Tunisia: Finding Our Voice, Together

Tunisia Project with                 Cultures in Harmony

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


That is the nasal singing of our cab driver in Hammamet, Tunisia while on the way back to the hotel from the medina, or market place, in the center of the city. No, the radio is not blaring in the background or an incredibly loud cell phone ringing. There is only the sound of the wind drawn in from the open taxicab windows, the sound of the engine, and the sound of HIS voice. Actually that is not quite true, as his infectious character convinces us within the cab to join him in song, though we have no idea what we’re singing. Through the combination of OUR voices, there is fusion and multiple identities. Hamdallah (Praise G-d)!

I am currently a participant in the Cultures in Harmony project Tunisia- Finding our Voice Together, as a violist, teacher, and cultural ambassador from America. Along my side are seven wonderful musicians from all over the world: a cellist, a violinist, a violist, a pianist, a guitarist, a kanun player, and an oud player.

Cultures in Harmony believes in the goodness of people and music. Of course, this combination leads to greatness. Our purpose as musicians (the majority from America) is to run a weeklong music festival for young Tunisian musicians with the hope of learning from each other musically and culturally, as well as making music together. The students arrive tomorrow and all preparations are in order from name-games, auditions, and the first fiddle class of the week.

Several of the seven musicians are returnees to this program. I do not fall under that category and in fact fit snuggly into my own little category. I am a Jew and have roots in the State of Israel and Eastern Europe. Let’s just say that this “cultural trip” laced with musical harmonies and Arabic rhythms has given, upon discovery, quite a few family and community members bulging eyes and a dropped bottom lip. Even before leaving America, I realized that not only would I be a foreigner in Tunisia, but I could feel out of place because of my background. I remember joking with my friends that I would probably be the only Jew for miles. Despite these worries, it only took one day in Tunisia for their echoing concerns to feel a great distance away. In all honesty, I do feel welcomed here.

Still, I can imagine my community cautiously warning, “Well we don’t see you parading around as a Jew, but don’t you get any ideas about doing that either!” True, when I have spoken of Israel or Jewish customs so far, there is less volume in my voice than normal. Maybe I won’t go around telling the kind personnel at the hotel that the Shouk (Sook/market place) in Jerusalem is more authentic than their medina (though it was still lovely!). Nonetheless, I will continue to wear my necklace which proclaims my Jewish identity because I refuse to let anybody make me hide from my identity, whether my own people suggest it or an outside public forces it.

On the other hand though, younger people tend to be more inquisitive. Will my kids (as of tomorrow, all the young Tunisian musicians will become my kids) notice it quicker and want answers? If we become good friends as I hope, will they change their mind about me once they discover my identity? Or will the music we make overpower all of these situations, even though I will most likely be the first Jew to cross their path. As each day continues, only more answers to these questions will arrive. I believe we can find our voices together, despite lack of common tongue and distant echoes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Today, all 60 Tunisian musicians arrived at the hotel like the whirl of a thunderstorm and, thus, the fun has really just begun. As I passed by the beginning trickle of students in the hotel lobby, a smile ran on my face as their inquisitive looks reminded me of my past students at the Jerusalem Music Center’s Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s summer festival. Maybe these young Tunisian musicians and my past young Israeli musicians won’t be so different after all.

The first activity of the day is trying to get everybody from students and music teachers to put on nametags. Easier said than done. The students arrived with attentive moms and dads, excited friends from previous years, and the new concept of putting the sticky nametag on one’s shirt!

From there, we went straight to Fiddle Class. As my friend and co-teacher Joel ran the Fiddle Class, consisting of 11 violinists, one cellist, and one violist, with quite ease, I oversaw the level of the students. Between the performance in Fiddle Class and then auditions later in the afternoon, we realized that three of the students actually played Arab violin. The big question then became: who can teach Arab violin? If anything, the Tunisian students should be teaching us Arab violin!

When presented the challenge of taking on the three Arab violin students, I realized that I possibly had a few more tricks up my sleeve than originally imagined. There was a time in my life when I played niguns, terkishers, and Rumanian dances. In fact, I played in a klezmer band in middle school. With a soulful mix of Western and Eastern influences, nothing could be of a better teaching choice.

As the day continued, I slowly began to feel a connection with the Tunisian students. During Improvisation Class where the kids learned how to create a thunderstorm with nearly their voices and bodies (hence the title of this post), I enjoyed recording the experience on iMovie and taking pictures on Photobooth with a few of the young pianists. My closest interaction was with a violinist who also plays the piano. We will call him Saheb, which means friend in Tunisian Arabic. After class was over and most cleared out of the room, Saheb remained jamming at the piano. A desire to join him took me over to my instrument, and without any question in his voice, we began to make music. In my opinion, this boy is quite a “pro” compared to my early adventures in improvisation, but we still made a pretty good team.

Later in the evening while practicing my viola, I was approached by Saheb, who was curious for more instruction. I decided that J.S. Bach’s Unaccompanied Solo Violin Partita #3- Preludio would be a great, enjoyable challenge for him. He decided that an Arabic song based off of Frère Jacques would be a great, enjoyable challenge for me. The lesson turned out to be excellent for the both of us as we taught each other our craft. All I know is that I better practice before my next lesson!

Thursday, July 15, 2010


The moon is bright and the sea is lit. There are so many stars in the sky. They are all my background as I finally say out loud in front of many, “Ana Yehudia. Je suis Juif. I am a Jew.” The response from one of the Tunisian students upon my proclamation is, “I respect you”.

Earlier in the day before all of the participants and myself went to the beach for a late-night party, I realized that I forgot the feeling of being in the minority and only noticed my purpose as a teacher and a friend of the Tunisian students. From playing Hoe Down by Aaron Copland in orchestra with the kids and teaching niguns to the three girls who play Arab violin to coaching three delightful students in Dvorak’s Terzetto and then learning traditional Tunisian songs from them, there were only melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and a few yeee-hawws.

Slowly that day, my truth came out. In the morning, one of my students studying Arab violin asked which language the name of the piece I was teaching her came from. In telling her what Nigun meant and its origin, she merely smiled with open brown eyes. Then in the afternoon, one of the hotel personnel asked me what the markings on my necklace meant. After explaining, nothing happened though I felt a tension, perhaps a personal fear that only I could feel. Finally at night on the beach of Hammamet, I said out loud the truth of my background, which actually included my connection to Israel. After speaking, I felt free. Was there even anything to fear in the first place?

With my secret off my shoulders, words flew out of my mouth about my past experience two summers ago interning with the Jerusalem Music Center and participating as a counselor for their music festival for young Israeli musicians. I spoke of how much they still meant to me and related it to the similar feelings I felt for the young Tunisian musicians. As well, it was incredibly easy to find similarities between the two groups of musicians. In the end, maybe we are all just kids in a big sandbox still learning how to get along.

Upon mention of the young Israeli musicians and my wish that they and the young Tunisian musicians could meet some day, there was an undoubted sincere desire on the part of the young Tunisian musicians to do so. Each group of students would learn and teach differing aspects of musicianship that could only create a more fulfilled, experienced, and well-rounded musician.

Maybe some day, we can all bring our instruments along with us into the big sandbox and let the shadow of the wind spread our wavelengths across all nations.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Allimiin, Allimiin, Allimiin, Allimiin!!!

The Tunisian students have just ended their final concert and stand on stage leaning against each other singing, “Allimiin, Allimiin, Allimiin!” while family members snap pictures. As the festival comes to a close, there is joy of accomplishment, as well as great sadness of leaving new and old friends and, of course, teachers too. The most frequent questions asked of me within the last 24 hours consisted of, “Do you enjoy Tunisia”, and “Will you come back next summer?” Some phrased the latter in the form of question and statement, “Promise me you will come back next summer?” These questions were asked of all of the American teachers, from Lilian Belknap the violist and Robin Ryczek the cellist to Joel Schut the violinist and Kimball Gallagher the pianist. I am not sure how the others answered this tough question, but I simply answered, “Inchallah”- or G-d willing.

After 10 days in Tunisia, all I can think of is the wonderful nature of the Tunisian people and how the outside world has much to learn. To answer a few of the questions I have received about my trip to Tunisia:

1. Yes, there are buildings in Tunisia.

2. Yes, there is Internet, even WiFi in Tunisia.

3. Yes, Tunisians watch the Mondial (the World Cup).

4. Yes, there are Jews in Tunisia.

5. Yes, there is a synagogue in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Now to point out a reoccurring comment that I received upon return: You came back alive! Yes, I returned alive, and extremely joyful with enumerable memories of my Tunisian students and their families. I returned to America unscathed and still Shoshana Gottesman, with maybe a few Tunisian rhythms added to my blood from the ride.

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