Some people call me a traitor; others regard me as a hero. Yet I am neither. I am simply a musician doing what I know and love best.
The first time I ever held a violin in my hands was when I was seven years old. We were visiting my grandfather in Janin. He had played folk violin all his life and when we went to his house a few times each year, we would listen to him play. On this particular occasion, all my family were napping in the afternoon heat, but I couldn’t sleep. I tiptoed out of the bedroom and that’s when I saw it: grandfather’s violin lying in its half-closed case. Carefully, I lifted the instrument out and crept outside where I sat under the shade of a tree, staring at it. I wasn’t sure what to do, but thought of my grandfather and the way he positioned it under his chin and brought his other hand round, placing the bow on the strings. I did the same, drawing the bow back and forth until I was able to produce a familiar sound.
I don’t know how long my grandfather had been standing in the doorway, but when I stopped and turned, there he was, silently watching me.
For a while, he didn’t say anything and I thought he was angry. But then he walked towards me, smiled and said ‘So, you want to learn violin, Wasi?’
I didn’t know I wanted to learn until that moment but I found myself grinning and nodding my head vigorously.
Grandfather grasped me by the shoulders and led me back inside to the bedroom. He took the violin and bow from me and played a short, lively tune. One by one, my family woke up and began to protest. ‘Wasi is going to be a violinist! Wasi is going to learn the violin!’
My father grumbled and turned over. ‘Let us sleep, Abba.’
‘But Wasi is going to learn the violin! This is a wish come true for an old, dying man!’
I smiled. My grandfather always described himself in this way but the truth of it was that he was as strong as an ox. Many people even mistook him and my father for brothers. He began to play again, moving up close to my father who tried to swat him away like a fly. My grandfather chuckled. He turned back to me and winked. ‘Let’s leave these lazy people sleeping, Wasi. We don’t have a second to lose!’
And that was how it all began, fifteen years ago. Such an innocent beginning to what has become my life. No, more than my life. I cannot separate it with my very being. People have asked me to explain what it feels like when I play. The relationship I have with my violin. What it would feel like if I suddenly couldn’t play. If they have a child, I ask them to imagine somebody taking them away and not being allowed to see them again. ‘Surely you can’t feel as strongly as that?’ They are disbelieving. I shrug. I don’t have a child, but this is how I imagine I would feel. And when I play, it is as though the blood which has been restricted in my veins can suddenly flow freely again. My fingertips tingle and the moment I place the bow on the strings, something fuses, almost like electricity.
It’s difficult to travel around the West Bank, and although my grandfather lived only eighty kilometres from our home in Bethlehem, we couldn’t visit him often. So when I was young, my violin lessons were limited to a few times a year. I would wait impatiently for these opportunities, but I couldn’t practise in between and even when my grandfather did teach me, it was hard as a young boy to play on a full size violin.
When I reached the age of ten, grandfather presented me with my own violin. His eyes filled with tears as he placed it in my hands. ‘You have made an old, dying man very happy, Wasi. One day you will be a great violinist.’
It was on that day that I vowed to myself that I would make music my life and make my family proud of me. Particularly my grandfather. Even before that day that I first picked up his violin, I’d always been his favourite. My father once told me that grandfather, like me, had been shy and sensitive as a boy. It was hard to believe it now with his wide, welcoming smile and lively manner, but perhaps this helped explain our close relationship. And when I expressed an interest in playing the violin that, I suppose, sealed our pact.
As my proficiency grew by the year, so too did the violence in the West Bank. In one sense, we were all used to the daily skirmishes, so I can’t say that I ever felt that scared. I’d walk to school with my brothers and sisters past the Church of the Nativity with the busload of tourists outside; past the checkpoint with the Israeli soldiers and their guns; past the market stalls selling spices and fruit. And past the occasional burst of gunfire and distant thud of a bomb. But then the gunfire increased and the tourists dwindled. By the time I was fourteen, we had to take a safer back route to school over a pile of rubble and round a stinking garbage pit. Twice a week, I’d return home via the university where my new violin teacher, Mahmud Karim, taught. Grandfather had conceded that he could no longer be my sole instructor and whilst he continued teaching me to play from the heart, so my new teacher developed my technique.
It was a rule in our household that we were never allowed to discuss politics while we ate, but this nearly always broke down after the first five minutes or so. Emotions ran high so these debates were accompanied with raised voices and fiery arguments. Views in my family on the occupation ranged from allowing the Israelis to have a fixed number of settlements in Palestine to a more extreme hatred of anything linked with our Jewish neighbours and a desire to see the state ‘completely annihilated’ as my eldest brother put it. Talk like this scared and angered me. I wanted to scream at my brother, tell him that although our people had been wronged, it was a peaceful settlement we needed in place of all the bloodshed. Perhaps I was naïve. Yet in my mind a simple fact remained throughout: that violence could solve nothing and each time an act of aggression was responded to in kind, that we were one step further from a sustainable peace settlement. I know that my grandfather influenced my eldest brother’s thinking, for whilst not nearly so extreme in his opinion, he had lost much over the years: his beloved olive grove and his ancestral home in the hills above Nablus.
But I said nothing. I was a coward. I kept my views to myself and listened to the heated words catapulting back and forth over our table. I simply went to school, studied hard and practised my violin. It wasn’t until my final year of school that the conversation took place that would change everything. I was at a violin lesson playing a Mendelssohn movement when I noticed that I was trembling. I stopped playing, and before I could help myself, I felt tears spilling down my cheeks. Mahmud Karim was shocked.
‘What is it, Wasi?’
I shook my head, but the tears did not stop. That day I had learnt that a classmate’s brother had strapped explosives to himself and blown himself up on a bus outside Tel Aviv, killing himself and fifteen Israelis. I wiped my eyes and sat down.
Mahmud Karim was looking at me intently, his face full of concern.
‘I am sick of all this violence, Sayid. I am sick of these land disputes, suicide bombs, street battles. All I want to do is play music, Sayid. But I can’t do that here in peace.’
My teacher stroked his beard. Not once had we discussed politics. I had no idea of what his opinions were and I suddenly felt embarrassed I had said so much.
‘You are a fine violinist, Wasi.’ He nodded his head as though to reaffirm this statement.
I felt heat rising to my cheeks.
‘You are a very fine violinist, and soon the time will come when we need to make some serious decisions.
‘What kind of decisions, Sayid?’
‘Put your violin down, Wasi.’
I did as he asked, laying it gently on the piano. I watched as he took a piece of paper from his bag.
‘I’ve been meaning to give this to you for some time. I didn’t know how you’d feel about it.’ Mahmud Karim handed me the piece of paper.
At the top, in bold letters, the word ‘AUDITIONS’ jumped out at me. I scanned down the page. ‘West Eastern Divan seeks talented young musicians from Arab nations and Israel to participate in yearly summer schools of concerts and mutual tolerance.’ I looked up, startled. ‘But this is also for musicians from—‘
‘Israel. Yes, I know. This is not a normal orchestra. But I believe you are good enough. And I believe the vision behind this orchestra matches your own. But it is you, of course…’ He paused and stroked his beard again. ‘It is you that must make the final decision.’
Dusk was falling outside. I could hear the distant screeching of brakes and the firm patter of fingers practising scales in the next room. I saw the face of my grandfather and heard his laughing voice. One day you will be a great violinist. You have made an old, dying man very happy, Wasi. I knew how he would feel about it, but I also knew that this was a decision I didn’t have to think about.
The next few summers passed in a whirl of Mahler, Mozart, travelling and new friendships. I shall never forget my first meeting with the boy I was to share a desk with. As I walked into the first rehearsal to the back of second violins, he grinned and held out his hand to me. ‘Amir,’ he said warmly. I took his hand and smiled back, relieved that I did not have to sit beside an Israeli at the start. I began to speak to him in Arabic but he held his hand up.
‘We have to speak in English here. That’s the rules.’
‘English? But my English…’ I faltered and felt myself reddening. ‘My English… not good.’
‘You’ll learn it quick enough. I’ll help you.’
I watched as he swiped a block of resin expertly up and down his bow.
‘Besides…’ He looked straight at me. ‘I don’t speak much Arabic.’
I almost fell off my chair and before I could help myself, my head had flicked sharply from his bow to his face to meet his intense, dark gaze. He grinned at me, almost apologetically, and shrugged. Thankfully at that moment, the conductor came into the hall to introduce himself to the orchestra and I was left to reel silently in shock. For weeks, I felt intimidated by Amir—by his superior playing technique and his command of the English language, which I was still struggling to communicate in. But more than feeling intimidated, I couldn’t help but fear him. Despite my feelings and my support for the orchestra, I had never met or spoken to an Israeli before. I had not been brought up to hate them, yet neither to be open to them. They were the distrusted neighbours. The land thieves. The settlers with the skull caps and suspicious eyes.
But Amir didn’t wear a skull cap. He wore blue jeans and football T-shirts. His family had lived in Tiberias for four generations and he railed against the politicians whom he said had made the Arab-Israeli conflict far worse. The strangest part of it all was that Amir didn’t look so dissimilar to myself and my friends with his dark skin and dark hair. It shocked me to admit it—he could have been a Palestinian. And what about me? Does that mean I could have been an Israeli?
The truth is, though I feared him initially, this anxiety was all on my part and my inability to relax with an Israeli. Amir was nothing but friendly. He helped me with my poor English and gave me sound advice on my playing. And slowly, he got me talking to the other Israelis. More importantly, he helped me to realise that we didn’t necessarily have to hold the same opinions to have a friendship.
I changed so much during those summers. I grew in confidence in myself, in my playing, in my beliefs and aspirations. Yet one thing remained constant. And that was the physical pain I experienced each time I thought of my grandfather. From the moment I told him that I had been given a seat in the orchestra, he stopped talking to me. He simply withdrew from my life. But what made it harder was that we still saw him the same amount as before. Either we visited him in Janin or he came to us in Bethlehem, but no longer did we share that affectionate, close relationship I had once treasured. Rather I was met with a sad, stony silence. At first, I tried and tried to talk to him. But he simply shook his head and sighed deeply as he turned his back on me, mumbling as he walked away, ‘You have broken the heart of an old, dying man, Wasi. I have nothing to say to you.’
It broke my heart to hear him say that. My beloved grandfather. Yet the strange thing was that although I knew he fundamentally disagreed with what I was doing, when I played, I continued to play for him. In each concert in Seville, Rabat or London, I searched for his face in the crowd and played to an imaginary figure sitting at the back of the concert hall with laughing eyes and noble face, willing him to be proud of me. In phone calls home, I would constantly enquire after him. The same, the same, came the reply of my parents.
It was towards the end of my third summer with the orchestra, during one of these phone calls, that when I asked the question, there was a different response.
My father paused. ‘Your grandfather is dying, Wasi.’
I couldn’t help it, but I found myself smiling. Those words that he always, always said yet were never true.’It’s impossible—‘
‘I know what you’re thinking. But this time… this time it’s different. He is eighty-three years old, son. It’s a good age.’
I gripped at the receiver until my knuckles turned white. I didn’t have to think about it. I knew that I had to go home immediately. Amir implored me to stay, saying that we only had three more concerts to go and they wouldn’t find another player at such short notice.
‘If I could say that I was staying because it was grandfather’s wish, then that is what I’d do.’
Amir stared at me with wide, sad eyes.
‘But it’s not his wish.’
‘And what does he wish?’
‘That I never joined this orchestra. Perhaps he was right,’ I heard myself adding. Did I really say that? After all this time, everything I’d gone through, was I now turning my back on it?
The orchestra’s founder and conductor whom we all respected enormously took my departure stoically. He was used to such occurrences. Two weeks before, three Lebanese musicians had announced they could no longer play in the orchestra because of the worsening situation in their home country. ‘You’re welcome back here any time, Wasi. We shall miss you at the last concerts.’
I nodded miserably.
My grandfather had moved into our home in Bethlehem to be cared for. When I crept into the bedroom and perched on a chair beside the bed whilst he slept, I was shocked by his transformation. He didn’t need to have his eyes open for me to tell that the laugh had gone from them. I sat there for some time, watching his chest rise and fall unevenly in the dim room. I must have dozed off, for when I heard him speak, his words blurred in my dream.
Startled, I sat upright. ‘It’s me, grandfather. Wasi.’
‘Wasi?’ He grunted and emitted a rattling cough which echoed around the room. ‘Fetch me some tea.’
I jumped up and ran to the kitchen. This was the first time he had spoken to me in three years. When I returned, I saw that he had heaved himself upright and was staring at me with a strange expression on his face. I placed the glass to his lips and helped him to take a few sips.
‘Not enough sugar,’ he growled.
I was about to get up again, when he waved his hand impatiently through the air and told me to stay.
For some time, he said nothing and continued to sip at his tea. Eventually, he cleared his throat. ‘Why are you here?’
‘Why? Because you’re not well. And… and I wanted to be with you.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me. Your father dragged me here against my will.’
‘But you always say that you’re dying.’
He turned his head and stared out of the window. ‘Well, this time I’m not. I’m fine.’
I looked down at my hands. The hands that a few days previously had been coaxing music from my violin yet were now lying in my lap.
‘So.’ He coughed again, a painful, rasping choke. ‘What do you hope to gain from playing in this orchestra of yours?’
‘I… it’s hard to explain, grandfather. But by creating music, we all speak a common language. And it’s a language where there is no hatred and no divisions—‘
‘Pah! You are such an idealist!’
‘So what if I am?’ I found myself raising my voice. I had never done that before to my grandfather and paused till I felt calm again. ‘I know I am. But is there anything so terrible about that? I want to live in a less violent world. When we musicians eat together, sometimes there are frictions and awful political arguments and we question why on earth we are there. But then we start to play and all that tension dissolves. We simply become musicians. Grandfather, by playing together in this way we become humans. We are not Palestinians or Israelis or Egyptians. Just musicians who agree that there is no military solution to this conflict.’ I looked at him imploringly but his face was hard.
‘And have you made friends with any of them?’
‘Yes, them. Israelis.’ He uttered the last word quietly, as though he felt sickened by the taste of it in his mouth.
‘I have a good friend. Amir. He believes that the Palestinians have been wronged.’
My grandfather raised an eyebrow and motioned for more tea to be poured. After taking a sip, he rubbed his temple roughly and shook his head back and forth. ‘Should you be playing in a concert tonight, Wasi?’
‘Yes,’ I said quietly. ‘I missed one last night, there is another tonight and the final one is in two days in Paris.’
‘And tell me, you missed all this for me?’
I nodded. ‘Yes, for you. I was so worried. I wanted to be with you.’
I watched grandfather as he shook his head again sadly.
‘I don’t know if you can understand this grandfather, but when the orchestra plays together, we are like a family. A large, wronged family of eighty people. It is a truly humbling experience. I’m not saying this orchestra will solve the Middle East’s problems—I’m not so naïve as that. But it is a step, a very small step towards tolerance. Surely that’s important? Surely you can understand why I do this?’
Grandfather looked at me intently. ‘No,’ he replied slowly. ‘No, I will never understand.’
My head dropped into my hands and I began to sob quietly.
‘But for you, Wasi, only for you, I will accept.’
I looked up at him.
His rheumy eyes had filled with tears. ‘Perhaps if the world had more people like you in it, perhaps—‘ He held his hand up. ‘—the world might not be in such a mess.’
I drew my chair closer to his bed and took his hand in mine.
‘I want you to go back and play in your final—‘
‘No! I want to stay with you!’
‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘I want you to go.’ He took my head between his hands. ‘Grant a dying old man one last wish. Will you do that for me?’
Tears spilling down my cheeks, I nodded.
‘And now leave me, Wasi. I must sleep.’
Slowly, I pushed my chair back and stood up. Just before I left the room, he called my name. I turned round and looked at his shrunken figure in the bed.
‘What was the name of your Israeli friend again?’
‘Amir,’ he repeated slowly. ‘Shake his hand for me, will you?’
I nodded slowly and, taking one last look at him, crept silently from the room.
Rebecca Stonehill is from Cambridge, England but she is currently living in Bangalore, India where her husband has been posted with work. Here, she is getting to grips with the heat, helping her two little girls adapt to life in India, finally finding more time to write and eating an inordinate number of mangoes. E-mail: rnarracott[at]googlemail.com