Friday, August 13, 2010

Finding Nemo: The Bureaucracy of Border Crossings

It was like a very, very bad dream-one where you want to yell at yourself to wake up.  After the third consecutive night of about 4-5 hours of sleep and too many days of pretending to fire on all cylinders, I watched the bus with my colleagues pull away to cross the border into Beirut for the next academy. We were all so tired and preoccupied that we forgot that I would need extra funds to cover the taxi ride, exit fee and visa at the border to return to Lebanon.  I tried not to focus on the fact that I was now stranded in Syria, alone, with no passport and limited funds thanks to my paranoia about carrying too much cash (I had left the majority of my emergency fund in Lebanon) or leaving too much in my travel bank account (both of which are still sound ideas).  After the staff at the hotel, myself and my colleagues had searched my room and all my bags three times, my passport was still absolutely nowhere to be found. 

Home Sweet Home: NY Stock Exchange
Luckily, I was in a capitol city-one with a U.S. Embassy and consulate with entry hours that ended in just 45 minutes.  After some frantic calls to our partners at the Embassy who called ahead to say I was coming, I ran to the consulate with every single electronic item you can think of that is not allowed into an Embassy (cell phone, Blackberry, laptop, camera, Kindle, microphone etc.) determined not to lose anything else that day. It took some time, but eventually the staff realized they were expecting me and I was admitted in and promptly relieved of all my stuff.  I walked into a room filled with Syrian nationals hopefully waiting for their visas to come to the U.S. Into the third run of "Finding Nemo" (the irony of feeling stranded like a fish out of water dependent on the kindness of strangers was not lost on me) and after rereading the version of Little House on the Prairie left in the waiting room, I finally had a new emergency passport. 

I would love to say that is was easy to get a new passport and resume travel. On the whole, it was relatively easy, albeit extremely humiliating. I would also like to say I handled it like a pro and was cool, calm, and collect throughout. But, everytime I got called into the booth with the local bureaucratic consular official who really was doing his very best, tears of fatigue and frustration would start streaming again because when you lose/have your passport stolen they pretty much treat you like a complete moron with no sympathy and in my case also like a dumb girl (even before the tears). At that point, I have to confess that the repatriation option was looking good even though I had already sent one of my bags to Lebanon.   

Currency Dilemmas
After much discussion of how much I needed to pay in Syrian livres to make up the difference from the $55 remaining USD in my wallet to purchase a new passport (now $135.00 as of July 13), I headed off to the Saudi bank down the street to get funds because (and this is very important) you can only pay in cash-no credit or debit allowed.  On return, I was then informed that they would only take one currency after three of us had had a 20-minute conversation breaking down the difference between the Syrian livres and USD I had on me. This was all calculated according to the US Embassy exchange rate which of course is the best for the dollar you will find in the region and can differ dramatically from what is accepted on the street. Although some ATMs in the region will hand out multiple currencies, the Saudi bank they sent me to didn't hand out dollars. 

A big thank you to Karen, the American consulate FSO, that stepped in between myself and the bureaucrat, who at this point saved the situation by changing money out of her own pocket (a thousand times better than the alternative suggested by the bureaucrat which was go into the room of rapidly diminishing hopefuls and play let's negotiate an exchange rate).  I then, finally, received an emergency passport.  Basically, it is good for a certain period of time (in my case one year) to get you home and then you can turn it in for a real one that expires in 10 years.  

The ever important exit and entry stamps
On the way out (five minutes before they closed for the day), I thanked them for their help, and asked about next steps and the "what if" of having the passport appear at the hotel since they were still looking.  We agreed that it would be best if I did find the old passport because it had  both my Syrian and Lebanese visas and the entry and exit stamps.  With the new emergency passport, to get out I would have to make a report at the hotel, a report at the police station and then a visit to immigration/internal affairs to get a special exit stamp before heading to the border.  A daunting process in itself and I should mention I don't speak Arabic well enough to navigate this kind of bureaucracy.

Back at the hotel, things got better. The high speed Internet was working and my Dad (a long time personal hero) initiated a cash infusion into my travel account just in case I had to stay for an additional week. The hotel staff continued to help me try and find the lost passport and offered me lunch. 5 different members of the staff at Fardoss Towers who had been so good to us the past week came up and offered kind words.  Our local project manager and a contact at the Ministry of Culture met me at the hotel to facilitate the process of getting an exit stamp.  After a strange visit to immigration/internal affairs (picture really dirty floor and walls, lots of guys sitting around in military uniforms, and a computer that looked like it was operating on the DOS system) we learned that we had missed the guy with the paper to take to the police station by 5 minutes or so when he left for the day at 3 pm. Yes, 3 pm.

Back at the hotel, the three of us got ready to tear apart the room and all my luggage one last time so that I could perhaps avoid staying in Syria for another four days or so since I really was needed in Lebanon.  And, thank God, now 7.5 hours later, we found the original passport at the bottom of a bag that 4 people (myself, two colleagues and a hotel employee) had thoroughly checked and emptied out that morning.  Knowing that the process of cancellation had been initiated for the passport, we immediately took off for the border taxi stand so I could make it across asap. 

Our local project manager, jazz talent Amr Hammour-now another one of my personal heroes, made sure I got a good taxi and had enough in livres to make the border crossing.  As we left, one of the daughters of the middle-aged woman also making the trip asked me to watch over her mom which I did my best to do. On the ride to Lebanon, totally exhausted at this point, my fellow passengers were so kind and not one complained about the extra 30 minutes it took for me to get the transit visa.   They tried to feed and water me, in broken English kept asking if I was ok, and the Mom sincerely said as she got out "I will miss you."  The European, Australian and Canadian members of a tour group that had witnessed the drama that morning were also at the border crossing and were extremely kind when they recognized me (although as my mother's daughter I was very embarrassed).  All of these gestures are typical of the amazing kindness and hospitality that as a Southern girl I was brought up with and find prevalent far from home (as did Nemo) but see more rarely in the U.S. these days. 

Standing in the customs line at Newark, I fully expected to be pulled out to do a full entry interview when I presented my emergency passport. And I was, but they were very courteous and Homeland Security processed the emergency passport, commended me for reporting it lost so quickly so that it couldn't be used for terrorism, and then sent me on my way in less than 10 minutes. Again, I am sure the note that all my travel was U.S. Embassy sponsored helped.

Threshold from the Covered Souq to the Old City
So lessons learned: Don't lose your passport! Have a considerable emergency cash fund available (I suggest $1000) in case you have to stay a few extra days and a family member or friend that can easily be accessed to put more money in your travel account or wire money in emergency situations. Without the help of our local and official partners (US Embassy and Syrian Ministry of Culture), it would have been far, far worse. As an independent tourist, the process would have taken an inestimable amount of time. That said, despite everything, there are options as an American to always get home which I find very comforting. However, I do recommend a policy change of being able to pay via debit or credit card!

So Syria, I will be back, hopefully for YES Academy 2011; better prepared for emergencies and with a new passport ready to be stamped because Damascus is a beautiful, ancient city full of life that I only scratched the surface of. Despite the drama of that day, I recommend it as a place truly worthy of visiting for at least a week; just don't lose your passport!

Thursday, August 12, 2010


As I am transitioning from one world to another and before I really get my thoughts together after trying to process the past 40+ days and nights in the Middle East, here are some things I want to make sure not to forget. This is also the key to unlocking my memories for anyone that wants the full story after I survive reverse jetlag. By sharing these personal memories informally, I hope this conveys both the realities of international engagement on the road as well as the generosity of spirit and the kindness of strangers that often become friends. Although we were all brought together by a love of the arts, our team, local partners and participants also bonded through collective problem solving and a shared love of popular world culture. So…in no particular order by country here is the unforgettable hit list:


Grease Number for Airport Film
The Airport. When we return our kids will be featured in a promotional video about Kurdistan to greet us as we go through the 5 levels of security.

 Just how Modern, “Modern City Hotel” was-it depends on who you ask.

 Finally conquering non-Western toilets. I cannot express how important this survival skill is while traveling abroad. There should be a book.

 The spontaneous folk celebration at the end of the Gala concert and dancing with John Ferguson and 300 exuberant Kurds.

 Taking photos with almost every single male student and being asked if I knew the girl in the Twilight movie. I am a little afraid of where all these photos will end up.

Entrance to the Citadel
 Exploring the Erbil Citadel with Dr. Brad and WherethehellisMatt.

 Teaching ballet to the Bboys (their request) and oboe to Hersh.

 Realizing that few can type confidently in Kurdish. It takes half a day to translate and a whole day to type. (My computer now has the fonts if anyone needs them.)

 Garden parties after midnight in the “Christian District” and the smell of hookah. In Erbil, “family” means women allowed and “Christian” means alcohol is available in the area. They are not mutually exclusive.

 Everyone, including the Iron Man, getting really, really sick for an average of 10 days. Trust me you don’t want to know.

 Watching Dr. Greg tune down his viola to play beautiful Kurdish folk music with Alan.

 All the forbidden teenage love drama (you know who you are).

Grand Piano Success
 Getting the grand piano onstage and likewise moving it back out again. Thanks again to all the bboys and volunteers that lent a hand. I do not offer this up as a best practice.

 The kids choosing to sleep on the streets of Erbil in the middle of the night because the AC broke in select dorm rooms and it was cooler outside.

 Watching the young women paint the mural outside the Ministry of Culture.

 Mariano’s exuberance about Spain’s progression and victory in the World Cup-we watched the key games outside despite the heat.

 The delicious apricot soup, the tea and the scary kabobs.

 Middle Eastern Bureaucracy. This holds true in all three locations each displaying a distinct and diverse flair that distinguishes it from similar N.America, Southeast Asia, African and European bureaucratic drama each of which has its own cultural characteristics.  And you thought government and bureacracy was boring! 

 How my laundry literally dried in an hour because of the lack of moisture in the air.

 The sheer genius of having your room key control the electricity. Also means you never lose the key. Recycling, though, hasn’t really caught on yet.

 Never knowing when the electricity would go off. Note: avoid elevators unless necessary.

 Having the office boys take me to the new modern mall. The outside photos feature beautiful, happy Scandinavian families.

 Dancing with Bruce at the Kurdish wedding we got pulled into. (See "The Newbie" for the full story)

 Using Iraq and Kurdistan labels selectively depending on who you are talking to.

 Trying to fit 2 administrators, 5 office volunteers, and 10 teachers into an 11 by 7 office. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

 The office guys getting excited about Shakira and Enrico Inglesias. SHAKIRA! In the Middle East it is also perfectly sociably acceptable for male friends (bromances) to hold hands, sit close and put their arms around each other.

 Dr. Gene’s famous disco shirt (it made an appearance in Syria too.)

 Goodbye dinner at the American compound cantina-can we say Mash with barbed wire anyone? Company and food were excellent though.

 Hearing all the amazing stories of our students many of whom sacrificed more than you can imagine to attend.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA (July 16-July 27)

 After too many days of functioning on too little sleep, I watched the bus pull away with my colleagues headed to Lebanon due to a lost passport. Let’s just say there is more than a little video of me streaming tears at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus that I hope stays locked away forever. On the plus side, I caught up on Little House on the Prairie and “Finding Nemo” in the waiting room and now have an emergency passport without any Arab state stamps. Guess I have a year to go and see Jerusalem. For the record, it takes the duration of 2.5 “Finding Nemos” to get a new passport when they are expecting you. (See "Finding Nemo" for the full story.)

 Border crossings. Seems Syria wants me to stay forever. I can always get in but seem to have a lot of trouble getting out. Wouldn’t have made it without our awesome taxi drivers that were willing to go to bat for perfect strangers.

 Green mosques lighting up the city at night

 Amr Hammour giving us the grand tour with the view of the city from the Mountain

 Seeing all the diverse women’s fashions. I love the sequin patterned burquas.
Supermen of Syria at Umayyad Mosque

 The souq and the old city.

 Flirting with the babies and talking with their moms using sign language at the famous Umayyad Mosque while my colleagues got a tour on the male side and I sweated it out in a borrowed Hajib.

 Running into other hotel guests at the border crossing that had witnessed all the lost passport drama. They were kind, I was embarrassed.

 The yummy delicious food at the hotel and the pistachio ice cream. I got an extra scoop at the souq because I was a smiling American.

 Early 6:30 am breakfasts and shopping with Miss Carole.

 Trying to figure out exactly how many hours of rest the gas station guys could get sleeping on the roof visible from the breakfast table. I finally caught them sleeping right before we left. My estimate is about 4 hours max.

 Mint lemonade and dinner at the old Damascene House with Amr and Dr. Gene.

 Splurge of the year…thai massage at Four Seasons around the block from our hotel. In my defense, I was desperately warding off my nemesis, migraine, and all the $6 bathhouses that allow women were closed. Best massage of my life to date though and totally worth it.

 Samaa and Abir’s kindness and essential help on the ground and rockin out to Amy Winehouse, “No, No, No.”

Our talented voice and piano students
 The students and translators randomly deciding not to show up on any given day. On the other hand, most of our students were very talented and dedicated thanks to their Soviet training.

 Ira working the audience with traditional spirituals.

 Late night talks with Anne Marie.

 Visiting the National Museum where they have evidence of the first written languages.

 Sitting under a full moon with about 1000 Syrians and three TV station cameras as my colleagues and the students rocked the outdoor venue.

BEIRUT, LEBANON (July 27-August 9)

 Reuniting with old friends. Singing showtunes everyday in the office with Mahmoud with guest voice contributions by Balsam, Amal, Omar and Eliane. There may have been some belly dancing as well to Arabic music but we are taking the 5th.

Omar at the beach. Courtesy of a colleague.
 Waking up to see the sea every morning outside my window.

 Watching Omar (visiting from Kurdistan) experience the beach at White Sands and Byblos after never seeing the sea before in his life. Once again at Byblos, life soundtrack was Shakira, Enrique and Beyonce from the party down the beach.

Jeita Grotto! (Please vote for a as a new wonder of the world. I have never seen anything like it!)...and that entire day (notable as my one day off.) Hezha, you have a rewarding future ahead of you as a Minister or tour guide.

Pirates of the Caribbean
 Bruce’s interactive conducting of the score from “Pirates of the Caribbean” while wearing an over-the-top Pirates Hat. Concert highlight was the hat flying off and hitting a cellist after a perfectly executed turn. After a brief pause, cellist and conductor fully recovered and immediately the show went on.

 Eating at Petit Café suspended on cliff supports near Pigeon Rock with Marc, Greg and John. (Eating was usually the only time off for admin.)

 Taking the teenage dorm kids to see the third Twilight movie, "Eclipse"-their request, and debating Edward versus Jacob all the way home. Cheesy vampire love stories CAN facilitate cultural exchange!

 How close Lebanon and Israel came to war over a tree incident that left five dead.

 Seeing Cynthia Schneider so far from home on our first day.

 A nameless staff member with a devilish laugh signed into the dorms as Satan in room 666 one early morning and then was too sick to work. He blamed it on the wings, I blamed it on the absinthe. As management, we were NOT happy but I still had to secretly laugh.

 Manoosh for breakfast. Ahh manoosh! Think big salty cheesy personal pita pizza with thyme and spices.

 Improv with Chris and the hip hop class.

 Michael Parks Masterson in general (this goes for Iraq and Syria too.)

 Dunkin Donut farewell breakfast with Amal and Eliane, our fabulous chaperones.

 Amal’s mother’s chocolate coconut balls. The staff went through two batches in two days. Shokrun, shokrun, shokrun!

 After a failed border crossing and 3 hours of sleep, a perfect 4 hours of writing at Café Younes just in time to meet two deadlines.

 A free taxi ride on the way back from the supermarket in Hamra to Bliss Gate (completely unheard of) offered due to my heavy load. In comparison, another taxi driver dropped Miss Carole and I off 8 busy highway lanes away from the grocery store, told us to walk, lied to our translators that we had called and then tried to charge us double (foreigners cost extra) after an hour of getting lost.

Feeding all the wild cats
 American University of Beirut kitties everywhere. They feed and water the wild cats daily.

 Dad using Skype for the first time!

 Arabic and bachata dancing with Bruce and Mahmoud at the goodbye party.

Its official! I can live without Starbucks, my blackberry, air conditioning in extreme heat, western toilets and even the Internet (which I had maybe 30% of the time). Not only is it possible, but I reconfirmed that some of the most intense and rewarding experiences of my life can take place.

Thanks to all my fabulous colleagues, our wonderful students and everyone that touched my life during the past 5 and a half weeks. I hope to be back next year (Inshallah!) And, finally, thanks to all my loved ones and colleagues stateside for being so supportive and letting me have this essential, annual, field experience which always successfully re-inspires my work as a teacher, policy advisor and researcher. Photos of classes, the 10 concerts and life on the road can be found at under Photos or on Facebook at YESAcademyKurdistan, YES Academy Syria and YES Academy Lebanon 2010. Donations to American Voices for 2011 can be made through

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Yalla, On y va

Originally posted on on July 18 at 2:50 pm local time from Damascus, Syria because blogspot is blocked in Syria. 

"Yalla, on y va!" Dr. Gene, I and our Syrian cab drive were feeling optomistic and festive yelling "yalla" followed by the French "let's go! as we prepared to cross by taxi the Lebanese-Syrian border on the road to Damascus.

For Dr. Gene (legendary doctor of jazz in case you were wondering) and myself, it was our second try to cross the border in 36 hours. When we first arrived at the border after carefully selecting our then Lebanese cab driver under a very sketchy highway bridge based on the perceived quality of his car and his willingness to take our rate of no more than $100, we were denied. Well--Dr. Gene's multi-entry visa obtained via mail via the consul in Houston was denied due to a technicality (no end date). My beautiful spanking-new, obtained in 20 minutes by an old-school gentleman in Washington, DC, visa had been approved in about 2 minutes which left us with a dilemma. After several calls to our Arabic-fluent project managers in both Syria and Lebanon at about 4 am, and some kindly negotiating by our taxi man, it was determined that I would have to cross the border alone to get my exit stamp and pay the required 500 exit fee in Syrian currency and then pick up Dr. Gene again on the way back.

If my mother was alive, there was no way she could have slept well for at least a week ever thinking her daughter, who according to the natives doesn't look a day over 25, (although they are still worried that I might be in danger of missing the marriage bus-I told my Kurdish assistant I was still waiting for the limo) could ever be entering a nation infamously described as part of the axis of terror alone in the middle of the night with a strange taxi driver. But on we went over the border. Dr. Gene had done his best to coax pig latin from my tired brain to comment on how the driver was so lowsay compared to the dare deviled driving we were expecting as we left Beirut. But at this moment, my slow -driving, heavy-smoking driver held my safe passage in his hands and he was looking mighty wonderful.

I made it back to Lebanon only to have to run back and forth between the two administrative offices on that side of the border and here our driver proved invaluable. He pushed and prodded to get us the entry stamps we needed without another visa. When you arrive via air you don't need a visa but at the border with car you do-go figure. After an hour of navigating the now very busy border bureaucracy with everyone now knowing our bidness, we were back in Beirut in time to get a teeny bit of sleep and some important applications out the door and try again.

After stopping at the little cafe on the way where our new driver made us try some of the local specialities including an olive with the hottest, spiciest garlic I have ever tasted (no vampires in Syria clearly) we were on our way again. We shot the no man's land between Lebanon and Syria this time with the windows open and it felt like we were flying through the rugged beauty. With some attention to the saxophone and printer at customs, we made it into Syria in time for the sunset.

The road to Damascus in the 21st Century can be a bit tricky but overall beautiful. We were greated with real welcome both times and our drivers could not have been more thoughtful or trustworthy-with a proven willingness to go to bat for perfect strangers. Even at the most difficult part of our crossing we were never yelled at or treatly unkindly in any way. I am ashamed to say it probably would have been much much different back in the States. And in fact, it was hinted that part of the wait to get visas for some of our team was due to some retaliation for similar treatment.

All in all, a nice adventure and one I would not have wanted to share with anyone else from our team. So my recommendation.....if you plan to shoot the Lebanese border on the road to Damascus, get your visa in person in DC, find a groovy jazz man as your traveling companion,  get a good driver, a Syrian car and cross your fingers that the border crossing back home goes smoothly (with Iraq, Syria and Lebanese stamps on my passport, bets are now open for how long the entry interview back in the States will take.)

PHOTO: Dr. Gene and I happy to be eating good food in Damascus and talking about jazz with Amr our project manager after our successful border crossing!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Beauty Out of Chaos: The Story of American Voices

“A 1, a 2, a 123”, and suddenly the air is filled with fused American and Kurdistani jazz almost hotter than the 125°F temperatures outside Peshawa Hall in Erbil, Iraq. Over the next three hours, representatives from the Cultural Ministry of Kurdistan, the U.S. Embassy Regional Reconstruction Team, Pepsi, and other local sponsors, along with the parents and friends of over 250 youth and young adults aged 7-27, will experience the artistic fruits of two weeks of training at the Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy.

This program, brought you to by American Voices, is just the latest initiative in a 16-year history of bringing concerts, workshops, master classes and interactive performance projects to over 200,000 live audience members in 110 countries on five continents. Under the direction of John Ferguson, our Jazz Bridges, Broadway, Hiplomacy and Yes Academy nonprofit programs aim to further accessibility and the understanding of American performing arts and culture including Broadway, Jazz, and Hip Hop, children’s theater and classical orchestra, classical voice, and piano instruction. In 2007, American Voices launched the YES Academies to inspire and motivate youth artistically and personally in areas of the world lacking opportunities for cultural exchange and dialogue with the U.S. Perhaps most importantly, we further strive to build bridges of mutual understanding among our participants of both gender, especially in nations where youth are separated by religious, ethnic, linguistic and political divides.

Each day in the field, as American teachers and volunteers, we confront our own challenges and uncertainties and dig deep for the patience it requires to facilitate multi-lingual, cross-cultural collaboration with students representing a broad spectrum of ability and training. Motivated by our own personal reasons, we fight injustice by navigating the underlying chaos of conflict, bureaucracy, limited resources, graft, substandard facilities and equipment and grueling travel schedules to create continued opportunities for our most talented students here and back in the States. But it is our student’s stories that haunt us and our sacrifices seem small in comparison with the real risks our students take to pursue something they love. Our students from Mosul are not allowed to be photographed or filmed because if news about their involvement in the arts were made public, their lives and that of their families would be in danger. In 2008, our teachers discovered that the most talented ballerina from Iraq’s Camp Unity, a child of 10, had been killed along with her entire family in Baghdad by extreme religious conservatives when a neighbor reported that she was involved in dance; for such stories, I find there are no words.

YES Academies have been conducted worldwide in languages including Kurdistani, Arabic, Urdu, Thai, French and English. Our students may speak different tongues but the language of beauty and creativity is shared and during the magic of the performance we are all on the same page buoyed by our new friendships and changed forever in ways we can only begin to imagine. In my second year as a member of this merry band of teachers and volunteers, I am amazed each time at each of the many tiny personal, organizational and artistic successes. This year our street dancers, many of whom have never taken a formal class and who have long standing rivalries, explored and then collaborated to teach their original choreography together. In another class, a pianist who moved us with his expressive rendition of a Chopin composition couldn’t explain how he had progressed from almost square one last year with limited access to a piano.

If I were a betting woman, I would put my money on the drive and passion that comes from not taking these opportunities for granted. Long term human development challenges like poverty can take generations to alleviate. But human expression through music, dance, poetry and theater, and the possibilities they allow for cultural and individual liberty, allows us joy and comfort along the way no matter our personal circumstances. Our students are so hungry for the knowledge that is otherwise not available and this is a place where my beaten up beginner oboe method book and a new reed are received like long-lost treasure to be used in isolation with newly learned skills until we return. American Voices also helps to facilitate donations of scores and instruments and on any given day our teachers can be found fixing a saxophone or violin.

At the close of this year’s first Academy of Summer 2010, as we rested from the spontaneous folk dancing that celebrated our shared experience, they implored us, in a common refrain, to return. We come each year, not to change the over 3,200 friends and collaborators we have made in Afghanistan, Belarus, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Nepal, Pakistan, Syria and Thailand even as we are deeply altered ourselves, but only to offer opportunities through the arts by providing the skills and training they crave to make their own way in the world. American Voices and countless other cultural organizations in the field whose bread and butter is cultural exchange aren’t just feeding the soul. These programs train the next generation of cultural leaders often leading to income through teaching jobs and continuity through the development of new training schools. Measuring our impact is not always possible numerically but seeing the reflected joy on their faces and sharing the music of our hearts, despite all the chaos, danger and uncertainty, is a profoundly beautiful thing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Newbie

The Newbie

This year, I am no longer the “new worker bee”. The team here in Kurdistan is comprised of many American Voices veterans-John, Miss Carole, Marc, Dr. Gene the jazz doctor, and of course Mr. Michael. This year in Kurdistan, we have two additional string teachers, a Spanish jazz teacher and a pianist for a total of 7 core disciplines. The first days in the field are always the roughest but particularly so for the newbies who have no real idea what to expect. We all have to take a page from the military practice of hurry up and wait. Translation difficulties, not knowing what to expect, a schedule that is constantly changing, almost having to clean the toilets ourselves, no shows, kids having to be turned away because we are over capacity, half the students leaving their instruments at home, leaking roofs in the middle of auditions, not having a working printer, losing students a half an hour early to the World Cup games—any of these things can be enough to push anyone, much less a jet lagged newcomer to Iraq, over the edge. But the team remained calm and functional yesterday as we all walked the tightrope together today knowing that tomorrow things will start settling in. I can already hear the strings making beautiful music through the office door so we are already well on our way now on Day 2.

Last night, I had a few quiet moments as I was watching football aka soccor in the hotel lobby after dinner (sad for Brazil) to think about how normal the moment was and how strange it feels to not be the newbie this year. As John and I were chatting, Bruce came bounding into the lobby with his cello and a handful of method books. Bruce is probably 6 foot 6 inches of African American positive pep and in comparison makes my enthusiastic self look like Darth Vader. Feeling hungry, we strolled out at about 11 pm to the neighborhood store right next door for some Muesli and ice cream. On the way back, we followed our ears to a Kurdistani wedding just down the block. The fourth wall was open to the sidewalk and so hearing the music we went by to peek in. Bruce got pulled in right away and after a few half hearted protests, my half-eaten ice cream cone was thrown literally out the window by the host and we were “forced” to start dancing with everyone. Believe me, a Western white woman and a very, very tall peppy black man dancing together and with the natives here makes a real statement but we lived it up with everyone for about 20 minutes and then took pictures with the Bride and Groom.

Being invited to participate in one of most important moments in a stranger’s life will always be extraordinary to me, but I have seen it happen more than once as the legendary hospitality of the region and genuine curiosity about us kicks in. Last year, I attended an amazing Palestinian-Swedish Circus Wedding in Southern Lebanon as a guest and again was invited to dance with the guests despite my clear outsider status. Even knowing we were Americans, last night we were very welcome, and in conversations afterwards we explained afterwards that we were here as arts teachers and citizen diplomats rather than with soldiers as they expected. After these moments, I am so aware that sharing this kind of human experience, even as my presence alone slightly pushes social boundaries, is priceless. No matter how many times I find myself in such situations, bonding across cultures always invigorates me allowing me to keep the enthusiasm of a “newbie.” I confess though that falling asleep I wondered what happens to all those photos….hmmm.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the Road Again

Tomorrow, I head out for my second year in the field with American Voices to support their Yes Academy performing arts youth academies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  Looking forward to my annual shot of inspiration and field experience- my own version of the "Cultural Policy Peace Corps".  This year, to appease my family and friends, none of which were particularly keen on me visiting a region known for conflict, I have agreed to blog in order to be in contact more frequently and to share the experience more broadly.  So, for the next five weeks, I will do my best to provide an inside and mostly informal look at adventures in a cultural policy worker's life on the road. I can promise meanderings, tangents, cool photos, jet lagged commentary and perhaps even once in awhile even something profound or useful to the ongoing conversations in cultural policy and cultural engagement.

Bags about to be packed, insurance waived for war regions, and giving up blackberry for a whole 6 weeks-which may be the hardest part of all.

A bientot!