for which I still need the recipe!), I was beginning to feel better.  After some time, I was taken back to the hotel, where Bruce — who had gotten word of my demise — was pacing “like a cat looking for his master.”

In the end, the trip was certainly worth it…for me, anyway.  And the bill for the experience?  Zero…not one Dinar.  When I had handed the hospital attendants my insurance card their only concern was how to spell my name.  When I asked the hospital folks why they weren’t charging me, their response was, “It is our duty.”

And of all the things I will likely remember about this adventure — the Treasury…the Monastery view…the incredible help of friends — perhaps the most memorable will be something the ambulance driver said as I exited the hospital, exhausted, and totally spent.

As I stumbled out to get into the taxi the hospital staff had arranged, the ambulance driver shook my hand and said:

“Thank You, Welcome to Jordan.”


Ya’ll come back now, ya hear!

My original plan was to wait until my trip to Petra to finish off this blog entry, but half way through the Petra trek yesterday it became apparent that that little adventure (fiasco) was going to deserve an entry of its own.  So, first things first…

Dear airline companies, I am on to you and I have figured out your plan.  You wait until I go to the restroom, and then deviously add a row of seats to the airplane, thus reducing leg room by an inch or two for each passenger.  This is the only explanation for why I ended my flights eating my knees, and practically needing a wheel chair to deplane.  Thank God for John Cramer.

John is an American Voices board member, and having him along was not only a real treat, but a great distraction from the “pain of the plane”.  We quickly became friends, and felt comfortable enough to talk about everything from the tragic (his mom passed away a bit over a year ago from the Swine Flu…after having a vaccine 6 weeks earlier…for the Swine Flu.) to the adventure ahead of us in Jordan.  This was John’s first trip to the Middle East, so this made me a “veteran” of sorts, even though this was also my first trip to Jordan.

John had the foresight to rent us a hotel room in Frankfurt, where an awkward 12 hour layover awaited us.  The weather was so nice that we had half a mind to stay.  (Anyone ever notice that Germany has a distinctive — yet pleasant — smell?  Bratwurst and Beer, I would imagine.)  The hotel was a lifesaver, because we arrived in Amman after 2:30 am, and did not reach our final destination until after 4 am.  Teaching was to  begin in earnest at 8:30 that morning.  So, the sleep we managed was time and Euros well spent.

For me, one of the great things about this trip was a chance to contrast the cultural customs of Jordan with the other Arabic countries I have visited, as well as those of the United States.  I had just mentioned to John that as crazy as the drivers seem to be in the Middle East, I had yet to see an accident.  The night after that comment, John witnessed a scene that brought up several of those “contrasts” in ways of life.

On our second evening here, John joined a local family, with whom he shared a mutual friend, for dinner at a town restaurant.  While eating, he heard a horrible crash and a scream from just over the wall by his table. A young boy was riding his bicycle when he was struck by a car.  While still conscious, the boy was unable to move.  John was surprised that the first reaction of onlookers was not people screaming at each other to cast blame (as he says would likely be the case in his hometown of Houston), but rather a sense that everyone on the scene knew they had the singular cooperative mission to get the boy help.  In doing so, they moved him to the car…the car of the guy who hit him.  In Jordan, I later learned, the law says that the person responsible for an accident is also responsible to transport to the hospital.  When I asked why they would risk moving the boy for fear of greater injury, the response was that the perceived risk of waiting for an ambulance to arrive was greater than the risk of additional injury.  So, off the boy went. (John also speculated that in Houston there would eventually be lawyers involved with such an occurrence.)  We never learned of the boy’s fate.  I have already noticed that in a crisis, large or small, Jordanian’s rally quickly if not efficiently to solve problems.  Witness tonight’s dinner, which found American Voices cellist Bruce Walker attempting to order the number three combo at Popeye’s Fried Chicken, accompanied by no less that 6 employees gathering around the register, all simultaneously verbalizing Bruce’s distinction between regular Pepsi and Pepsi Light.


A Coke might have brought a smile.


I guess some things here are pretty American after all.  (My piano students here also relay that the bodies at murder scenes are also moved by those that find the body, perhaps explaining why I cannot find any current episodes of  “CSI Jordan.”)


Interestingly, I have seen very few overweight people here, but the few I have seen were within a few hundreds yards of this establishment.


My first morning here found me surprisingly rested, and once I made the 10 minute and two dinar ($2.40) trip to the conservatory, it was clear that the gathering of teachers and students was energized, and we were all eager to get started.  My two classes, one intermediate and one advanced, are a solid group.  Most have had consistent training, with a couple that would be standouts anywhere.  Rania, one of my best students and the head office assistant for American Voices in Jordan, was a key player in spreading the word around Amman that I would be teaching here.  The few local teachers here are apparently suspicious of us visiting Americans, and they were reluctant to allow their students to attend.  Thanks to Rania’s recruiting efforts, I have all of the students I can handle.

The view out of my hotel window the morning of my arrival.


My first taxi to work.  By law, each Jordanian must claim a religion at birth.  Even if they ultimately were to become atheists (which is technically illegal) they will retain their religious affiliation.


The Foyer of the Cultural Center


John Cramer


The kids arrive to register for the American Voices workshop


Bruce setting up in the office.


The students arrive for my intermediate piano class.


My intermediate piano class.  A talented group.


Truth be told, the teaching schedule has made it difficult to do much sightseeing since most worthwhile adventures are out of town…that is, until yesterday’s trip to Petra.  But, evenings are filled with leisurely chats in the hotel lounge, or a quick trip to the spice, tea, and candy store around the corner.

A trip to the store for tea and chocolates is a nice evening stroll from our hotel.


John Cramer and I relax in the hotel lobby with the Lebanese students.


Omar, the desk manager of our hotel lived in Dallas for 13 years.  


For an extra Dinar, I can bribe the staff to open the rooftop lounge after hours.  It has quite a night view.


My first cat encounter.  This insightful chap resides under the parked Hotel buses.  But, he couldn’t  warn me about what was in store for me at Petra.

To Jordan, with Love

This was the year I “discovered” Facebook.

It’s not that I haven’t been using Facebook for several years now.  I had a particular blast (from the past) when old friends began reconnecting as time led up to my high school reunion a couple of summers ago.  And it is amazing how many people I have “found” and found me via the site.

I think that my epiphany of Facebook’s potential took place early this spring, early one weekend morning, when I found myself in 6 simultaneous chats…one each from Erbil and Mosul, Iraq, one each from Allepo and Damascus, Syria, and two from Lebanon.  (Come to think of it, I think there was also one from California in there somewhere.) All of the conversations were with new found friends and students (or their parents) who participated in my classes as part of American Voices (AV) workshops last summer, the organization with which I will travel to Amman, Jordan tomorrow morning.  In fact, as I write, the YES Academy Jordan Facebook page is alive with chatter from students, most of whom have not even met each other yet, who are excited and destined to join our 10 days of dance, theater, and music making at Amman’s National Center for Arts and Culture and National Conservatory of Music.

While the plans for AV 2011 workshops began taking shape last December, I would receive daily messages from students of last year’s programs, all with basically the same message:  “How are you, and please come back this summer to teach us.”  And indeed, my plans were to do exactly that.  That is, until the “Arab Spring” arrived.

This year, I applied for a summer sabbatical project via my University (Baylor) in order to fund and enable me to continue a multifaceted mission with American Voices in the Middle East.  Along with the central mission of diplomacy associated with the AV programs, I have been working to explore opportunities for future University recruitment from the region, perform during the workshops, and expand my musical network, including arranging state-side performance and lecture opportunities with other AV faculty.  (I was funded last year, as well…for about three weeks.  Funding was revoked due to “new concerns”…security risk.  Ironically, I was bailed out at the 11th hour from a rather large personal expense for the trip by…wait for it…wait for it…the Iraqi Government.)

To my delight, this year’s sabbatical was approved, but with the caveat that I would have to again visit with the University lawyers (some of whom were the same as those concerned about my travels last year).  Needless to say, I had to work to remain optimistic.  And as the spring semester was about to begin, things did look promising.  After all, I had already been to three of the four countries planned for workshops, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as a result, faculty and administration members had a better grasp of what this crazy musician was thinking by going to “those places”.

Then came Tunisia.

One by one, uprisings began in the countries of the Middle East, and these events now occupy much of the news here in the US.  Throughout the spring, civil uprisings appeared in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, as well as large protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, and on the borders of Israel; in addition, there were minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara.  Among the shared techniques of civil resistancethese countries employed, they shared at least one major influence in their organization:  Facebook.

As Middle East tensions grew, so dimmed the tone of some administrators (no thanks to a new State Department travel warning for Iraq coming out the morning of my last meeting with university lawyers), and so changed the tone of many of the messages I received from students, which ranged from that of total denial that there were even any problems in their country, to aspirations to leave their countries all together.  Communications from Syria dwindled, until even those in the highest state of denial disappeared almost completely (Syria is under the most stress now).  Thankfully, there are still frequent messages from those who feel a bond of friendship, or who are also intent on attempting to study at Baylor, all of whom validate my feeling that the time spent abroad has been worthwhile.

Finally, with the revolutionary writing on the wall, even American Voices had to abandon plans for at least two of the planned workshops this summer (Syria and Lebanon), and at least a reduced presence at a third (Iraq).  That leaves only Jordan on my docket, and an understandably relieved Baylor administration, which gave me the final go for liftoff despite the reduced scope of the original sabbatical proposal.

So, it’s off to Jordan, with love.  And knowing how rewarding the adventures were last year, I am very anxious to meet the students and hear some great music making.  (As anyone familiar with my blog last year knows, I will also be on the lookout for any interesting cats to photograph during trips to the market, or whenever they cross my path.) The flight over the pond should be especially fun since I will join charismatic AV Board of Directors member John Cramer for our journey to Amman.

Come to think of it, I should check to see if he has a Facebook page.

Summer Epilogue

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.

A Day Off

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.

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

The Politics of Air

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.

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