Baltimore sits in limbo as does the nation

Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar, Founding Director of the Barenboim-Said Conservatory now Polyphony Conservatory in Nazareth, receiving a 2012 Courage Award for the Arts from Yoko Ono at Yoko Ono Lennon’s Courage Awards 2012 event at The Modern, New York City, Feb. 26, 2012.

I wheeled my quarter century-old gray rig down to Annapolis then headed east on the Bay Bridge over the Chesapeake.  Destination?  Washington College in pastoral Chestertown to hear a young Palestinian violinist from Nazareth named Nabeel play Mozart and Ludwig Van B.

In September, the breeze on the Eastern Shore of Maryland blows light and soft.  Like a butter, soft on the tips of ones fingers, the brackish salt air is mixed with a sweet aroma of almost ripe fall corn.  Being free of Baltimore’s constant din of sirens and other notes of pained urgency, I prepared myself for an hour of harmonious sonatas.

Long ago, during the Vietnam War and a violent era in Kingston, Jamaica, Jimmy Cliff asked his audience a question during his song, “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.”

“What is the universal language?” he asked, waiting a moment to hold his audience rapt.

“It’s just music!” he yelled finally.

This was the thought I took into the concert hall.   Such an obvious statement of fact yet one we dismiss under the weight of politics, guns or bombs.

A shooting occurred on the first day of school, two weeks ago, in the Baltimore suburb of Perry Hall.  Among the horrified were parents here in the city, loading up social media sites with empathy and blessings for the families involved and thanks that their own kids were safe for that day.

Daniel Borowy’s 2011 yearbook photo. His condition is improving after being shot on the first day of school at Perry Hall High School .

That a teenager in the burbs who felt he’d been bullied decided to resolve his problems with firearms was not lost here in Baltimore, where bullying and the resulting firearms discharge is still the norm on the street.  What was also not lost on the parents here in the city is that violence, particularly gun violence can happen anywhere, even in the perceived safety of the burbs.

Nabeel Abboud Ashkar came home to Nazareth to help found the Barenboim-Said Conservatory and Polyphony, an orchestra, after finishing his musical studies in Germany in 2006.  His purpose then was to break the myth of young Palestinians as bomb throwers.  As Nabeel saw it, Nazareth was a desert, devoid of culture, especially for the young.  Polyphony has since grown into a dual Muslim and Jewish teen orchestra that performed this year in Greenwich, Conn., New York and Detroit.

Nabeel grew up listening to Beethoven at home because his father loved classical music. Even so, he came to realize that Beethoven was, he says, not “his” music.  That it wasn’t traditional Arabic music and that he was far from the salons of Vienna.  Still, he and his older brother persisted, as their parents took both of them through years of checkpoints to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for lessons.

Looking eerily like a young David Suchet, Nabeel, now 34, has the intensity of the classical musician at work:  erect, intense and focused, letting the notes flow from his violin through him with his piano accompaniment. Yet, when asked after the performance if his degree in physics aids him in music, he sees it in the reverse.  “If I face challenges in music, it makes me a better physicist and person.”

And when asked if the parents of the children in his orchestra are friends, Nabeel, a 2012 Yoko Ono Courage Award for the Arts winner, hesitates.  He relates that the children are becoming friends and that ‘the kids are starting to educate the parents.’

On Labor Day, seven shootings in Baltimore left two dead.  One of those was killed in a running gun battle two blocks from me.  Some 10 million people live in the region that holds Israelis and Palestinians.  In 2011, there were 116 deaths as a result of clashes between the two. In Baltimore, a city of 630,000, there have already been 142 murders this year.  In what most would say is an ongoing civil war, Palestinians and Israelis have had less violent death than in one U.S. city — our city, Baltimore.

Polyphony Conservatory perform at Yoko Ono Lennon’s Courage Awards 2012 event at The Modern, New York City, February 26, 2012. The prize has been awarded annually since 2009 by Ono to artists for promoting peace through the arts.

Before Nabeel started Polyphony, he was asked to join the Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said in Seville in 1999.  The Divan is comprised of musicians, Muslim and Jewish, from the many nations in the Middle East.  Bierenbohm and Said formed the orchestra to promote understanding between the differing peoples of the region.  What Nabeel is doing in Nazareth is a natural extension of the work of Barenboim and Said, even though neither was under any misapprehension that starting an orchestra was simply going to solve their peoples’ mutual political problems.

All bigotry is ignorance yet not all ignorance is bigotry.  Still, ignorance is not something to excuse but something that must be worked through, regardless of the circumstance.  For the Palestinians, teaching music to a people left over from the old British Mandate and not wanted by other nations in the region, is giving the young an identity and reason to believe in themselves rather than fear and hate their neighbors.  The same can be said for Jewish Israelis.  And the same can be done here at home.

When Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic Convention, one story spoke to me more than the rest.  When speaking of her father, his multiple sclerosis, and how he never failed to meet a deadline for college costs for she and her brother, the first lady reminded me of what is common to us all in this nation, no matter the circumstance.

Who wasn’t moved by her speech? The First Lady made it personal. She spelled it out what it means to be a man at the Democratic National Convention.

With her words, “you see, to him, that was what it meant to be a man,” she could easily have been talking of my father, even though our fathers raised children in a far more unequal world.  That Mrs. Obama has become first lady tells me that our family expectations were the same, even when our circumstance wasn’t.  Outcomes matter little if we don’t have expectations for our children and the will to help them become something greater than ourselves.

When Nabeel told the audience about realizing classical music was not “his” music, I laughed out loud.  Sitting beside him was his pianist accompaniment, Grace Eun Hae Kim, a Korean-American professor at Washington College.  It seems to me that Nabeel has won two battles so far.  One battle concerned his instrument, the violin.  The other concerned himself and whether he felt he belonged in the world of classical music.  Having heard him play, I have no doubt he has succeeded on both fronts and that his Arabic background is now a point of pride, not one of derision.  The third battle is on the ground, in Nazareth.

Obama winning the election this fall is not simply about our guy and how we feel about ourselves.  It’s also about winning the argument.  To win the argument, we need to make those in our own tribes understand too.  Parents and children need to know that there is right and wrong, expectations and hope, no matter what.   This effort starts at the top, with the mayor as the people of Baltimore have been saying this for years.

In Baltimore, change comes too slowly and the losses are still too great.  Mothers know.  Mothers of the dead know better.  And those who’ve been shot and crippled and live their lives in wheelchairs and worse, often know best.