The stage lights at Al-Kasbi theatre are steamy hot. The afternoon is steadily marching on and we are preparing for the evening’s performance. On the set of La Bohème, I do my best impression of a Parisian pickpocket on a freezing Christmas Eve. Street vendors wander across the stage selling dates, pastries and hot chestnuts, and I blow on sweating hands, rubbing them together theatrically as if against the cold. I am barefoot, covered in sooty black makeup, and trying to steal an orange convincingly from a passing basket, all the while singing in Italian.
Most of the events held in the sterile, modern building in Nablus in the West Bank of Palestine are graduation ceremonies, with perhaps concerts every other month. This, as far as we know, is the first ever opera in the city.
The Choir of London has come to perform classical music across the Occupied Territories. The idea is to promote excellence in the West Bank, to use music to encourage inspiration and dignity. The project emphasises collaboration with local artists and educational programs, to foster performances of the highest standard for people who would otherwise have little access to other musical traditions. Earlier I had been handing out our leaflets: for an opera set in Paris, sung in Italian and performed in Nablus. My pitch to the locals was met with mild bewilderment, friendly curiosity and an artless satisfaction that their city was playing host to the event.
My part – the role of Street Urchin – entails four minutes of singing scattered throughout the fifteen minutes of the Second Act. In Milan, they would hire real children who would exceed me in every respect, save perhaps height. We are performing tonight, and I still can’t seem to get the Italian correct.
‘Ladies and gentlemen of the chorus!’ The conductor raps his music stand sharply with his baton. He expects some basic musical competence; he is losing his patience. ‘Page 174 – il bel tambur maggior are straight quavers, please: do not dot them!’
The cast and the orchestra are a motley crew. The choir primarily consists of Oxbridge graduates and students from the Royal College of Music, including some of the finest young talent from the UK: an emerging generation of Toscas, Figaros and Queens of the Night, all donating their time and skills. A large proportion of the chorus, however, consists of dilettantes comme moi, included because of our enthusiasm and political sympathies. We are lawyers, nurses, teachers, PhD students. All of us are singers, of some capacity – but, for some of us, it has been a long time between performances.
I clear my throat constantly, trying to brush away the cobwebs on my vocal cords. My concentration wanes, my diaphragm sags: the stamina of my singing days a distant memory. The previous evening, which included four pints of Taybeh, ‘the finest beer in the Middle East’, has done nothing for my vocal timbre.
We make a stark contrast with the professional musicians. In a break in the rehearsal, I stumble upon a discussion of the Brahms Requiem, another piece we are performing.
‘He is just taking it too slowly, the phrasing sits wrong with the breath,’ proclaims one professional soprano. ‘It needs more momentum. It’s fundamentally a humanist requiem – joyful and triumphant, not morbid.’
I ponder the logic of this. A requiem that is not at least somewhat morbid?
‘Besides, I have an English National Opera audition when I get back. I can’t exhaust myself with this.’ Then she pulls me aside with an earnest, endearing whisper: ‘So explain to me, who exactly was Yasser Arafat?’
John, one of the project’s directors and a talented tenor in his own right, has just finished, after years of studying in Jerusalem, a doctoral thesis on the decline of the British Mandate. He is a tall but unimposing man, a gentle giant both physically and intellectually. He is, as one chorister says, ‘so lovely he makes you weep’.
During his studies in the West Bank, John sang with a local Palestinian choir: the Jerusalem Chorus, based in Ramallah. Trips across the border at that time, the infancy of the second intifada, were an organisational nightmare, even for a British passport holder. Often there were three- or four-hour delays; sometimes John was forced to spend the night on the wrong side of the border. Nonetheless, from this experience he and his fellow director, Michael, developed the idea of bringing artists to collaborate musically in the West Bank, drawing on the talents of friends they had gathered during their years singing at Cambridge.
Horrific delays are less common now but touring fifty musicians through the West Bank still demands considerable patience. The trip from Ramallah to Nablus is only around forty kilometres but this morning we were required on the bus over two hours before the scheduled rehearsal.
Our long drive was eased by John’s impromptu lecture about the history of the region: insights into Middle Eastern politics, significant settlements and important checkpoints delivered over the bus microphone as we sailed along the fenced highways and waited in traffic jams.
Travel in the West Bank takes you through slums, deserts and, crucially, checkpoints. The most iconic border crossing in the West Bank is at Kalandia, a small village between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The town hosts 10 000 refugees, nearly 3000 of them children, sealed into the West Bank, although Kalandia is technically still part of Greater Jerusalem. The brutal arc of the wall snakes past the checkpoint, cleaving the landscape in two. On the Palestinian side it is a patchwork of art and graffiti, including the occasional Banksy; on the Israeli side it is a shimmering dull grey with an apron of gaping, empty space hemmed with cyclone fencing.
There was something breathtaking about it: massive concrete tablets rising from the desert like a row of tightly packed tombstones. Like the Great Wall of China, it represents a mammoth investment of life and labour that overwhelmed me. But the structure lacks the imperial dignity of its Chinese counterpart. There are echoes of Berlin and the Shankill and yet somehow this felt worse, with a greater sense of cavalier indifference to both criticism and human suffering, a greater sense of abandonment. A vast victory had been achieved: they built this wall because they could.
Kalandia is the checkpoint with which we are most familiar. At first it seemed more like a bustling market place than a bitterly contested border crossing. But the tension is never far away and when in a car, you still have to keep your doors locked. Nablus represented a further step outside of our communal comfort zone. Heading into the checkpoint just outside Nablus city, everything felt just a little bit more desperate. As we waited in the traffic jam, carloads of settlers opened their boots for inspection. They were armed. The nearby refugee camp, Balata, is the largest camp in the Occupied Territories by population and the smallest in size, with 26 000 people in the space of a single square kilometre.
This was the part of our itinerary that most interested the authorities. There is, of course, no airport in the West Bank and so all travellers must pass through Ben Gurion airport and then, if Palestinian, obtain permission to enter Israel. Between landing and collecting our luggage, we were delayed an hour, a relatively short period. Most of us will be delayed at least double that on our way home. They asked asinine questions; they flicked through personal photos on digital cameras for a better understanding of the visit. For travellers to Nablus, a city traditionally associated with political radicalism, they reserved particular suspicion.
When we reached the checkpoint into Nablus, John stopped speaking and the soldiers climbed aboard our coach to check our passports. For Westerners, this is little more than a formality, but the soldiers still nevertheless carried guns, loaded semiautomatic weapons that swayed against their bodies.
John turned off the microphone as a soldier filed past. ‘I think I’ll just step out of the line of the gun.’ He held up his passport at the photo page and eased into the seat next to me.
It is 2 pm and already the day feels long. In Nablus, we have finished rehearsing and now we are waiting. We are waiting, as we have done every rehearsal. There are a dozen or so Palestinian children who make a brief appearance during the opera. They are delayed. They are always delayed.
In Jerusalem last night, they arrived only an hour before the performance, leaving little time for rehearsal. On the way from Ramallah to Jerusalem at Kalandia, the soldiers had let everyone pass except one small Palestinian girl. She was refused for ‘security reasons’ and no-one wanted to leave without her. After two hours of negotiations, she was eventually granted passage. It is common for authorities to let a big group through but with one or two seemingly random exceptions. Everyone expects the delays at the checkpoint into Nablus this afternoon to be even worse.
The children come from the music school in Ramallah, Al-Kamadjati (‘the violinist’ in Arabic). Al-Kamadjati is a serene place, tucked away from the hot and bustling streets of the old city, where you wander through the dusty alleys of Ramallah, passing tiny medieval houses crammed full of families, until, over the rough sandstones, float arpeggios from a violin.
Music is one of the few available outlets for kids living in otherwise desperate circumstances. Not just Western classical music but virtuosic Arab styles, jazz and hip-hop. In Palestine, music represents one of the few threads holding society together.
Time rolls on through the Nablus afternoon. The lighting technician, the conductor and the stage manager all wander about, aimless and frustrated. Planning complex scene changes, maintaining the acoustic balance in an unfamiliar theatre: these are impossible challenges without a full cast for a run-through.
With no sign of the children, we wait in the baking sun outside the theatre. I will bring a certain authenticity to the role of Street Urchin tonight: I am sweating and smell less than fresh. The West Bank lacks an independent supply of water and the main supplies are inexplicably shut off three days a week. Our storage tanks ran empty this morning.
Mercifully, a faint breeze rises from the valley below. The quiet afternoon heat is broken only by Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier overhead, unjustifiably but unchallenged in Palestinian airspace.
Across the valley, I can see a settlement, easily identifiable by the regular arrangement of houses and paved streets, contrasting with the dirt roads all around. Settlements are visible almost everywhere in the West Bank, human ant hills on the desolate slopes. A swarm of cranes rises from the township, working quietly, efficiently. It is hard to imagine any state created with settlements like these constantly constructed. Nearby, there are European forests, absurdly green in the dappled yellow of the desert heat. They are cultivated over Palestinian villages abandoned or destroyed in 1948 or 1967 or at some other point during the last sixty years. This practice has been dubbed ‘memoricide’: the entire memory of the town obliterated, deliberately removed from the landscape – a forced forgetting. It is one way of making the desert bloom.
Back in the theatre, a chorus of squealing and chattering announces the arrival of the children. Cooped up in a bus for two hours, they run wild around the stage, the patter of their small bare feet like heavy summer rain. Our stage manager attempts to herd everyone into the wings for the market scene.
La Bohème is the love story of Rodolfo, a tempestuous, romantic poet, and Mimi, a seamstress with the ominous rosy glow of a consumptive. Together with Rodolfo’s friends – Marcello, a painter, Schaunard, a musician, and Colline, a philosopher – they spend the Second Act enjoying themselves on Christmas Eve after finding a rich benefactor to fund their drinking. The children’s role is to tear, alongside the Street Urchins, after Parpignol, a toy vendor toting a sack full of presents in the market place. Plied with lollies during the long and boring bus trip, the children take to their role with boundless enthusiasm. It seems laughable to expect they will keep quiet backstage this evening before their entrance.
Yet though the kids know little English, they have all learned their Italian meticulously. Ashamed, I spend the remainder of the rehearsal drumming lyrics into my memory.
With the props in place and the lighting eventually set, we head to Nablus the Culture, the local centre for music studies. The caretaker, Sami, greets us in an enormous old mansion, sparsely furnished with art deco antiques and a baby grand piano. He is not old, though he seems weathered beyond his years. There are no students to be found. The music programs are barely stumbling along.
To me, Sami seems, with his cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, like the last man standing in an abandoned colonial office; the house, with its wistful combination of threadbare Persian carpets, marble carvings and bougainvillea, a monument to an ancient city laid waste by sixty years of occupation.
Sami takes us on a tour of the city. We begin at the main intersection, nestled in a valley surrounded by gentle sloping mountains. Filthy brown water half fills an ancient and shabby mosaic fountain. The miserable centrepiece spouts less than half a metre into the air. Looming over us, a massive billboard with the smiling faces of a dozen martyrs killed during the conflict. Similar posters are ubiquitous in the old city, hastily pasted up and often ripped down.
We visit a factory making soap – Nablus’ oldest export. The city was one of the first mass producers of soap in the Islamic world. We slide across the waxy floor, past the drying soap cakes stacked in a circular brickwork pattern like towering, creamy chimneys. Young men kneel in the corner, wrapping pieces in scraps of paper at an impossible pace.
Sami leans in the doorway and waves over a boy, no more than ten years old, with a huge copper kettle of iced tea strapped to his back. Sami pushes twenty shekels into his hand and the boy dutifully pours small cups for anyone who wants them.
We turn off the main street through one of the many gates to the old city, through the covered pathways, deep into the medina. We file past keffiyehs, mountains of spices and a cow’s head on a hook, gently swaying in the stagnant air. Mounds of blushing apricots glow in the shadows of the alleyway, overripe and sickly. The huge, uneven stones paving the ancient alleys are slippery with rotting fruit and animal blood, and I am buffeted by teenage boys barrelling past with carts of cherries and Arab mothers herding toddlers.
The dense architectural fabric gives the old city a certain mystery. We stumble upon graceful arches, carved doorways and textured stone walls. The narrow streets contain a tapestry of Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman design. Every vista is drenched in sepia light; the sandstone, the colour of an opaque curve of milk swirling through black tea. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Nablus has survived invasions and earthquakes, and is trying desperately to survive the occupation.
We all feel the difference between Nablus and Ramallah, where we have been staying for the past fortnight. Ramallah is a bustling hub of commerce, regenerated by its role in civil infrastructure. The bureaucrats spend their money there; the Palestinian police hold their guns and uselessly patrol empty spaces, randomly requesting identification from passers-by. There is nothing similar in Nablus. Despite the ostensible control of the Palestinian Authority, Israeli soldiers take charge every evening. It is impossible to ignore the sadness. Men sit idle in the streets, smoking, drinking tea. Buildings are dilapidated, fountains empty and gardens abandoned. The stonework is scarred. Stifled by politics and persecution, Nablus exists in a state of purgatory. It is boxed in by checkpoints, a kind of living prison – the old city choking from isolation.
The occupation also asphyxiates political diversity. Fifteen years ago, women in miniskirts were not uncommon in the West Bank and Gaza. Tonight, the elbows and knees of the sopranos and altos will be covered during the performance. The idea of bringing something fresh, something culturally different, to a Nablus audience feels suddenly more urgent.
We continue walking and the roof opens up to a brilliant blue sky and the relentless sun. We gather under a beautiful but dilapidated clock tower in the main square. Sami smacks his palm against its blistered wall.
‘Ramallah! What was Ramallah 300 years ago? Nablus has 9000 years of history on Ramallah.’
But Nablus is crumbling, suffering. Nablus feels forgotten.
Sami takes us to a covered walkway near the edge of the square, next to a school. ‘Look up,’ he says, extending his arms towards the low, domed roof. The painted ceiling is pockmarked with dozens of fist-sized holes, the plaster ripped away. ‘These are not bullets – this damage was caused by an illegal weapon under international law.’
There is a heavy pause.
‘This is a cluster bomb.’
There are many sites like this, the sadness of the event memorialised by the disquieting emptiness. A gaping hole in the busy medina: a family home has been demolished here; an ancient soap factory bulldozed there. Even if there was some justification, the sheer scale and regularity of the devastation is palpably disproportionate.
In the evening, we perform.
The tenor playing Parpignol replaces the toys in his sack with real lollies purchased earlier that day in Nablus. As he distributes them, genuine excitement bubbles amongst the kids. Miraculously, though, the children keep their composure, despite the occasional giggle escaping from backstage.
I miss a cue entirely but then catch up, my Italian prompted by the Palestinian girl next to me. Our flaws and mishaps dissolve in the enthusiastic overacting from the chorus, the confidence of the principals and the general raucousness of the Parisian marketplace.
The audience is bemused as Rodolfo and Marcello tussle over which work of art or literature should be used for firewood. They hoot as the bourgeois landlord, Benoit, looking for his rent, gets unceremoniously booted off stage. There are tears as Mimi’s tiny hands finally lose their warmth. Life, love and death against a backdrop of poverty are familiar themes here.
In the closing scene, as Mimi lies in Rodolfo’s arms and succumbs to consumption, she asks: ‘Am I still beautiful?’
Rodolfo answers, ‘Beautiful as the dawn.’
But Mimi is more pragmatic. She knows what lies ahead.
‘You’re mistaken in your comparison,’ she replies, ‘you meant: beautiful as the sunset.’
At the curtain call, the principals bow, exhausted and drenched in sweat. Audience members wait at the foot of the stage for photos with cast members. Sami smiles widely. He shakes my hand and talks of students he wants to sing with us, children who want to enrol in classes. We should, he says, all come for workshops in the summer.
Out in the open air after the performance, the edge of the sky still glows a faint yellow and the evening stars float to the surface of the blue night above. Another day ends in Nablus and it is beautiful.
We talk about returning, about future plans. It is all so distant and I feel the tides of hope recede a little. But a high-water mark remains and cannot be erased. Nablus has seen countless disasters, both natural and man-made, but its music goes on.