Elise Thomas, Brown University
- On Tuesday, September
11, at 4:30 pm, I was at the National Music Conservatory in Amman, Jordan,
preparing to videotape a workshop by a group of musicians visiting from
Lebanon. I had been in Amman just over a week, beginning my dissertation
research on youth involvement in Arab music, and was still very much
learning my way around. The workshop I was preparing to document was
part of a large-scale event called Souk Ukaz, a Marketplace
of Culture, designed to bring together artists, performers, and
cultural producers from various nations to display their work and to
exchange strategies for cultural production in a global marketplace.
In recent years, Amman has been trying to become a center for culture
and business in the Middle East, and through events such as Souk Ukaz,
organizers hoped to showcase Amman to a wider audience.
- As the workshop
was about to begin, Kifah Fakhouri, director of the conservatory, told
me that something terrible was happening in the United States. Several
planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We
tried to check news websites for more information, but there was too
much internet traffic to access these sites. At that moment the group
showed up and I left the office to videotape their workshop. After the
workshop concluded, the reality of what had happened was beginning to
sink in. I hope this was not done by Arabs, people were
saying, already considering the repercussions if the terrorists were
discovered to have Middle Eastern citizenship. I went home, tuned in
to CNN, learned what had happened, and cried with the knowledge of the
thousands of lives that had been lost in a few short hours.
- People in Amman,
as in other parts of the world, were shocked at what had happened. Many
were concerned about relatives and friends living in the United States,
and they mourned several Jordanians who lost their lives in the attacks.
When I introduced myself as an American, people offered their condolences
and their hopes that my family and friends were not affected by this
tragedy. As part of my research, I had been keeping a log of the music
I heard in taxis, stores, and other contexts; for days after September
11th there was no music in these places. All radios were tuned to the
news or turned off. A candlelight vigil was held at the Amman citadel
in remembrance of the victims, and flowers were left at the American
embassy in an expression of sympathy.
- In the following
weeks, my research was my therapy. I spent my time observing young people
learning Arab and Western music at the conservatory. Activities there
were not seriously interrupted by the attacks, although some of the
events planned for the fall were canceled as visiting musicians and
groups decided not to travel to the region. One of the teachers at the
conservatory had been planning to take his Arab music group to the United
States for a three-week tour starting September 12; needless to say,
their trip was canceled. After spending countless hours rehearsing and
preparing for this tour, the group suffered both a loss of income as
well as a psychological setback.
- While life in
the United States was changed dramatically following the attacks, in
Jordan the most disruptive effects of the tragedy were yet to be felt.
Jordans economy, already suffering considerably from the year-old
Intifada in neighboring Palestine and Israel, has slumped since
September into even more serious recession. The number of travelers
coming to Jordan has dwindled to virtually nothing. The tourist industry,
which in recent years has invested a great deal in developing infrastructure
to attract foreign visitors, found its much hoped-for peace dividend
pushed even farther out of reach.
- Musical life in
Amman has suffered the effects of Jordans economic slowdown. Concert
attendance is down, and while it has never been easy for musicians to
make a living through performance in Amman, now it is next to impossible.
The National Music Conservatory has been dealt a serious economic blow
as well. The NMC is a relatively young institution, founded in 1986
as a string program for young children. In 1988 they expanded their
curriculum to include a wind program and an Arab music program. Initially
supported by funds from the Noor al-Hussein Society, the conservatory
has been struggling to achieve self-sufficiency since the death of King
Hussein in 1999. The NMC now relies on significant support from private
donors and institutional partnerships as well as student tuition.
- Currently, enrollment
at the conservatory has dropped to around 50% of its normal capacity.
A majority of the students enrolled at the NMC are from Palestinian
families, reflecting the social structure of Amman as a whole, and since
the Intifada began last year, many of these families have been
reallocating funds to support the Palestinian cause. Private donations
to the NMC have dried up as well, because all of the money was
going across the river, says Julie Carter Sarayrah, Associate
Director of Development at the NMC.
- At present, the
Palestinian/Israeli conflict continues to escalate, and with the US
strikes in Afghanistan and talk of possible U. military action against
Iraq, the situation in the Middle East is looking increasingly unstable.
Jordan, itself allied with the United States, remains relatively calm,
although its location between Iraq, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian
Territories means that Jordan experiences direct effects of regional
instability. A large number of refugees from Iraq and other Gulf states
came to Jordan during and after the Gulf War, and since the latest Intifada
began, more Palestinian refugees have arrived.
- The conservatorys
history has been shaped by Jordans role in the region as well.
The staff of the NMC has always included many foreigners, including
people from Arab nations as well as from Russia, former Soviet states,
Europe, and North America. With the Gulf War in 1991, many of these
faculty members left Jordan, and the NMC found itself with a serious
teacher shortage. At the same time, the NMC had developed relationships
with a number of musicians from Baghdad who had been trained in Baghdads
prestigious Fine Arts Academy and High School for the Performing Arts.
Several of these musicians also studied in Russian conservatories, and
all were highly accomplished performers in Iraqs national symphony
orchestra. As opportunities for musicians in Iraq were severely limited
after the war, the NMC invited these musicians to come to Jordan and
join the conservatory staff. These musicians formed the backbone for
the National Music Conservatory Orchestra, established at around the
same time, and they continue to form an essential core of the teaching
and orchestra personnel at the NMC.
- One of these musicians
is Mohammed Ali Abbas, now a violin and viola teacher at the NMC. I
take weekly lessons with Ustaz Abbas on Arab violin, and I recently
discussed these issues with him. To him, music and culture have an uneasy
relationship with politics. Musicians, he suggests, make it their goal
to build culture and to develop their own potential, thus enriching
society and contributing to humanity as a whole. This is why, he says,
in spite of the effects of the Gulf War, subsequent embargoes, and other
hardships, musicians in Iraq are still actively performing, composing,
and teaching music. Serious musicians, he says, they
like to build themselves, because they know the situation
go back again, it takes time. So they must use this time for themselves,
to grow, in music. Because otherwise it will be lost time.
- Politics, says
Ustaz Abbas, contributes little toward cultural development, and he
is suspicious of politicians who claim to support the arts, but who
in reality make these gestures for political gain only. He observes
that in the Arab world, a countrys wealth seems to have an inverse
relationship with the status of music in those countries. The wealthiest
nations in the Arab world, he notes, tend not to promote musical activity.
He blames this on a feeling of complacency on the part of these nations;
a feeling that having money is enough and there is no need to develop
their human potential further. When you visit these countries, he says,
you see nice buildings, but no richness of cultural life. And as we
have all been made painfully aware, buildings are destructible. Culture,
on the other hand, is the hardest thing to develop, but it is the most
valuable and lasting monument a civilization can achieve.
- The optimism that
colored my first week in Jordan, as I experienced Souk Ukaz and Ammans
vision of itself as an up-and-coming cultural center, suddenly changed
hues as the events of September 11th left the world in shock and mourning.
This tragedy was put in a different context, however, with the realization
that people here in the Middle East have been living for decades with
violence and the painful disruption to daily life that it brings. As
an American, I have been granted the luxury of peace and political stability,
and the added luxury of taking these things for grantedluxuries
that have made my career in music that much easier.
- UNESCO has designated
Amman to be the Cultural Capital of the Arab World for the
year 2002, and preparations are busily underway for this event. Government
ministries, arts organizations, and the royal family have been visibly
organizing and promoting activities for the yearlong project. The NMC
will be heavily involved in planning the musical components of this
event, which will include festivals, concerts, and the release of a
seven-CD anthology of Jordanian music. Musicians and administrators
at the NMC are hopeful that these projects will bring much-needed recognition
of the importance of music to Jordans cultural life. In spite
of the hardships they facepolitical, economic, and psychologicalmusicians
in Amman are continuing to build their culture.
My research in
Amman is made possible by a fellowship from the Council of American Overseas
Research Centers and the American Center of Oriental Research. I would
like to thank the following for their contributions and assistance in
preparing this response: Julie Carter Sarayrah, Mohammed Ali Abbas, Kifah
Fakhouri, Zina Koro, Susan Gelb, and the National Music Conservatory.