In January 2009, Bessan, Mayar and Aya Abuelaish, together with their cousin Noor, were in the bedroom of their apartment in Gaza when an Israeli tank targeted and shelled it. Three of the girls were killed instantly, and the fourth, Bessan, killed by a subsequent shell. Their father, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, in a desperate phone call to his friend Shlomi Eldar, a front man for an Israeli news program, screamed that his girls had just been slaughtered and begged for help. This call was broadcast live to air in Israel and is chilling to hear.
Dr Abuelaish had made his reputation as a specialist in fertility medicine in various universities in Israel where he had helped many Jewish couples to realise their wish of becoming parents. He was a resident of Gaza and a willing and generous donor of time and finances to Gazans who needed medical help both in Gaza and in Israel. His response to the murder of his daughters and niece is encapsulated in his text, I Shall Not Hate. He lectures on the need for understanding and the futility of revenge and violence and his fundamental proposition is that these actions never bring about peace.
The common bond here is that both the Pearls and Dr Abuelaish made the same commitment following the deaths of those most precious to them. None of them would hate. They would work as hard as they could to bring together those often seen to be antagonists. This was an extraordinary response to loss and grief and one that I hesitate to believe I would have either the good grace or the capacity to follow. I would, however, like to believe that I would.
The opportunity arose in 2009 to form a musical group comprising a Turk who is Muslim by birth and who is living in France as a refugee, an Israeli Jew living in Tel Aviv and myself, a Roman Catholic by birth living in Australia. We formed the band over the internet and recorded an album in the same way. Since we all worked for the beta section of the audio software company Waves Audio, we called the album Three Waves Under the Bridge. The band, and the subsequent project, was called The Bridge Project.
We were accepted to play at this year’s National Folk Festival. Unfortunately, Umit was denied a visa, since he was a Turkish refugee living in France. Replacing him was a challenge. I asked John Robinson, an extremely flexible Arabic and Turkish lute player if he could take over the parts composed for the Turkish baglama (long-necked lute). Given that Ittai was only going to be here for the National Festival and there were still seven concerts that needed to be played in his absence, I also had to come up with an alternative to his bowed strings. Enter John Napier, cellist extraordinaire and a very fine Australian transcultural musician. I also thought that it would be great to have someone of Muslim background playing with us and invited Nawres al-Freh to play and Bilge Ozgun to sing Umit’s Turkish songs. Nawres is an absolutely glorious bowed string player and he plays the joza-tarhu (an upright fiddle designed and made here in Australia by Peter Biffin) and the violin.
The friendship that formed between the members of the band – Bertie McMahon, John Robinson, John Napier, Tunji Beier, Nawres al-Freh, Bilge Ozgun, Peter Kennard, Ittai Shaked and myself – was wonderful to experience. What especially warmed my heart was the relationship that was forged between Ittai and Nawres, an Israeli and an Iraqi – a Jew and a Muslim. They shared our house with us for a week and it was fascinating to watch the potential for conflict between them, in the strong opinions they held, totally disappear into an embrace of friendship that has persevered even though they now live half-a-world apart. By way of the internet, they stay in regular contact with each other.
The experience of these two men certainly confirmed that religious, political and geographical differences mean so much less than humanity. Contact, in fact, brought about friendship and warmth. Relationship forges bonds and these bonds were apparent between all the musicians in this wonderful company. Bridges were formed between the musical styles of the players, their backgrounds, their religious and spiritual experiences, their politics, nationalities and, importantly, between them and the audiences. All were unified in the concerts we played.
The Bridge Project was brought to life in many wonderful ways. The improvisational skills of both the core musicians and the friends who joined us proved stellar, and beautifully enhanced the music of the band. A further wonderful embellishment was provided by Tamara Taylor who danced to the band’s music in a number of concerts. She was beautiful to watch and beautiful in spirit.
The period of time with this extended Bridge Project further emphasised to me that music is such an important political medium. It can be a great unifier. It can teach us so much about ourselves as players as well as in our participation as members of an audience. In this case, my experience with The Bridge Project also enhances the demand I deeply feel to live as well as I can and in a way that reduces the burden of conflict that often arises in my day-to-day life. In other words, it’s changed my life.