Fences of Israel
A diary entry from Jon Rose
The conductor Ilan Volkov made the trip to Israel possible. With gracious help from the 'Russian mafia' concerts at Ilan's club in Tel Aviv and lectures at music and art faculties in Jerusalem were organised - plus some appearances on alternative radio. Ilan suggested that the fence project could prove 'interesting' to many who are uncomfortable with the Israeli government's strangle hold on the Gaza strip and occupied territories. He wasn't wrong. I was quite aware that performing fence music in Israel could create more tension and discord in a part of the world already vibrating out of control with hate. I was determined not to create more problems if possible - keeping in mind that the main notion behind the fence project was the primary task of revealing unexpected beauty (music) in inherently ugly structures.
Over three days I played a total of eight fences in Israel. The old 1967 border fence with Syria, suitably perched on the edge of an uncleared mine field, attracted the first police interest. I was informed that the mines were sliding down the slope, under my feet, and would blow me to kingdom come. Udi and Victor, my Israeli guides for the day, thought it was nonsense too. However nothing would have persuaded me to play the fence from the other (mined) side.
Also on the Golan Heights, a performance on a Kibbutz fence had the owner in a panic; a neighbour had telephoned to say that someone was sawing down his fence (saw, bow - it's all the same you know.) After Victor had explained what I was doing, the guy walked slowly backwards away from us, speechless, got in his car, drove off at speed. This is all very different to playing fences in outback Australia. In over 35,000 kilometres of playing fences here, only one person has ever complained. On the contrary, there is usually advice as to where to go and get even better sounding fences (even from the Coober Pedy police).
By contrast to the Golan, playing fences surrounding illegal settlements in the occupied territories didn't cause much of a stir; just one settler shouting for us to clear off, or self appointed machine gun toting guards demanding to check our passports. The settlements sit on the tops of majestic desert hills; stunning Biblical beauty. Some settlements look like army forts, surrounded by barbed wire and search lights; others are just a collection of half a dozen pre-fab houses - the poor end of Israeli society trying to make a go of it - no resources - they are living dangerously.
On the second day, Ariel (my next Israeli guide to the fences) and myself are invited to tea twice with Palestinian families harvesting olives in the occupied territories. It is a generous gesture from a very traditional people. They explain to us how their lives are. They have no future. They smile bravely but you can see the stress in their eyes. How can we get into Australia, one asks? I tell them I can write a letter but that our government tends to lock up asylum seekers behind barbed wire - unless of course they are Olympic standard athletes or sponsored mining engineers (then immigration is barely a formality).(1)
Most Israeli citizens never go to the occupied territories (like most white Australians have never been to an Aboriginal town), it is too dangerous now, the time for talking seems over. Ariel is taking a chance, he glances around every so often; we would be sitting ducks for any Hamas members looking for easy hostages. He spots two young guys heading down the hill towards us - we leave immediately.
The lack of future for young Palestinians was oddly enough demonstrated by those we spoke to. The older guys, one of whom had returned from New York to die in his homeland, spoke good English. Language skills maybe from an earlier time, when the middle east situation was more fluid. Israelis used to shop regularly at markets in the west bank; many Palestinians worked in Israel proper. The Palestinian youngsters don't have the option or time for language studies these days.
Avi Mograbi is a well known Israeli film maker and activist (2). His son is in jail for refusing to fight in the IDF. He, and activist Sarah Assouline, suggests that I play the separation fence, or at least that I try to play the separation fence to support the plight of the Palestinians on whose land it is built. At the town of Bil'in near Ramallah, the separation fence cuts off the land from the farmers in the town who own and need the land for survival. The Israeli government may talk of security but the people here know it is about real estate - a land grab so that the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Upper Modi'in can expand from a town with a population of 30, 000 to a town of 300,000 (to be built by a North American company). Every few weeks, the residents of Bil'in and about 30 Israeli activists protest the building of this fence. But they are tired, running out of steam, they have no power - they also get teargassed and/or stun bombed every time they do it. One of the farmers has been shot in the legs (he attends the protests in his wheel chair and still gets teargassed), and the mayor of Bil'in hobbles around with the aid of a stick. It is a battle they cannot win. Avi, Sarah, and Mahmoud (an activist from Bil'in) reckon a fence performance may give the cause some much needed energy. I agree.
The separation fence has an electronic sensor embedded in it. One touch of this fence and clearly the IDF will be on us in seconds. I suggest I play the auxiliary fence on the Palestinian side that protects THE fence- so it will be obvious that we are not trying to harm or climb over the main barrier. Makes no difference. I play what turns out to be the shortest fence concert ever - 3 seconds. The IDF arrive en masse, they have the teargas grenades in their hands. There is no discussion - get out immediately or get gassed. The IDF arrest Mohammed Hatib one of the Palestinians. Because he is a representative of the Bil'in Committee against the fence, says Avi. We stand by the fence until he is released. While waiting I play back a recording of an identical fence to some of the men from Bil'in. 'It's sad music' says Waji Burnat, 'Beautiful' says another villager with a shy and unbelieving expression on his face.
It has turned into a mini media circus, there are three sets of cameras, four or five reporters - including some guy from national TV who wears make up which makes him look like Spock out of Star Trek (but without the ears). I answer a barrage of 'why' questions as best I can. We are invited back to a Palestinian house for tea, as if it is a normal day - and it probably is for them. I'm trying to grasp hold of what this separation fence means, it is too surreal for me and all too real for the residence of this Palestinian town.
We drive back through the territories and pass from third world poverty into the first world glitter of Tel Aviv. It takes only half an hour.
When I show a video of the Australian fence project to art students in Jerusalem, at first they laugh, then giggle, then fall into an intense silence. They get it. The discussion uncovers some raw nerves and then the big questions - what is art, what is the point of it? Platitudes about music starting when words stop does not satisfy. They know that the Jewish safe haven of Israel, and its continued existence, is under extreme pressure. Music career as a life style option - don't think so.
The fence project didn't start for any political purpose. It came out of the idea of instrument as a vehicle for experimentation, and then the realisation in 1983 that the continent of Australia was covered, not with fences, but with millions of miles of string instrument. But as soon as you perceive that, you would have to stay in a state of denial, not to see that the fence is one of our species great follies - the ultimate statement of alienation, them and us. It is a species problem and we are responsible; a folly incriminating all. Somehow we demand a hierarchy of separation, whether it be race, religion, nation state, football team, the next door neighbour, or inter-sibling rivalry. I sometimes think of our species in terms of one organism. It's an organism that suffers from a seemingly incurable disease - if a boil doesn't appear on one part of its skin, it will appear somewhere else. If there wasn't an Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there'd be something like it somewhere else.
Standing on the rooftop of one of Jerusalem's many monasteries, Eran points out to me some Israeli flags fluttering. These fly above buildings which have been sold by the Eastern Orthodox church to Israelis in the middle of the Arab part of the city. One rooftop is full of devout Jews enjoying the view from their new acquisition. My eyes move two degrees to the left and I see a group of ten year old Palestinians running down the street chanting something probably taught them by their parents. Eran translates 'Death to the killers of our martyrs'. And I had forgotten about the Armenians - shame on me. Throughout the Armenian quarter of the city are maps on walls that document all the places where Armenians have been massacred in the last 120 years. I've never seen such a celebratory display of victimisation. The Buddists must be here somewhere, but I can't find them.
Part of me has a Shakespearean moment - a plague on all their houses. But by 'their', I mean 'mine' as well. Whatever the specific religious focus, the world's religions are clearly not part of any solution to the species problem.
So where does this take the question of politics and music? A musician such as myself exists on the fringe of society, scratching a living, occasionally biting the hand that may feed me, trying to make changes, mostly just trying to survive and make music. If I look at fence music completely in the abstract - as an endless sonic resource - it satisfies on that level and needs no further justification. But then we live in a time where music has lost almost all of its previous function and therefore value to our species. Most Homo sapiens in the developed world don't give a monkey's fart whether there are live musicians plying their trade or not - the experience of music has been reduced to a file and a download. So it's another world when the practice of music suddenly brings you into a situation where your performance means to one side, support our just cause; and to some 18 year olds displaying their machine guns on the other, don't care, just get and if this tear gas don't hospitalise you up, this stun bomb's gonna stuff up your hearing for the rest of your life.
22nd November 2006
1. The mass demonstrations against the 'illegal immigrant' internment camp at Woomera, South Australia, eventually closed it down leaving the perimeter fence rightly trashed. The mainly interned Afghans were transferred by the Australian government to an even more oppressive camp called Baxter.
2. Avenge but one of my two eyes' is Avi Mograbi's latest film. It juxtaposes historical Israeli defiance in the face of overwhelming odds in such figures as Samson, and such events as the mass suicide at Masada, with the contemporary situation where the IDF regularly humiliates Palestinians on a daily basis. The degradation of a pregnant and bleeding Palestinian women is particularly harrowing.