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Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

Back home in Texas.  Throw me a kitty, it is time for a nap.

The gala concert in Lebanon was a success.  The fact that it took place at all wasn’t taken for granted.

In the preceding months, we had originally planned on a full workshop on the University of Notre Dame campus in Lebanon (our program in 2010 was on the American University campus).  The plan was to include around 10 YES Academy faculty.  But due to the unrest in the area (specifically in Tripoli, a few clicks north of Beirut) we decided to cancel the program just prior to our departure for Iraq at the beginning of July.  The Lebanon program was on and off again twice, and in the end, and after some serious discussion, John, Marc, and I decided to do a limited program there with just the 3 of us.  There were quite a number of pianists registered (enough that it would take both John and I to handle the 40-student load), and there were enough string players that Marc would have his hands full leading them.  My decision to go was also a tough one because my wife (Lynne) would be departing for a four month gig in Africa only a week after my return from Lebanon.  In the end, we decided that my participation would be a net positive.

Thankfully, all of the YES programs went off beautifully, including the questionable decision to do a 4-day mini workshop south of the river in Kirkuk, Iraq.

At the request of the US Embassy, 6 of us were asked take part in the Kirkuk mission, while Marc, John, Bruce, and Michael headed to Baghdad for concerts there and in Basra.  In theory, their trip would be the “dangerous” one, and they would have to travel by armored vehicles while wearing full body armor  (the picture of Bruce in a helmet and flak jacket while carrying his cello made for a humorous juxtaposition).

We were told that we would be staying north of the river in Kirkuk, where Kurds make up the majority, and where violence has been at a minimum.  We were to arrive at a house equipped with four small rooms in which to do our teaching, and be in and out within 3 hours on each of the 4 days we were scheduled to teach.  But on our first trip on day one, we unexpectedly found ourselves being shuttled over the river, and a couple of miles into questionable territory.  Security was tight, and we now know why.

Only a few days after our departure, coordinated attacks throughout Iraq killed over 100 people, many of them in Kirkuk.  One of the 8 reported bombs in Kirkuk hit the police station next to the Children’s Center where we worked, and blew the windows out of our building.  As of yet, I have not heard directly from any of the students there as to their safety after the attack, but word is that everyone is ok.  Needless to say, John was less than happy after returning from Baghdad to find out our venue had moved without warning. But in retrospect, the faces of the children after our capstone mini-concert at the Center made the risk worth it.

Below are a few pictures and videos of my experiences this summer.

A special thanks to all who made donations to make our programs possible.

Enjoy!

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Our drive from Erbil to Duhok the evening of our arrival in Iraq.

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The Humanities building at The University of Duhok, where our YES Academy classes were held.

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A single American girl in Iraq?  You bet!  And the Iraqi guys wasted no time in serenading Bethany (YES Academy Children’s Theater faculty) with a folk song during lunch on the first day of classes.

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YES Academy founder, John Ferguson, visits composer Patrick Clark’s composition class to give a lecture on Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cottonmill Blues.”

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With only one day to adjust, the first day of teaching can be a weary experience. But, I give it my all during pedagogy class.

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One of Patrick’s composition students gets his composition for santur and orchestra read.  This Persian instrument is related to the Dulcimer.

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We managed to get out to the bazaar a couple of times for some evening shopping and people watching. Making new friends was easy in Erbil, Iraq.

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Located in Erbil’s old souk, this may be the most famous Tea Room in all of Iraq. The walls are covered with pictures of the famous people who have visited over the years. The owner was quick to point out that Joe Biden had recently visitied.

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It was common for us to be invited to the homes of our students for lunches or dinners. The food was incredible, and the traditional Kurdish dress of some locals was a treat, as well.

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One of my favorite experiences was getting to hear locals play their traditional folk instruments.  This turkish instrument is not unlike the Banjo.

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Another great dinner experience with one Iraq’s most talented young pianists, Hersh.

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We crossed this bridge when we got to it. We weren’t supposed to. In Kirkuk, south of this point means more risk.

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Dashing through the streets of Kirkuk.

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The road in Kirkuk was rough, so holding the camera still wasn’t easy.  But, perhaps this gives one some idea of the look of the city.

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Simple logistical problems can ruin an otherwise good day of teaching.  While driving through Kirkuk, Mariano (jazz faculty)  lightens the mood by venting about a student volunteer who went MIA when he needed him for the use of a printer. 

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When a tanker crashed on our trip out of Kirkuk on the third day of our mini workshop there, our security team got us out of harm’s way.  We weren’t sure what was going on, and it made for an interesting ride.  I took this video during the event.

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The reason we went to Kirkuk. This little one played a chicken in the children’s theater production on our last day.

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Our Lebanon apartment. Our third floor balcony overlooked downtown Beirut and the sea on one side, and the mountains on the other. Ahhh….

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John works with our Kids Piano class during our Dalcroze Eurhythmics period.

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A trip into the mountains during our one day off in Lebanon unexpectedly landed us at the Roman ruins of Faqra. Yes…that’s me and my nerdy white socks.

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Another view of the Faqra ruins. Fog added to the mood of the place.

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This natural bridge is near the Faqra ruins. Look closely and you can see two people walking above it, giving some perspective as to its size.

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It is Gala Concert time in Lebanon. The concert hall rests on the Notre Dame campus, just above the sea.

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Our piano students share ideas for the Gala concert to be held in the evening.

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Mario learned this Morton Gould Boogie Woogie Etude in 3 days, and performed it for MTV and the Gala.  Nice work, Mario.

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Our Lebanon Advanced Piano Class

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Until next year’s fireworks…that’s a wrap!

It’s a Lebanese festival!!!

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They are called Aggies.  And to a Baylor Bear, they are like gremlins.  Lynne (my wife, who joined me her for the first week of my adventure) and I counted no less than 10 of them on our flight into Erbil, as they were arriving to act as consultants on agricultural issues in the Kurdish region of Iraq.  I braced myself for mechanical mischief on the plane.  Nope…looking out the window, I didn’t see any of them pulling panels off the wings.  We would land safely after a long and very uncomfortable flight.  There have been a few other times to be suspicious that they were at work around here, however.

Take, for example, the bathroom stalls in the Humanities building here at the University here in Duhok.  They seem normal enough, overlooking the bank-like security locks on the front that require a key, with a heavy metal door and only a small opening along the top for air.   The toilets themselves are the “old style” that travelers may be familiar with.  Porcelain holes in the ground with nothing to sit on.  (The logistics of using one of these still escape me.)

When one of our faculty members, Patch…one of our children’s theater profs…went to school in the morning to get work done on Thursday, she found herself locked in the second floor stall with no way out.  By the time we heard her screaming, she had been there for 10 or 15 minutes.  In her words, it was as terrifying as it was pathetically hilarious.  Nobody had a key, and she thought she might just be able to jimmy it open if only she had a simple screwdriver.  We looked around in vain, as her panic was evident.  Finally, when Paul “The Rocket” Rockower (our excellent new communications director) realized he had a swiss army knife with a built in screwdriver, he was instructed to toss it over the opening to Patch.  

Nothing but net.  

The knife didn’t even touch the sides of the 3 inch hole it disappeared into.  Patch was trapped for some time before she was freed.   Others have apparently suffered the same fate as Patch. Paul has become quite adept at kicking in locked stall doors.   As he puts it…”I am greeted as Liberator.” 

And speaking of toilets, there is the one that lives in my room.  The shower has no hot water (most of the time), but the toilet does!  Hot water somehow makes it way into the bowl on its way past the shower.  It is an interesting, steamy, sensation (which I think has marketing potential in the frozen north of the US).  And every few hours “Old Faithful” nearly blows the top off her porcelain lid as she spews water over the bathroom floor  (Video at 11, if I ever catch the event in time).

The design just has that “Aggie feel” to it.  

Even as I am on the lookout for other potential traps, the truth is that Duhok is a wonderful city, cradled in the mountains, and filled with some of the greatest hospitality imaginable.  The drive in from Erbil was easy, and it is hard to believe that this is the same city I witnessed in the youtube/journeyman video “The Fall of Duhok”.  I am told that only three years ago that the highway from Erbil, now modernized, was barely navigable.  Most every car on the road (and there are too many) are 2010 or later models (This is mandated by the government, and after asking a half dozen Kurds I still don’t have a consistent answer as to why).  New construction is of a magnitude that defies logic.  This is a boomtown in a region that, in reality, is a net exporter of nothing.

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These old (Aggie?) gasoline filling stations were recently replaced with modern metered pumps.

 

Besides a nasty fall down the stairs of the hotel this morning (resulting in a bruised hand and cut toe) everything has gone smoothly, particularly with my students; an attentive class of 15, complete with three translators, one for Sorani Kurdish, one for Badini Kurdish, and one for Arabic.  Waiting for translations slows things down a bit, but also gives the students a kind of defacto discussion period for each new idea that I throw at them.  Class meets from 10 to 1pm, and again from 3pm to 5pm.  We cover sight reading skills, piano literature, pedagogy, technique, and prep for the final performance gala, which will be held on the 12th of this month.  Evenings are free for dinner, or a quick trip to the market.

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     The University of Duhok Humanities building.

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At the orientation meeting, a Children’s Theater student is excited to begin documenting her experience with the YES Academy.

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        Auditioning my piano students on day one of the Academy.

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Lynne took these photos of Michael Parks giving the dancers a workout. They put in long hours and the routine is physical. Emotions from these guys often run high.

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Michael congratulates on of the dancers for getting it right. Or, maybe he is ripping his head off. It is never for certain during rehearsals.

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Taking a breather.

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Working it out in theory class.

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A piano masterclass. Mohammed, whom I blogged about in 2010, once again joins us from Baghdad.

Though one can easily move about freely in Kurdistan, Lynne was sequestered in the hotel for several days until we got our footing.  But on Thursday one of my translators took her on a day trip to site see and to visit the top of a nearby mountain.  Friday is holy day, and we seized the day off and headed for the ancient site of Amadyia.

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      Fishermen below Lake Duhok dam, just outside of town.

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Lynne photographed one of Saddam’s homes overlooking Duhok, complete with helo pad, on her day trip on Thursday. The home has been looted, and many of the stones of the facade are missing.

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Another view of Saddam’s home. There are many such homes on mountain tops throughout Kurdistan.

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Lynne at the top of the mountain on her day trip. It is hard to describe how vast the landscapes are here, and pictures do no justice to the views.

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We found our way off the beaten path on our trip to Amadiya. We discuss options.

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Lynne left for Texas yesterday, and we finish up in Duhok on Thursday.  It is off to Erbil on Friday.  Word is that Lebanon is on, and I am eagar to see old friends there.

Stay tuned.

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Amadiya, Duhok. There is little left of the 3000 year old ruin except the gate to the city. But the views in the area are vast and spectacular.

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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!

Enjoy!

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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).

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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The intermediate orchestra prepares to take the stage.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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The local cherry salesman takes a breather.

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A trip to the local pastry shop.  Yum!

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Waiting for handouts.

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Heading to Petra.

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

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

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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.

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See YOU next year!

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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.

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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…

IRAQ

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The drive from the Erbil airport upon arrival in Iraq.

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Hezha’s 19th Birthday Celebration.


It is midnight, but Happy Birthday, Hezha!

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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.

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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.

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SYRIA

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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.

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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.


LEBANON


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hezha and Omar enjoy our day at Jeita.

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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.

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Ira Spaulding hides behind his Kabab at dinner in Beirut.

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

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Omar graduates from his first book of piano lessons.

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

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More graffiti near campus.

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The cats of AUB.

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



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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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…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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