Friday, May 28, 2010

Letter XXVIII: Preview of "Wellesley" Summer 2010 -- Little Petra

We went to Beidha, nicknamed "Little Petra" in early April. It is Nabatean, like it's big sister namesake. The canyon leading in is shorter in ength and height. The sandstone wadi more narrow. The site is contained, impressive, and far less traveled. But in its day, this was a place for feasting.

Inside the wall-cut rooms are carved benches. You can imagine firelight, laughter, and reverence.

My complete piece on our visit to Little Petra will appear in Wellesley, the alumnae magazine of my alma mater, Summer 2010. And I don't plan on scooping myself, so here is just a preview:

And so, eight months into this ten-month-meditation, we are at Beidha, a site nicknamed “Little Petra,” about 10 miles from the famed Nabatean capital in south central Jordan. Here, too, the Nabateans carved tombs, cisterns and waterways into pink sandstone; here they carved grand dining rooms and on one ceiling survives the only example of intricate Nabatean painting, with colorful leaves, fruits and figures…

... On Fridays Beidha is a favorite family spot for Jordanians from the south, and we fell in with some folks walking through Little Petra’s canyon to a narrow staircase carved at the end of the gorge. Except for the mother, who was probably my age but looked more worn, it was a youthful assembly. Sisters, brothers, their spouses and three babies. The girls wore traditional garb: long dresses and scarves covering their hair. The boys were in slacks and sandals. Everyone wore smiles -- including the babies who were handed from walker to walker up the narrow, uneven stairs. I got to hold one of them, too. It was completely natural to turn around and reach up for the little boy when his dad faced a three-foot drop. Dad didn’t think twice about turning his son over to “a stranger.” Nor did I think twice when an older son who was helping the girls get down some of the steeper spots, extended his hand to me as well.

At the end of the climb was a small rock plateau with a vista of rugged rocks and the streambed that Peter assures me still rushes with water in mid-to-late spring. There we sat, united in our accomplishment and divided by language.

“Where you from?” It’s a familiar opening gambit, well timed and welcome.

I answered that one in Arabic, since I’m fluent in the openers. “We’re from the USA, from New Jersey. Do you know New Jersey?”

“No.” Smiles, giggles. Next move. “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes.” Ooohs of delight from the girls.

Then Amena, sitting next to me, asked in Arabic, “But if you’re Muslim, where is your scarf?” She tugged at her own, snuggly wrapped around her hair, to emphasize and clarify.

I smiled and tugging the purple Iranian scarf over my shoulders I said, “Here it is.”

Everyone howled with laughter. So far, very good. Only one step to go...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Letter XXVII: Not the Pied Piper

How different would this year have been if I’d gone to see Kifah Fakhoury in September rather than this week? I finally brought my 1989 New Jersey Network documentary film “Classical Caravan” to the director of the National Conservatory of Music. Dr. Kifah is featured in the first half of the film, which follows the concert tour of the Chamber Symphony of Princeton to Jordan and Egypt. Watching it together was a waltz down proverbial memory lane. After all these years he still didn’t have a copy. Now he does.

How different am I now, from the Anisa who marched straight to the Music Conservatory of Seville, Spain, within days of arriving in 1976, telling anyone who would listen, “I’m an accomplished flute player from the US and I want to play here. Please let me show you what I can do.”

I stopped a stranger walking down the street not far from the conservatory – he was carrying a flute case. “Hi, I’m a flute player, too (toco la flauta también. Quiere tocar duetas?) Do you want to play duets?” He demurred, being a beginner, but he brought me to the door of his teacher, another American, who became my favorite duet partner. We gave several concerts that year and Bonnie Walter, who eventually returned to the US and became a dean of students at MIT, performed at our wedding … nearly 25 years ago.

The dean of the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Sevilla listened to me play. He made me principal flute of the conservatory orchestra and put me into the woodwind quintet that toured the country that spring. We played in small towns and villages in Extremadura, Andalucia, and I can’t remember where else. There was terrific music for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn by Hindemith, Ibert I do remember one rickety stage we played on outside the municipal building somewhere rather hot and dusty. The front legs collapsed under us as we were setting up.

Tonight, so many years later, in Amman, Jordan, Katie and I enjoyed a concert of the Amman Symphony at the King Hussein Cultural Center. They played “Night on Bald Mountain,” the “Romeo and Juliet” overture by Tchaikovsky, and Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2.” I’ve played principal on all three of those, most recently last year with the Livingston Symphony Orchestra (not “Bald Mountain.” We played that the same fateful night of the Debussy – see Letter XXV. I was on piccolo for that piece. Barbara soloed.) Well Amman’s principal flutist nailed the Scherzo in the Liszt and that’s a tough moment. With only four stands of first violins it was hard for them to generate the sheer bulk of sound we’re accustomed to in the Tchaik and Mussorgsky. But they made up for volume with energy and intention. At intermission Kifah Fakhoury said to me, “you should join us! Ah, but you’re leaving so soon.”

And I wondered: if I’d come to see Dr. Kifah in that first month, would I have been playing with the orchestra tonight? Would there have been weekly rehearsals and an entirely different set of friends? What about my snuggly nights with Katie, eating chocolate and watching episode after episode of “House”? What about nights out with Basma or Nesreen? What about leisurely editing “Mozart in Maine”? And writing to you? What about not being overloaded?

Spain was the year for bold fluting.

Jordan is the year, apparently, for something else.

I’ll know what that is … sometime soon.

The Monks at Cannes

As many of you know, Whetstone Productions, the boutique production and consulting firm based on the third floor of my Maplewood home, has been working on a documentary film about the inspiring lives of the Trappist monks who lived in Algeria until 1996.

Now, hot off the press, Xavier Beauvois, a French actor and director, has made a feature film on the same subject. His film, “Of Gods and Men,” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday (18 May 2010).

Just looking at this photo of the actors in their monastic robes I recognize Father Christian and Brother Paul.

You can see their real photos on my website.

Whetstone Productions filmed in Algeria in 2004 and in France in 2006. We raised production support from the United States Institute of Peace, from the William and Mary Greve Foundation, and from a generous gift of Cornelius B. Prior, Jr. Beyond his business acumen, Neil Prior is a former Fulbright Scholar and he and his wife Trudie are generous supporters of the Hartford Seminary. All of these sponsors, like the monks, are about interfaithfulness.

In an interview at Cannes Beauvois says: “I went to look at the lives of these monks and I was taken over by it. Everyone fell in love with these brothers whether we were believers or not. This example of tolerance and curiosity for others … the opposite of what we see going on now. So Christians in a Muslim territory live in perfect harmony. They pray with other people who pray. They’re into being. Their message is a universal message. We shouldn’t be afraid of others. We shouldn’t be afraid of peace.”

The experience of Beauvois’ film crew in Morocco was like ours in Algeria and France: a uniting of souls around a transcendent story that calls forth the best from each of us. The team on my documentary is multi-faith, multi-cultural, and multi-talented. We are keen to ride the wave of interest in this tragic and passionate story to raise the funds we need to complete our work.

Whetstone Productions’ preview of our film will be available soon on YouTube.

Meantime, check out John W. Kiser’s soulful and thorough account of the story of these men in The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Remembering Debussy on Israel's Anniversary

May 15, 2010

In the month of May many people celebrate Israeli Independence and grieve al Nakba; they lament ongoing violence and fear the next strike. In this sense, times have not changed much since the sad spring of 1974 when the 26th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel was bloodied by attacks on the towns of Kiryat Shmona and Maalot in the north. Forty Israelis, including many teenagers, were killed by Palestinians; 27 villagers and refugees were killed and 130 wounded in south Lebanon in retaliation.

I was 17 at the time and had finally been made principal flute in the New York City All City High School Orchestra. As daughter of the city’s best-known Arab, Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi, champion of Palestinians and challenger to American policy in the region, I struggled through a lot of prejudice to prove my talent. A “blind audition” secured me the chance to solo in Claude Debussy’s “L'après-midi d'un faune. Every flute player longs for that opportunity. My chance was the night of May 16, 1974.

The attacks happened the day before the concert. Israeli teenagers, like us, were taken hostage by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They were killed as Israeli troops came to rescue them.

My teachers, fellow musicians and the conductor already knew my father’s politics. Everyone recognized his voice from myriad television and radio news programs. Back in the day when “Arab” was the prefix for “terrorist,” Reporters knew that Dr. Mehdi would provide context to acts of violence. He reminded audiences that Palestinians, an exiled people, still longed for their homeland and that some would resort to fighting to get it back. He did not condone their violent methods: hostage taking and airline hijackings. But, he urged the American people that once the Palestinian demand for a homeland was righted the Israelis will be able to live in peace.

Today most people acknowledge that until there is resolution for the Palestinians, the conflict will continue. My father’s message in the 1960s and 1970s was way ahead of its time. Decades ago he was called anti-Semitic and extreme but by the time he died so suddenly in my arms on a cold February day in 1998, he was heralded by many as a moderate that also appreciated the quandary faced by Israeli Jews.

“The Afternoon of a Faun” was programmed just after intermission. Nearly 100 high school musicians sat behind the drawn curtain at Avery Fisher Hall and listened as a representative of the Board of Education came on stage.

“Everyone knows about the tragedy that happened yesterday in Israel. I ask all of you to please stand for a moment of silence, out of respect for the 21 children who lost their lives at the hands of Arab terrorists.”

The room rumbled into a thousand people starting to stand as a shout rang out, filling the hall.

“Golda did it!”

My father meant that he believed the children wouldn’t have died if Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had not ordered troops onto the scene opening fire. He meant she should have pursued negotiations with the hostage—takers. His spontaneous statement didn’t encompass all the nuances he meant. I, for one, didn’t know exactly what he’d said; I only knew it was his voice and so did everyone on the stage around me.

Instantly my heart boomed so loudly I thought it would echo in the timpani. I grabbed for air, scratched for breath. I took my flute and made my way off the stage, desperate for composure. Gabriel Kosakoff, our conductor and a man who abhorred my father’s politics, came to my side.

“Are you OK?”

“Give me a minute.”

Out front people were confused. My choir director was crimson. Mom was stoic and my sisters were mortified.

The audience settled down. I returned to my chair. Maestro resumed his podium and looked at me: when you’re ready.

I mustered everything I had. I played for my friends who believed in me, for my brave family, for the father I adored and hated right then, for everyone who wanted me to fail, and for those poor, innocent kids who were killed and the people killed in retribution.

Thirty-six years later, as Israel celebrates is 62nd birthday, and Palestinians mark the “Nakba” or catastrophe, 1948 continues to count its victims in lives and livelihoods every day. Until we see a just solution, unless voices like my fathers’ and my own unite together with Jewish voices demanding peace, more Ma’alots and Gazas are in store. I play my flute and take up my pen, hoping the call of the faun may one day trump its hunters.

This article also appears on the Common Ground News Service and the Arab Writers Syndicate.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


March 2010

It was the Easter weekend. We shared that celebration with our friend from Amman, Frances Abouzeid, her husband Alexi, and their extended family in the mountains above Beirut. Midnight mass at a Maronite Church with Alexi leading the choir, and winking at us from the front. Frances' aunt was delighted that I sat there taking notes. "An American journalist!" She dragged me to see the priest. "She wrote that the altar boys wear sneakers! I have complained about this bad dress to you before." She was triumphant. Monsignor was patient. "Now the American sees it too!" She was also pleased that I appreciated the lilies she'd placed on the altar. They were just about to bloom, symbolizing the essence of Easter which is hope and rebirth -- not unlike Hajj, but without the Sanctus and the flowers.

Early on in my blog entries I wrote wide-eyed about Beirut. This time we went east to the Bekaa Valley. Conjuring memories of grit and fighting from the Lebanon Civil War and the Syrian occupation that followed in the eastern part (Israeli occupation in the south), the Bekaa was full of surprises. There are still checkpoints on the mountain crossings; there are tanks dead on the side of the road with sheep and goats grazing nearby.

A productive winery, Ksara, and lovely small towns with rushing streams and restaurants with rushing waiters dot the lush green valley. But Bekaa’s crowning vision is and has been for centuries, Baalbek.

Although its earliest settlement is not as old as our Petra (which dates back to Neolithic times), Baalbek boasts Middle Bronze Age inhabitants (1900-1600BC). Then came the waves of interested parties: Hebrews connected with King Solomon, the Phoenician masters of Syria, Greeks associated with Alexander, Ptolomaics of Egypt, and then in just barely BC, the great conquering Romans. Later come Arabs, Tartars and Turks. Then French, then … (see above)

But look at the size of these columns! How do they do it?

Is it good taste or gotta take over that has humans building their new cities on someone else’s old one? Maybe it’s the basic REA DNA – the real estate agent gene – that makes us see the one important factor: location, location, location.

They are all at Baalbek. The most magnificent remaining ruins of a monument -- to my eye is the remains -- of the Temple of Jupiter. But don't miss the Temple of Bacchus, either.

Alyce Faye, Peter, Katie and I enjoyed it all. Plus a four-hour fresh fish frenzy at Chez Sami in Juneih, on the Mediterranean coast just north of Beirut. And we visited again with Samia's family.

After Alyce Faye left Jordan we were our nuclear-family-minus-one in Amman.

It was quiet.

Except for the roosters.

LETTER XXIV: New Eyes On The Ground

March 2010
And then came Alyce Faye Eichelberger Cleese.

We are trustees of the Esalen Institute, and like rooming together at board meetings. Making connections between Jordan and California is not terribly difficult. Lots of golden, rolling hills that turn green with rain – and we had good rain here this winter. Hiking. Adventure trails. Desert. Good coffee. A penchant for kicking back. And natural hot springs. In fact Jordan is one of the few places in the world besides Esalen that boasts the coming together of the Earth’s three waters: salt water, fresh water, and hot springs.

There are big differences, too, of course. Most obvious is the absence of ocean. Our (very salty) Dead Sea (into which the hot springs and cold creeks run) has two visible shores and very little surf. No otters or whales or anything that breathes underwater.

And making me quite at home there’s a rooster on the Esalen campus in Big Sur, California, too. It doesn’t understand that the sun will come up with or without its crowing; it also crows throughout the night in hope. Alyce Faye and I grew to loathe the rooster since usually we were up late and wanted to squeeze in as many extra minutes of sleep as possible before our own early swim in the pool and mad, freezing cold dash to the hot tubs where we luxuriate before breakfast and hours of reports and spread sheets. We called the rooster “Cheney.”

Alyce Faye has a very good eye. Our favorite public beach at the Dead Sea looks like a five star resort.

My bedouin friends, Manal and her brother Ismail at Petra, made us tea on the high cliffs leading to the Deir (Monastery).

Not to mention visiting Samaher Khameis's special mosaic workshop in Madaba. Samaher teaches at the Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration in Madaba. My short film on the Institute will be on YouTube soon.

And she didn't miss charming downtown Amman.

This was Alyce Faye's first visit to an Arabic-speaking nation; like most people who come here, she loved it. Ambassadors all of us, who return assuring Americans that it’s safe, friendly, respectful of women, respectful of people of varying faiths, easy to get around, visually compelling, and fun. Of course that sentence is laden with generalities, but generally they are true.

Anywhere we go the evil and nasty is an exception. Except, it seems, when we go to the front page of newspapers or to top-of-the-hour headline news. (Whoops! No offense to my dear friends in media who struggle to balance accuracy, information, commercial interests, subjectivity and good writing every day.)

Peter arrived while Alyce Faye was here and we all went to Lebanon.