A Night in Vienna

I got packed.  That is, perhaps, one of the most major accomplishments of this trip.  Believe me, it was no small task.  We got all of our luggage loaded into trucks.  Marc, unfortunately, went back early, and Dr. Gene was taking a later flight to go to Dubai, so it was just Miss Carole, Andrew, Michael, Rick and me.  We got to the entrance of the airport and through metal detectors, then had to get a taxi to take us the rest of the way to the airport.  Once there, we went through metal detectors again (these are not just metal detectors, but the kind of checkpoints where your bags get x-rayed and searched, and you have to take off your belt and all).  We got to the Austrian Airlines ticket window and Rick, Michael, Andrew and I breezed through.  Just before Miss Carole was to do her business, their computers went down.  It was quite a while before things were back up and running, but eventually, we were all on a plane headed to Vienna.  Of course, that was not before I had 3 paperweights I had bought for gifts that morning confiscated (I think they saw in me the potential to bludgeon someone to death with 3″ x 5″ piece of acrylic).  The flight was without incident.

We arrived at our hotel in Vienna.  It was fine.  Very different from our hotels in Iraq.  Not that much better . . . just very different.  Sort of a culture shock.  Of course, I wasn’t thinking ahead.  I checked my bags through to JFK so I ended up in Vienna without a toothbrush or a change of clothes.  Would you believe that this whole city is closed by 8 p.m. on a Monday night except for the cafes?  Oh well, at least dinner was amazing.  Andrew, Carole and I ventured out to a wonderful sidewalk cafe.  We had melon with prosciutto, I had grilled swordfish served over grilled peppers, tomatoes and zucchini.  I also had a wonderful wine called Frescobaldi–very fun because there was a great Italian composer of the Baroque period named Frescobaldi.

After breakfast this morning, we’ll head back to the airport and get on our flights.  Andrew is staying in Vienna for a few days, Miss Carole is flying into Chicago, Rick and Michael flying into Washington DC and I, of course, am going back to JFK in New York.  I’m dreading the wrestling of bags (an extra bag due to the oud, so that makes 3 checked bags, a carry-on and my camera bag).  It was so difficult to leave Iraq, so difficult to leave everyone there, but now that I’m on my way home, I just want to get there . . . and now!

As I was saying goodbye to John yesterday, he said to be sure and not make any plans for the whole summer next year.  He said it looks like a tour of Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq.  Lebanon?  That’s new.  Whatever . . . I’ll gladly go!

I’m imagining that I will probably write one more blog entry when I get home and have a chance to rest and reflect a bit.  I’ve had a wonderful time writing this online journal.  I’ve loved all the comments you’ve made because it’s kept me from feeling homesick.  I know that I may be halfway around the world from the people I love, but they’re still very much with me.

The Last Day and The Last Supper

Since our concert was last night, today was a very quiet day. I started off with a shopping trip to the bazaar. One of our wonderful interpreters, Rageen, went with me. He was a big help, and a wonderful kid. In addition to the bazaar, we went into the citadel, and went to the textile museum. Amazing weavings! And I had the pleasure of watching a woman weave for a while. I was at the Ministry by noon to teach some private lessons. Harem, Awder, Shelon and Zana had their final lessons today.

After the Theater and Dance concert tonight, Shelon, Awder, Zana, Abdul-Qadir, Bashdar and I went back to 2b2 Fast Food and Coffee for a last supper together. They gave me a wonderful present. They took two pictures from last night’s concert (one of the whole orchestra and one of the cello quartet and me), had them blown up and framed. How they could get that done that quickly, I have no clue. It was the perfect gift–a lovely way to remember them. Saying goodbye was very difficult–very tearful. Zana rode in a taxi with me (again, they won’t ever let me ride in a taxi alone at night), while Awder, Shelon, Qadir and Bashdar took another taxi back to the dorms. While Zana and I were riding, his phone rang. He handed it to me and said, ‘it’s for you.’ It was Bashdar who just wanted to say goodbye one more time.

Tomorrow I fly from Erbil to Vienna and spend the night in Vienna. Then on Tuesday, I fly from Vienna to New York, New York to Cincinnati, Cincinnati to St. Louis, arriving in St. Louis a bit after 9 p.m.

I’ll have a lot of time on airplanes to reflect on this experience, but I think I’ll be reflecting for months.

Concert Day

It’s hard to believe I’m leaving Iraq day after tomorrow. In some ways it seems like I just got here. I suppose I’m ready to go home. I certainly miss seeing everyone. But I will miss people here, as well. I will miss other things here, too. Marc emailed me when he got home saying that when he arrived there were gray skies and he loved it. Today I went to the bazaar and the temperature was 122. When I stood still, I could feel my toes burning as they were exposed in my sandals. So the heat won’t be something I actually miss. In addition to missing many of my students, I will worry deeply about them. Some of the worrying will be about simple things . . . do they have music? Do they have strings? Are they inspired? Are they happy? For others it will be worrying about much more significant issues. While we were here the Kurds lost control of Kirkuk. This could have serious consequences for our students when they return. Then there’s our students from Mosul. Mosul is controlled by the Taliban. They could not be photographed or filmed participating in our academy because performing music is against Taliban law. They could be locked up or much worse if they were discovered. It’s simply unfathomable to think that you could be executed for learning to play an instrument. One of my first posts to this blog was about fear. What I’ve come to realize is that, while I may not feel much fear about my own personal safety, I can possess a great deal of fear when it comes to the safety of those I love and care about.

I feel like I’m part of two worlds. I’m amazed at how deeply I can care for people in such a short amount of time. I’m sure the fact that we’re starting with the bond of music has a lot to do with it. But there’s more–much more. I wish so badly you could all meet these terrific new friends of mine. Like Jabar, the concertmaster of one of the orchestras, who is also a general in the Kurdish army. He’s one of the kindest, most gentle, most humble people I’ve ever met. Or Boran, the 17 year old wonder who, in addition to often translating for me, became one of my favorite people to just sit and chat with. She’s brilliant! Or Alan, who, in a heartbreaking moment after the concert, looked at me with glassy eyes, touched my chest then touched his and said “you are my heart!” Or the 16 year old pianist who’s name I can’t pronounce, let alone spell, but every time he sees me, he throws his arms around me and says, “I love you, Mr. James.” This is only the tip of the iceberg. So many wonderful people!!!

Tonight was our final concert. It really couldn’t have gone much better. A quartet of very fine violinists gave a great performance of a Telemann Concerto for four violins. The cello quartet did an outstanding job with their two Apocalyptica pieces. Both orchestras played their very best. I was so proud of everyone! It was exactly the kind of final concert you want to have. Everyone felt good about the work they accomplished.

It’s 1:10 a.m. and I’m exhausted. Good night!

Today In Kurdistan . . .

That’s the name of the television show I appeared on yesterday.  It was a nice show, though the interview was much longer than I anticipated.  It went well.  The television station is called Newroz, which is also the Kurdish New Year.  They celebrate new year’s on March 21, the first day of spring.  Doesn’t that make sense?  The first day of spring, the season of new life, should be considered new year’s day?

Another big event yesterday was my purchase of an oud.  I’m very excited.  It was hand made here in Iraq (many of the ouds available here are factory made instruments sent in from Iran and Turkey).  The label inside has a picture of the man who made it.  It’s a lovely instrument.  It was actually purchased by the wonderful Harem.  He’s a great worker we have here at the academy and in addition to being a fine cellist, he is also an expert oud player.  Harem went to get the oud for me (being an American would have raised the price) and he gave me some beginner books.  I’m very excited about learning to play it.  I have an understanding of the principles of the quarter tones they use in their scales here, but whether or not I’ll actually be able to apply the knowledge may prove to be another issue.  I’m a bit concerned about getting it home.  There’s just no way it’s going to fit in the overhead.  I’ll have to hope that it can survive the airplane.

Tomorrow is concert day for music.  Instead of the marathon concert we did in Slemani, we split the evenings with music on Saturday night and theater and dance on Sunday night.  The program will include four violinists playing a Telemann Concerto for 4 violins, a cello quartet playing two Apocalyptica works (Bittersweet and Hope), two orchestras and a number of jazz ensembles.  We have dress rehearsals in the morning and the concert is at 7.  In between, Bashdar is taking me to the bazaar so I can pick up a few things.  I don’t really want to try and go without someone who can translate for me.  Bashdar’s English isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty darned good.  And I’ll be assured of laughing the afternoon away–he’s quite a comedian.

John’s making plans for a project in Eqypt next summer that would precede the Academy in Iraq.  Of course I want to go!  I’ll gladly come back here anytime and teach these fantastic students!  And I’ve always had a hankering to check out a pyramid . . . .

A Wonderful Evening

There was some important news event in Kirkuk today.  All the news people in Erbil went there to cover it, so the television interview I was supposed to do this evening got postponed until tomorrow evening.  With the evening off, I made plans to stay and work with a terrific quartet of cellists (Awder and Shelon, the two fantastic cellists I brought with me from Slemani, Bashdar, who is also from Slemani but was out of town when we did the Academy there, and Abdulgadr who is from Duhok).  The four of them are working on a couple of Apocalyptica arrangements.  I suggested we go out for dinner afterwards.  They got very excited because they had been to this restaurant two night ago and decided they wanted to bring me there.  It’s called “2B2 Fast Food and Coffee.”  Very strange name, I know, but it was great.  I got pepperoni pizza, french fries, a cafe mocha and some ice cream.  We had a fantastic evening of conversation.  Bashdar’s English is quite good (yet another Kurd who learned English from watching American movies with Arabic subtitles).  Shelon and Awder do quite well with English, also.  Abdulgadr is working on English because he’s part of an orchestra (as is Bashdar) that will be traveling to America in September to perform at Kennedy Center.  They asked several times if I would try and come see them while they are there, and I think I’m going to make a serious effort to go.  They’re very excited about coming to America.  Bashdar, I think, would like to stay and go to school in America.

Our conversations ranged from quite serious to quite silly.  Bashdar is a clown!  He’s just hysterically funny and kept us all laughing, but he’s also very intelligent and very thoughtful.  We discussed religion.  I learned that the varying degrees to which women cover themselves, is their own choice–not really an edict of the faith.  I also learned that they are very embarrassed that there are extremists out there damaging the world image of the Muslim faith.  I tried to explain to them that we have similar problems in America with people who spew hatred in the name of Christianity.  They were very surprised to know this.  They were also surprised that we have problems with racism in the US.  They taught me more about Kurdish history and culture.  And they taught me a few more Kurdish words.  We also discussed music and how they deal with their lack of resources.  Bashdar told us the story of how he broke the re string (d-string) once.  He didn’t have a full-size string, so he took a 3/4 string and tied on a piece of the broken string below the bridge.  He played with that string for a long time before he was able to get a full-size d-string to replace it.  As terrible as I feel for them, there’s a part of me that thinks this kind of adversity is what makes them so strong.  They have to work so hard for every little achievement in music–it keeps them from getting lazy and taking things for granted.  There’s another part of me, though that wants so badly to find a way to give them everything they need–everything they deserve.  I want each of them to be able to wake up one morning and not have to wish they had a new a-string that wasn’t unraveling or not have to wish they had some simple piece of sheet music they’d like to play.  Most of all, I’d like them to wake up one morning and not have to wish they had someone to teach them the technical skills that would enable them to express all the music that is bursting from their hearts.

Holy Kurd

That was a message that flashed across the Jumbotron outside New City Supermarket tonight.  Andrew, Rick and I made a pit-stop there after we finished teaching today to pick up some snack food (I got Doritos!).  When we walked in, we were asked to check out bags.  As we were unloading our things on the desk, this man walked up and laid his gun on the counter.  The man behind the counter handed him his claim check and the recently unarmed man went on his merry way checking out the produce.  It was an odd sight.

I’ve been learning bits and pieces about Kurdish culture.  Sahand provided me with what I think is the most unusual piece of information I’ve received about Kurds so far.  He made a passing comment about a stranger on the street being an Arab, not a Kurd.  I asked how he could tell by looking.  He explained that there is a traditional Kurdish baby bed.  For the first 6 or 8 months of the baby’s life, they sleep in this bed.  The way the bed is made causes the baby’s skull to flatten in the back.  I was astonished to realize that most everyone around me had a skull that was flat in the back.  You rarely see an Iraqi flag here in Erbil or in Slemani.  Most everyone flies the flag of Kurdistan (even though there isn’t really a “Kurdistan”).  There are Kurds here in Iraq, and also in Iran, Turkey and Syria.  There are 4 dialects of the Kurdish language.  Just because you speak one dialect does not automatically mean you can understand someone who speaks a different dialect.  Kurdish music is beautiful.  But you also hear Persian music and Turkish music quite a bit here.  Life for the Kurds under Saddam was miserable.  He made a serious attempts at ethnic cleansing with torture, the use of chemical weapons and mass executions.  For this reason, the Kurds seem genuinely fond of Americans.  While it’s always dangerous to make broad generalizations about a society of people, I can easily say that my interactions with Kurdish people have shown them to be kind, warm-hearted, extremely generous, possessing beautiful, formal manners, and full of gratitude for even the smallest gestures.

Today I taught a cello lesson to a man who explained to me that graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts with a degree in cello (I’m not certain what exactly that means) but in the four years that he attended there, he never had a cello teacher.  I feel like a broken record, continuing to talk about what these musicians lack in resources, but I’m constantly amazed at what they achieve when they have so little.  It is, to me, not only a powerful statement about the human spirit, but also about how necessary music is for some people.  You don’t go to these extremes because you ‘want’ music.  You do this because you ‘need’ music.

Miss Carol and I went shopping tonight.  I didn’t bring many ‘nice’ clothes aside from a black suit for performances.  I’m doing another television show tomorrow night, so I went to get something to wear.  I found a pair of pants and a shirt.  I thought I could shop like a pro, but I pale in comparison to Miss Carol.  The shop where I bought the shirt was anxious to tell me that the shirt I selected was from Italy, and they were the Iraqi headquarters for this Italian brand.  The man working there had such pride in his shop and his products.  It was great to see.  While we were shopping, I saw a young Kurdish boy (maybe 8 years old?) in a Harry Potter tee-shirt.  I couldn’t help but smile when I saw Harry Potter and the kid looked at me and gave me a big grin and waved.  Then I came across a group of teenage girls, all in veils.  Their eyes danced when they saw me.  While I’ve run into a few Americans here, for the most part we’re seen as something very exotic.  And young Kurds, who are influenced by American culture, seem particularly interested in us.

Yesterday we went to get our visas (finally!!).  We were accompanied by the daughter of the Minister of Culture.  She was extremely kind and sweet.  It was quite obvious that this went more smoothly with her than it would have without her.  We were patted down when we walked in and 50 feet later patted down again.  There’s a lot of patting down here.  It happens at the Ministry of Culture where we teach each day, too.  I suppose in some way it adds to the feeling of safety.  I really haven’t felt unsafe in any way.  We’ve been warned about taking taxis late at night.  Evidently foreigners have been abducted, taken to Mosul or Kirkuk and held for ransom.

It’s late, I’m tired and I have a long day tomorrow, so I’ll say goodnight.

I’m Too Tired To Think of a Title . . .

My first full day in Howler was much better than the travel day.  I awakened feeling quite good and ready to see some sights.  I referred to this city as Howler, though it’s also known as Erbil, Irbil and Arbil.  Howler, however is what the Kurds call it.  It is the seat of the Kurdish Government.  Everywhere you turn there are government buildings . . . each surrounded by a concrete wall to thwart any plans of suicide bombers.  Our hotel is quite nice . . . especially compared to the last one.  The last one, in Slemani, was not that bad, really.  Our rooms didn’t have windows and the bathrooms were rather primitive (not as primitive as the bathrooms at the place where we taught, though–there the bathroom was a stall with a hole in the floor.).  I do miss Shakar, though, the little boy that used to get me tea in the mornings.  The other hotel, Sharham, was much more personal feeling.  All the staff knew us, called us by name and we felt like a part of their family.  Here, at the Chwar Chra Hotel, it has a more impersonal feel.  Lots of foreigners here, too.  Many Europeans and some Americans.

Marc and I decided if we were going to see any of the city, today would probably have to be the day.  We set out on foot from the hotel and found, of all things, a mall.  It was fun to look around and see what sort of things they had there.  We ate some lunch at a restaurant across from the hotel, went back to the hotel, picked up Andrew and grabbed a taxi to go the New City Supermarket.  It’s an odd place.  It’s quite large with everything from food to jewelry to clothes.  I got cookies!  CHOCOLATE cookies!  I got about 6 packages to keep in my hotel room.  We took everything back to the hotel and headed for the bazaar.  I didn’t find it as interesting as the bazaaar in Slemani.  In fact, this city has a very different feel from Slemani.  There, if you walked down the street, passed a total stranger and smiled, the smile would be returned and you’d probably also get a wave.  Here, people don’t even acknowledge you when you smile at them.  It was a fun day. You have no idea how exhausting it is, though, to walk around in 117 degree weather.

Our first day of the academy was somewhat slow.  Marc and I spent most of it listening to the 80+ string players, trying to place them into the three orchestras.  Many of the students here are at very beginning stages of the music studies.  There are many students from Bazra.  A city name you probably know from news reports.  In Bazra, students don’t begin learning to play until they are 18 years old.  The other issue with the Bazra students is that they don’t speak Kurdish, of course.  So now our translators have to take everything we say and translate it into Kurdish, then translate it again into Arabic.  Even the most simple direction I give in a orchestra rehearsal takes quite some time to communicate.  We brought some students with us from Suli.  It’s nice to have them here.  It keeps this place from seeming to new and strange when you see familiar faces.  I brought Awder and Shelon.  These two young ladies are wonderful players and a great deal of fun.  I’m so glad to have them here.  I wish I could have brought more.

Today marks the end of day two of the second academy and I lived to tell about it . . . but just barely.  From 9-11 I taught private lessons, 11-1 was a rehearsal for one of the orchestras, 2-3, another orchestra-3-4, another orchestra, 4-5 cello class, 5-6 teacher training.  After changing clothes, John, Marc, Andrew, Michael and I went to a television station, along with Serwan, an Iraqi violinist that’s been living in the US, and we taped a number of musical performances for future broadcast.  In addition to playing continuo for Serwan and Marc’s performance of the Bach Double, John and I played The Swan.  Hopefully I’ll get a dvd of the recording.