Wednesday, October 27, 2010

from aleppo

Yet it was I who taught them how to walk.
It was I who held them in my arms.
I nurtured them like infants and I
raised them to my cheek,
yet they knew not I was their healer.
O Israel!
(Hosea 10)

28 october, Aleppo, Syria

As I said, none of us was in very good shape for the concert here last night, but it went very well. Our immediate host here is a man named Razik, who has done a very good job of advertising the event. It was being held in a Syrian Orthodox church, which at first seemed like it would be a rather incongruous place for a concert. They had specially constructed a stage in front of the sanctuary, and there was a full sound system brought in, with four speakers, a monitor and a sound man in attendance. We were going to do a sound check at 4:30 but prayers were just starting then. A dozen or so priests or monks clad in black came in and were singing antiphonally, in Syriac, with the congregation which appeared to made up mostly of elderly women with heads covered. By the time they finished it was already nearly 5:30, the time when the concert was supposed to begin. We had to wait for the archibishop to show up, and he was placed right front and center in a special chair. A really good crowd showed up, nearly filling the church, by far the largest audience of the tour. Razik introduced me, first in Arabic and then in English, and then the archbishop got up and said some words of welcome too, again first in Arabic and then in English, about how happy they were that I could come there and sing, and how important the work I was doing was, spreading peace and understanding through music and dialogue.

And then I launched in, doing pretty much the same set that I had done the other night at the Danish Institute in Damascus. The acoustic in the building was stellar, though I was really backing off the microphone (Steve thought just enough). Razik was translating the introductions to the songs for me, which I was trying to keep short and to the point. I had asked permission to not do Bismillah this time, partly because I didn't think there were going to be any Muslims there and partly because I was not doing audience participation--very difficult in translation. The audience applauded loudly and appreciatively after every piece. The only chilling moment came when I did "When Israel Was A Child." I introduced it as I usually do, that it was from the book of the prophet Hosea, one of the few places in the bible where God is imaged as a mother--holding the infant tenderly to her cheek--and that I sang it with the hope that there will still prophetic voices that would call Israel and all of us back to our loving relationship with God. Several people left as I was singing that. I was wondering if they were leaving because of a mention of Israel. Then I did "The Ground We Share." I didn't sense any negative emotions from the audience from that one.

Many people came up to talk to me afterwards, mostly young people, and I was surprised at how many of them actually did speak English. I noted how many of them wanted to be able to find the words to the songs because they wanted to read them again. (I have to find a way to get them online.) One of the guys who came to talk was yet another Iraqi refugee, an engineer who is to be moving to California soon. He was very eager to talk, and told me that I should sing a song for the children, since so many Iraqi children are displaced and in dire situations now. I told that I actually did have a song--"Rachel's Lament"--specifically for the children but I had left it out because I had been told that not many people spoke English and I was afraid that a song that long would have been taxing to them. Too bad, it would have been perfect.

Agnete and I talked a bit afterward, and she too thought that the folks had walked out because of "Israel." She said that Razik had told her that when I said "Israel" it had been like a slap across the face, and I did notice that he hesitated when he was translating. Agnete said something even more chilling, that she hoped there had been no government agents there, to hear "an American singing a song about Israel." Of course the song is not about Israel, and it certainly is not in anyway in praise or support of Israel's actions in these last years. On the one hand, if we are about dialogue, then the Jewish tradition has to be brought into the conversation, and the Gospel still must be preached. At the same time, that is easy to say from my perspective. I spoke with one man afterwards who had lost his hands and eyes in an "accident" with the Israelis, for instance. That's all of the story he offered, but he was keen on getting me copies of his books on Syrian folk tales and his writings about the Israeli-Syrian conflicts. No one said anything negative to me directly, and I haven't heard anything from Razik, but it's pretty sobering.

It's hard to describe the, dare I say, hatred of Israel in this part of the world, both Lebanon and Syria. Several people have tried to tell us that it has nothing to do with Jews, per se, only for Israelis, but that only goes so far. Agnete says many people in this region simply ignore the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) completely, Muslims and Christians alike. I have heard the word "Zionist" many many times. As a matter of fact many seemingly reasonable people have a deep seated belief that the US is being controlled by Zionists. We even ran into someone who was showing us a book by David Duke, the former Klansman, about Zionism, that had been translated into Arabic. (Steve very diplomatically told him some more background about David Duke and warned him that this was not a good source.) The depth of the hurt and the indelible scars of history collude to make it seem impossible for there to be common ground. In recent memory are Israel's incursions into south Lebanon and taking the Golan heights from Syria, not to mention the very recent restarting of the building in the disputed Palestinian territories amid boisterous celebrations. It seems to me that folks here are steeled to the fact that Israel is here to stay, but they want the borders readjusted to the pre-1967 configuration and an end of the Palestinian crisis. And they also feel helpless to do anything because Israel is a formidable military force backed up by a superpower, the US. Israel is right to be paranoid--they really are hated here. But who stops first? Will Israel ever feel secure enough to stop being offensive or downright aggressive? Will the surrounding countries ever be able to trust them? And how does the Gospel of Jesus apply?