Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why I Support Playgrounds for Palestine

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a six-year old child who lives in a part of the world known as the Gaza Strip.  Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and occupied by the government of Israel.

Imagine that you have already experienced three wars in your lifetime.  Imagine that during these wars your parents, who loved you, had been murdered.  Imagine that some of your friends, whom you liked to play with, were also murdered.  Imagine being a six-year old child living on one dollar per day.  Imagine that all the homes in your neighborhood had been destroyed as a result of these wars.  Imagine experiencing all of this, and now you are homeless.

This is not a story of fiction.  This is the story of thousands of children who live in a place called the Gaza Strip. 

I learned of this story from Jess Ghannam, who is a clinical professor of psychology, and has been working with Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip for over twenty years.  Ghannam presented this information at a recent fundraising dinner for an organization called Playgrounds for Palestine.

Playgrounds for Palestine has been raising funds to build playgrounds in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for about fifteen years.  The idea for this organization came from Susan Abulhawa who continues to be one of the organizers.  Abulhawa wrote a wonderful book titled Mornings in Jenin that traces the history of a Palestinian family.  You can see my review of this book at the highlighted link.  This summer, Abulhawa’s new book is scheduled to be released.

Now, we might ask an interesting question.  With all the horrors the Palestinian people experience, why is there an organization dedicated to building playgrounds for Palestinian children? 

In order to answer this question, I believe we need to remember the time when we were children.  Perhaps our parents told us we needed to come in the house to eat dinner or to do our homework.  We didn’t want to come in the house because we wanted to stay outside and play.

Remembering the times we enjoyed as children allows us to begin to appreciate what the Palestinian children of the Gaza Strip want.  The playgrounds that now exist in the occupied territories allow children to play and begin to mentally escape the horrors they have faced.  Jess Ghannam has seen how children who have experienced these unspeakable horrors have an amazing amount of resiliency to begin their path of recovery.

Why do I contribute to Playgrounds for Palestine?

At this point, I should say that I don’t generally contribute to organizations like the Playgrounds for Palestine.  I am what some people consider an unspeakable word in this country.  I am a communist.

There are organizations dedicated to teaching people how to read.  Clearly, teaching someone to read can transform a person’s life.  The problem is that while one person is learning to read, the school budget of Philadelphia is being cut to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are organizations dedicated to feeding hungry people.  Yes, giving food to someone who is hungry is a wonderful thing to do.  The problem is that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat.  In the world, about 40% of the population on this planet lives on about two dollars per day or less.

Understanding this reality, my focus has been to support movements that strengthen workers and farmers rights all over the world.  In the words of Malcolm X, “Either we will all be free, or no one will be free.”

Clearly, the Playgrounds for Palestine has not changed the overall political reality in the occupied territories.  This past summer the Israeli government ordered a bombing raid that destroyed much of the Gaza Strip, and murdered over 2,000 people, including 500 children.  So, why contribute to Playgrounds for Palestine?

Amer Zahr was the Master of Ceremonies at the PFP dinner I attended.  He is also a Palestinian comedian who is the author of a book titled: being Palestinian makes me Smile. 

In a chapter of his book, Zahr compares the struggle of the Palestinians to the movement protesting the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Zahr argues that Palestinians are writing to the protesters of this movement and giving them advice on how to deal with being tear-gassed.

Zahr also quoted a Ferguson police officer who argued that Black people are “animals.”  He compared this attitude to Israeli soldiers who use Palestinian children as target practice using live ammunition.  In both cases, individuals who have power view human beings as less than human.

For this reason, Zahr argues that the primary Palestinian goal is survival.  In this battle, the Palestinians, despite all the obstacles they face, are winning.  This is why I have supported the Playgrounds for Palestine.  Palestinian people are a part of the human race and deserve to be treated with the same human dignity we would all like to have.

The Cuban reality

This past February Judi and I spent seven days in Cuba.  This was enough time to see how the Cuban reality is unique in the world today.  While the Cuban people face numerous challenges, their example gives us hope for the future.  Here are three examples.

1) One morning I went for a walk on one of the main avenues in Havana.  I noticed that there were children of various ages doing their morning calisthenics.  These children had their own student leaders.  They were disciplined, but also relaxed.  There wasn’t the kind of regimentation I experienced in this country when I was their age. 

Watching these children do their exercises, I began to see how the Cuban government views education as a central priority.  The Cuban constitution guarantees children the right to nutrition.  Cubans also have a lifetime right to education and health care.

2) Then, we visited a school for children with Down Syndrome.  The building this school is housed in didn’t appear to be special.  However, what was going on inside the school was truly inspiring. 

The walls of the inside of the building were covered with artwork.  Many of the paintings were of children with Down Syndrome and the children created many of these works of art. 

I spoke to a parent of one of the students who volunteers his time to teach the children art.  I asked him if he was proud of his daughter.  He answered that he wasn’t just proud of his daughter, but proud of all of the students at this school.

3) Our tour guide told us a story of a child who lived in his neighborhood who had a problem with her kidney.  The doctors who treated this child recommended that the home she lived in be upgraded. 

The government responded to this diagnosis by organizing a team of workers to modernize the home this child lived in with her parents.  These workers installed air-conditioning so the child might have a better and longer life.  I mention these three Cuban examples to show how a better world is possible. 

Every year the United States government has been giving the state of Israel five billion dollars in so-called aid.  This column has shown some of the results of that aid.

Today, while the U.S. government is giving Israel all this money, many Israeli children live in poverty.  We might think about a seemingly impossible dream.  This is the idea of a future world where Israeli and Palestinian children might play together in peace.  My opinion is that the organization Playgrounds for Palestine is working to make this dream a reality.               


Mornings In Jenin

A review of the novel “Mornings in Jenin”
by Susan Abulhawa, published by Bloomsbury

While we see news from the Middle East almost every day, rarely do we see a description or a history of the people known as Palestinians.  Susan Abulhawa has dealt with this problem in her novel Mornings in Jenin.  This is the story of a Palestinian family from before the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, all the way up to the present reality.   

The title of a previous edition of this book was, The Scar of David.  David is the brother of the main character of the book, Amal Abulheja.  David, who’s initial name was Ismael, had a scar on his face and was kidnapped by an Israeli soldier in 1948.  This is when Ismael became David and was raised in an Israeli family.

This story starts out in the Palestinian farming village of Ein Hod.  Like farmers from around the world, the people of Ein Hod had a special relationship to the land.  They knew all the work that is required to raise animals and to reap the harvests of olives as well as several other crops.  Although they had a long history of subjugation from the Ottomans and the British, their ancestors farmed the land of Ein Hod for 40 generations. 

Then, in 1948 Israel became a nation.  Palestinians refer to this time as “el Nakba” or the catastrophe.  This is how Susan Abulhawa describes what this meant to the people of Ein Hod.  Yeya is Amal’s grandfather.

“Thus Yeya tallied forty generations of living, now stolen.  Forty generations worth of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scrapped knees.  Forty generations of sin  and charity, of cooking, toiling and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking.  Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets and scandals.  All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all--all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm--all of it as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.”

While we see how the theft of Palestinian land was a horrendous act, this is only the beginning of the story.  We see through the course of this book that there were more Israeli invasions in 1967, 1982, 2002, and an invasion not included in the book that occurred just last year. 

However, this is only one part of the story.  We also see how Amal’s brother was raised in an Israeli family.  How his mother experienced the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.  We see how David was forced to serve in the Israeli armed forces, and how he and the person who claimed to be his father felt shame for the atrocities they committed.

This is the background to the meeting between Amal and her brother David in, of all places, the suburbs of Pennsylvania.  Amal and her family had endured atrocities, while David, and the man who pretended to be his father, committed some of those atrocities.

Here is where, out of the ruins of the nightmare of the Middle East, we can see some hope.  David and Amal learn to care for one another.  At first, neither wanted to accept that they were of the same family.  Then, when each learned the reality of the other, they would accept that they were brother and sister.

Clearly this is not the whole story and perhaps I’ve divulged too much already.  However, while the media routinely portrays Palestinians as mindless terrorists, the novel Morings in Jenin tells a completely different story. 

Understanding this story forces the reader to question the fact that every year the United States government gives Israel billions of dollars as an outright gift.  How can a government give so much money to a nation that has committed the horrors outlined in the book Mornings in Jenin?

Well, we might keep in mind that the native people of the United States were also forced off of land they had lived on for centuries.  In the year 1830 the United States government adopted a piece of legislation called The Indian Removal Law.  All Native Americans who lived east of the Mississippi River were forced to move to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.  This land was also stolen from Native Americans after the Civil War.

Recently the US government built a wall to prevent immigrants from Mexico from entering this country.  This wall is similar to the wall that separates Israel from the Occupied Territories.  However, the native people from both the United States and Israel continue to experience systematic discrimination.

In other words, the story Mornings in Jenin isn’t just about a family living half way around the world.  This story is similar to the reality of what continues to transpire in a place called the United States of America.                   

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sophisticated Ladies – The Great Women of Jazz

By Leslie Gourse
Dutton Children’s Books
A division of Penguin Young Readers Group – 2007

Illustrated by Martin French

A review

For the past few years Judi and I have been spending time with our cousins in Maryland.  Our cousin who is an art teacher has taken us to some of the museums in the Baltimore area. 

After walking through one of these museums, I was parusing the gift shop and came across a children’s book that had only 64 pages.  It had an attractive cover with a title: Sophisticated Ladies – The Great Women of Jazz.  I noticed that there was a large pile of these books.  While the list price of the book is $19.99, I purchased it for only about seven dollars.

After reading the first short biography in this book and viewing the illustrations, I went back to the gift shop and purchased another of these books.  I gave that book to the daughters of our cousins.  Greedy me, I kept the first one for myself.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the history of jazz has a familiarity with several artists who are men.  Why have many legitimate women artists been ignored in many jazz histories?  Cassandra Wilson answers this question in the following quotation: “the bias against women jazz singers is like racism – it doesn’t go away.”

I happen to be an amateur photographer and have an appreciation for stunning photographs.  However, I also understand some of the limitations to photography.  Colorful brush strokes by an artist clearly have the potential to create images the photographer is incapable of.  The wonderful painting of Lady Day – Billie Holliday above is just one of the exceptional paintings created by Martin French for this book.

Quotations from Leslie Gourse:

“The greatest classic blues singer of the 1920s was the tough talking, hard-drinking woman from Tennessee named Bessie Smith (1894–1937).  She stood six feet tall and never backed down from an argument.  But sometimes when she was onstage, such tenderness flowed out of that huge sweeping voice that her audience cried.  Bessie was called ‘The Empress of the Blues’ simply because no one of her time could match her.  A bold confident performer, she wove the dreams and bitterness of African Americans into her music.”

“For Ethel Waters (1896–1977), stormy weather was more than a song.  It was forever a part of this multitalented woman.  Ethel was a fine blues singer, a much-admired Broadway actress, and an Oscar-nominated Hollywood star.  She sang blues and jazz with perfect diction even though she had little education and could not read music.  One of the most popular and influential of blues singers, she was an innovator.  She was a singer who blended the music of blues, jazz, and vaudeville into a sophisticated style that could only have come from Ethel.”

“Never recognized as a superstar, Mildred Bailey (1907-1951) is highly regarded by jazz experts.  Her fellow musicians recognized her profound feeling for rhythm.  Jazz lovers admire not only the lightness of her voice but also the magical touch with a lyric.  She had a unique way of musically underlining the words as she sang them.  A trait shared with Louis Armstrong was a knack of turning the most trite of lyrics into something just plain beautiful.”

“At one point in her career, critics complained that Mabel Mercer (1900-1984) ‘just can’t sing.’  Mabel replied, ‘I know that.  I’m just telling a story.’  Many, however disagree with those critics.  Frank Sinatra said Mabel Mercer taught him all he knew about singing.  Johnny Mathis once told his audience to go hear Mabel down the block instead of asking him for an encore.”

“Billie (Holliday) rarely sang the blues, she was the blues.  Every bit of heartache she endured in her short life was in her voice, especially when she sang ‘Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.”  “Some of her best recordings, however, date from 1937, when she teamed with friend and noted saxophonist Lester Young.  When they met, the Harlem nightclub circuit referred to Billie as ‘Lady’ because of the regal way she carried herself onstage.  Lester added to the nickname ‘Lady Day’ and it stuck.”

“The most beloved jazz singer of the twentieth century, Ella Fitzgerald (1918-1996) was the lady with the easy, oh-so-perfect voice – simply the best.  The winner of thirteen Grammy awards, Ella had a three-octave vocal range and a style of such purity of tone that she could make her audience laugh or cry on cue.”

“One evening in August 2004, music lovers crowded the Iridium jazz club in New York City.  They had come to hear the swinging style of a survivor – Anita O’Day (1919-2006).  It is remarkable that they could hear her at all.  Once the darling of the big band era, she has survived Depression-era walkathons, failed marriages, arrests and a jail term, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and mental breakdown.  Yet her unique style is still part of the appeal of this enduring jazz singer, now well into her eighties.”

“’I’m a woman, w-o-m-a-n,’ she half sings, half talks in her sultry voice.  Then in one of her hit recordings, she describes all the things she can accomplish.  And that about sums up the life story of Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.  In the field of jazz and pop there was, indeed, very little she could not do.  Millions of her fans know her as Peggy Lee (1920-2002), the tall blond with a whisper in her voice that went on and on.”

“But Dinah Washington (1924-1963) had something else, which made her living possible.  She had a voice, a powerful instrument that some considered the best blues sound of the age.  One critic described her singing as a ‘sharp but slightly jagged knife slicing through meringue.’  Her timing was masterly, her delivery impeccable.  She often handled a lyric by half singing, half talking the words.  She could be brash and erratic offstage, but in front of the microphone her flutelike voice was caressing and demanding.”

“She had a voice that could slide from an operatic high note to a depth that made your toes wiggle.  Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) was one of the most glorious of all jazz singers.  ‘Sassy’ they called her.  She was a fresh sharp-tonged lady who left her audiences believing she meant each one of them when she sang ‘I get misty just by holding your hand.’  When Sarah sang, love was beautiful and anything was possible.”

“Attending a Betty Carter concert was a powerful experience.  Like a caged tiger, she strode about the stage, snapping her fingers as she marked off the tempo.  In a rich, flexible voice, she sang above and below the written tune, improvising her own style, daring her musicians to follow.  Her diction was unique; so was her phrasing and sense of pitch.  She experimented with the modern style called free jazz.  Her devotion to the sound became an art form.  She was a jazz musician first, a singer second, but always seeking something different.  Betty Carter (1930-1998) never let her audience relax.”

Rosie (Rosemary) Clooney (1928-2002) – one of television’s biggest musical stars – thought of herself as a jazz-influenced pop singer.  Indeed, she is best known for such hits as ‘Come On-a My House’ and ‘White Christmas.’  But she counted among her musical influences Billie Holliday for her honest ability to show pain and Ethel Waters for her fine attention to lyrics.  Rosie’s rich, smooth, and deep voice caught the best of both styles, especially in her recordings on a small label, Concord Jazz, featuring the classics of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and others.”

Cassandra Wilson (1955-Present) - This talented outspoken artist is a wide-ranging performer.  She can sound like Sarah Vaughn or her idol Betty Carter.  Her voice can be deep, dark, and seductive.  She has a sparkling presence, her hair in long blond twists swinging as she bursts on stage.  Cassandra is at home with jazz, and blues, with pop, and country western.  She can get deep into blues or torch songs and then delight audiences with her emotional version of Patsy Cline’s great country hit ‘Crazy.’  Cassandra is simply at home on stage.”

At a 1999 jazz concert in Carnegie Hall, the entire audience seemed to hold its collective breath for a moment.  That was when Diana Krall (1964-Presnt), a fine pianist with a thoughtful mastery of harmonies, turned from the keyboard to sing ‘When I Look in Your Eyes.’  This low-key diva has a husky, seductive contralto voice and an uncanny ability to tell a story in her songs.  She creates an intimate relationship between her voice and the piano, and it stops an audience cold.  Without gimmicks, she is a quietly captivating, impressive talent not yet at the top of her career.”

Perhaps this review has too many quotations from Leslie Gourse.  For me, this has been one of the best ways of celebrating the lives of these “fourteen fabulous women who changed the landscape of popular music.”  This is listed as a children’s book for those at the seventh grade or above.  At age sixty-two I guess I fall into that category.  While this book may not have been a best seller, hopefully this review might encourage more people to look at its contents.