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Letter from Gaza: Getting there

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2011 - Marc Thayer, who previously wrote voices articles from Iraq, recently tried to get into Gaza from Egypt to visit Palestinians he had worked with in an Association of American Voices program in Jordan. His story follows:

Dec. 8: I'm headed to Gaza via Cairo, Egypt, to visit dancers we worked with last summer in our YES Academy in Amman, Jordan. It's not easy to get into Gaza. I've received invitations from two youth and cultural centers in Gaza. And the St. Louis Beacon agreed to let me write for them again. With the invitation and a press outlet, I'm hoping to get a Press Pass from the Egyptian Media Services. I'm told this is the fastest way to get permission to cross the border now.

Cairo is a large crowded city, too many cars and car horns, not enough street sweepers, but lots of energy. I went to the Egyptian TV and Radio building to try to get a press pass. I gave them copies of documents they needed, and they said it would take 10-14 days. I'm leaving in 10 days so that won't work, but I'll try some other options.

I was close to Tahrir Square so decided to take a look. The square had just been opened to traffic and tents and street vendors were side by side and lots of banners and graffiti could be seen.

One large adjoining street was blocked by huge boulders and cement blocks very similar to parts of the 1980s Berlin Wall. On this street many people had been shot or arrested, some among the 12,000 still believed to be in custody.

I found a coffee shop and inhaled second-hand smoke while reading The Economist and waiting for the sludge in my coffee to settle to the bottom, delicious Turkish-style coffee with cardamom and who knows what else. One guy was enjoying a huge cigar with his four beers while others were in conservative religious clothing and sipping tea.

Later that day, a guy on the street whom I asked for directions turned out to be a composer and pianist, a student at the Arabic Music School. Baha'a was on his way to the same place I was going to meet a cellist who is a student at the Conservatory of Music in Cairo. I love these fun coincidental encounters. Baha'a became a quick friend and turned into my tour guide the following day through Old Cairo and to the Bus Terminal. I could not have managed without him.

That evening I met Taher, a friend of a friend and an anesthesiologist from Cairo who was very active in all the protests this past year, treating many injured people. He took me to the new version of protests just a few blocks from Tahrir: The sit-ins blocking the street between the Parliament building and the cabinet ministry offices. Protestors are not accepting the new version of the cabinet appointed by the army government and won't let it hold sessions.

We had to show ID to get into the sit-in because they are keeping out miscreants who became a problem in Tahrir Square. They are also expecting that the government will send undercover people to cause problems and disrupt the activities. Inside it was very peaceful except for the loud videos on a large screen showing the government massacres in the square just a few months ago. Music was present everywhere, singers with stringed instruments like oud and guitar, small hand-held drums and beautiful songs about freedom and people's lives. This is really the power of music and symbolism, cultural diplomacy at work.

The next day I went to the U.S. Embassy to get a document that should help with the press pass. You pay $50 to get a form that you must sign after reading the State Department warning about Gaza. The form says you're on your own if you go into Gaza; there's no consul and they can't help you. Glad I paid $50 for that. It did have a nice stamp in the corner that made it look very official.

I took that form to the Egyptian TV and Radio building's press office but got the same story, wait 10 days and we'll call you. So I decided to meet Baha'a for lunch. Instead he took me on a walking tour of Old Cairo which looks like the old part of Cordoba, Spain, from the Muslim period (10th or 12th century I think), beautiful old mosques, schools and markets that look like the old Indiana Jones movies, but mostly there for tourists now.

In the meantime my friend in Gaza, Moh, sent a text message saying they had sent another invitation from a Cultural Center and found a Hamas official to put my name on the border so I should have no problem. I went to the bus station with Baha'a to get a bus ticket to El Aresh, the last town in northeast Egypt before the border. I had 90 minutes before the last bus of the day.

We rushed in a taxi to an internet shop to print the invitation. Then, alone, I headed back to the hotel near the airport to get my luggage. The cab driver stopped for directions at least three times as I'm watching the time pass too quickly.

We got to the terminal 10 minutes before the departure time but I have not learned to speak or read Arabic yet, stupid me, so I had no idea where to go, which bus to take, etc. Lots of loud friendly people pointed the right way and 75 minutes later the bus finally arrived. I had the good fortune to sit under the loud speaker on the bus for the Turkish sitcom on video for the passengers' enjoyment. Five hours later, we were in El Aresh. By this time it was 11 p.m., dark and cold, and there were no taxis at this little bus station.

After thinking I'd be sleeping at the terminal, one of the ladies from the bus pulled up with a driver in a pick-up truck. They didn't speak much English but could not have been nicer, gave me a ride to the Swiss Inn and didn't want any money. I got the driver's number and said I'd hire him the next day to take me to the Rafah border crossing.

The Swiss Inn turned out to be a beautiful resort with a big pool, very nice rooms, and when I opened the sliding door in my room all I could see was the Mediterranean Sea, a nice end to a crazy, fun day.

Dec. 12: I got up early in the frigid morning to take pictures of the sea, pretending I could see Gaza off to the right. The hotel breakfast was very nice with a fresh-made omelet, which I enjoyed, not knowing when I'd eat next.

Salama the driver arrived at 8, and we left for Rafah and the border. After about 30 minutes and four checkpoints we came to the first gate controlled by the Egyptian Army. They took my passport, telling me to wait at an outdoor coffee shop next to the gates. After one hour, an officer told me I didn't have enough information. I gave him my letters of invitation and the document from the U.S. Embassy and he disappeared again. Back to the coffee shop for more Lipton's black tea.

The parade of people going in and out of the gates was fascinating. Gazans returning from shopping trips stocking up on supplies, army trucks, extended Mercedes taxis from the 1960s full of travelers, and scores of young people making change from carrying bags for pedestrians, fighting over customers and rushing to the next onslaught.

Various people made lots of offers to me in Arabic even after knowing I didn't understand. Some offered to take me through a tunnel into Gaza for $100. All this time Moh was at work. His brother and two other friends were waiting for me on the other side of the border and were texting me to find out what was happening.

After another two hours, Moh called to ask what was taking so long and encouraged me to go talk to the officials and ask what was going on. I went back to the gates and asked what the problem was. They said my name was not on the Hamas side and they would not accept me. All of this after Moh had convinced the office of the secretary of the interior to put my name on the list.

An older man at the border was having a similar problem. He was born in Gaza but had lived in Tulsa since 1968. He was returning to see family. He had an American passport and was given the same treatment. But he said he had spoken with a Hamas official who would be back shortly. He was sure he would clear our entry and get us through. After another hour, the man from Hamas appeared and grabbed both of our passports and supporting papers and disappeared into the gates without another word. Again we waited and fended off the vendors. By 2:30 I began to wonder what to do if the border closed at 4 and I still did not have my passport.

Soon another man appeared with both passports and said there was no information about us and he could not help us. At this point I called Moh and said that was it, I had tried everything and was not going to get through that way. So he called his guys and said to get ready for plan B.

I left the gate area and found a driver in a 1975 green Mercedes who said he'd take me into Rafah Village. Moh talked to him on the phone and told him where to take me. One of his guys would meet us there outside of a mosque. After a drive through a field of cactus plants we went through the town and headed north. We stopped and waited a while at the meeting point and no one appeared. More phone calls to Moh indicated that we needed to go to another spot and that his guy could not come through.

We drove to another street and picked up a guy who was waiting for us and directed us to a small street with garages and fenced-in yards along the north side. After a phone call with Moh's brother, I handed the guy $100 and waited. I could hear shoveling and scraping going on next door. Then they told me to come over. They had uncovered a large hole in the ground and another guy had appeared from the Gaza side, a friendly young guy who was working with my friends.

He grabbed my bags, handed me a flashlight and said to follow him. We ran through the tunnel which ranged from 4 to 6 feet in height supported by boards on three sides. After 6-8 minutes, he said to wait. He went out and looked around, then came back for my bags, which he put into the waiting car. Then he and I walked away from the entrance.

We walked out to a street and Moh's brother handed me a bottle of juice and said "Welcome to Gaza." He handed me an official looking document with my photo on it saying I had permission to be in Gaza for work as a musician and teacher.

As we traveled through Rafah City on the Gaza side I saw what real isolation can do to a city: buildings in various states of decay, some full of bullet holes, others boarded up in front and trash everywhere. The guys said this was the worst part of Gaza. Soon we were out of the city and driving along the coast. Gaza enjoys some of the most beautiful parts of the sea coast and should have beautiful resorts and condos instead of many undeveloped acres. There are some nice hotels in Gaza City but most of the land is wild and beautiful, especially at sunset.

Soon we arrived in Nusirat U.N. Camp, a small town of cement and cinder block homes, some very large and very nice looking, but many streets are not paved. Moh's home is quite large, four stories high with his family living in the top two floors. Another family rents an apartment on one side of the bottom floor and Moh lives in the other side. A large unfinished space with two floors will be the youth center and dance academy but for now they use just one finished room.

After greetings and discussion we head out for some dinner and then back for sleep. None of them has been in the tunnels and all are impressed that I would go through just to be there. Then we discuss if I'll have to go back out the tunnel or whether it is easier to go through the border in the other direction. Nothing is resolved as usual.

The next few days consist of sleeping in late, eating delicious food made by Moh's mother, and visiting other schools and youth centers throughout Gaza. The Gaza Music School Project is funded by the Qattan Foundation in the West Bank. The director of the Said Conservatory of Music in Ramallah happens to be here, and we have a short discussion about American Voices and how we would like to work together. The conservatory is going to support the Gaza School after the Qattan support runs out in 2012.

I watch trumpet, violin and voice classes with female Russian teachers and meet other staff and violin students. I end up playing for some of them and agree to come back the next day. They tell me of a string quartet concert happening the next day organized by the French Cultural Foundation in Gaza.

The concert took place in a small church in the old part of Gaza City next to a convent and private school. The quartet is made up of musicians who play at an annual baroque festival in the West Bank every December. The church is packed with people of all ages, many standing in the back and coming and going throughout the concert. The four musicians are from Spain, Italy, Poland and the USA and most of them teach at the Kamandjati Music School in Ramallah.

The violist looks familiar so afterward I ask him if he is Peter Sulski. Sure enough we were in college together in 1990 at the Eastman School of Music in New York. I had not seen him since. He is based in Worcester, Mass., and had just met Matthias Waschek who recently left the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis to become director of the Worcester Museum of Art. Small world?

Background from Thayer

Since the summer of 2007 I've been working off and on with the Association of American Voices (AV) as violin teacher and strings coach/conductor. At the time I was vice president for Education and Community Partnerships with the St. Louis Symphony and enjoyed occasional journeys to the Middle East and South Asia. AV is a Cultural Diplomacy Non-Governmental Organization that supports the performing arts and schools in countries emerging from conflict or isolation.

In 2007 we began teaching and performing in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish region and have returned every summer since to support many of the same students, provide teacher training, donate resources and printed materials and present large gala concerts with close to 300 students and adults. (For photos and video go to www.youtube.com/americanvoices or www.yesacademy.info)

In 2008 I had the privilege of writing short articles for The St. Louis Beacon while in residence in Iraq and have been a supporter and reader ever since. This May, I left my work at the Symphony to become director of education with American Voices and devote my time and energy to developing music and arts schools wherever there's a need and an interest.

Music and art are shared by every culture in the world and are the best way to improve understanding and dialogue between nations when presented in an open environment of sharing devoid of religion and politics. Much of AV's work is supported by U.S. Embassies in the countries where we work as well as private and corporate sponsors and foreign ministries of culture and education.

In the past 20 years, AV has worked in more than 110 countries, most recently presenting YES Academies in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Burma, and soon in Morocco, Yemen and Kuwait. Since 2008 we've partnered with Saint Louis University and the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra to bring students from Iraq and Lebanon to St. Louis to study English and music and play in the Youth Orchestra.

This past summer our new program in Amman, Jordan, included two Palestinian dance crews, one from the West Bank and one from Gaza called Camps Breakerz, the name coming from the UN Refugee Camp called Nusirat where most of them still live. Their leader, Mohammed Ghraiz, "Moh," is building a Youth Center where the crew members are training and coaching young Palestinians in dance and music. Another fledgling music school supported by the Qattan Foundation is growing in a new small location after their previous building was destroyed in the 2009 war with Israel.

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