Abed’s olive grove sits perched upon a hill on a remote strip of land in the West Bank. At night there are lights in all directions - a carpet of stars above and tiny flashes of red, green, yellow, and orange from an Israeli checkpoint below. Descending the hill, I weaved my way through the centuries-old stoned terraces that lace the landscape in that part of the world. I breathed the October air deeply and felt as though I was inhaling the history of the land with each breath.
Conflict and tension are no strangers to the tiny village of Al Walleje. Disputes over property rights, borders, and restriction of movement are part of every day life in Israel and Palestine, and Al Walleje is no exception. Politics permeate everything. Recently, there had been protests and demonstrations at Abed’s olive grove in response to news that his land was being confiscated for a new settlement. Abed is a sweet and gentle soul whose smile completes the light show on his hill. He lives in a simple one-room abode carved into the hillside with no electricity or running water. Abed and his land are one.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem 12 days earlier, there were two things I learned very quickly about life in the region. One, there was a lot I didn’t know, and still don’t for that matter. Two, things are not always as they appear and are rarely, if ever, black and white. Abed’s friend, Muhammad Al-Zahayka, helped organize a concert in the grove for the final night of our FODfest 2010 Middle East tour. The list of challenges to pull this concert off was as long as Abed’s hill itself. We were traveling with Israelis and Palestinians who were not permitted to enter each other’s villages. That made for some pretty interesting travel strategies. Many of Abed’s neighbors were attending the concert that night, some of whom were deeply upset by the recent news. I knew of at least one Israeli from a neighboring settlement who was attending and was concerned that would offend Abed and his friends. The generator had just died. The list went on.
As a stranger in a strange land in what is likely the most politically charged region of the world, I walk a fine line in how my intentions are perceived and my actions are interpreted, particularly as the leader of an organization that takes pain staking measures to remain non-political. In the days leading up to the concert, my mind raced with all that could go wrong and the worst-case scenarios of tensions, arguments, and even violence between the various people involved played on my fears. Arriving late to find an audience seated by group – Palestinians on the left and Israelis on the right – didn’t help my nerves much. But just a few songs in, a magical transformation began to take place. The divided tent of strangers became intertwined like the parts of a song. Musicians jumped in to help each other out. Audience members switched seats and introduced themselves to one another. A new light shined. Among us were Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians; Jews, Muslims, and Christians; conservatives and liberals, united by the common chord of music and its power to unite.
Music is a universal language because of the ways in which it resonates deeply and innately within each of us. It has the power to heal, inspire, initiate dialogue, and bring together disparate peoples. It is an essential element of life that interconnects us to each other and to the world at large. Our concert in Abed’s olive grove may not have been the next Middle East peace summit, but it was something. It was the beginning of a conversation, a deeper understanding, new friendships, and the formation of a community. It was a big first step. And with that anything is possible, including peace. I encourage you to be that first step and to play a part in creating a community in which we are all connected. On April 29th, April 30th, and May 1st, FODfest will hold its local concerts at Helsinki Hudson in Hudson, NY, The Duffin Theater at the Lenox High School, and Infinity Hall in Nofolk, CT. I hope you will come and be a part of them. For without you there is no us.
Todd Mack is a writer, musician, and producer, and owner of the Off the Beat-n-Track recording studio in Sheffield, MA. He is also the founder and executive director of Music in Common, a non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen, empower, and educate communities through the universal language of music. Email him at email@example.com.