First Lesson

In honor of sixty years of Israel, a story told through the oud, eleven string ancestor to the lute, instrument of peace.

First Lesson

I had come to Israel to study the oud with a Arab master of the instrument. I arrived at Ben Gurion airport with a broken oud and a broken heart. I found someone to repair it, a Russian violin maker, whose name means heart of the strings.

After Heart of the Strings repaired my oud, I reached my teacher on the telephone. He lived quite far away, by Israeli standards, from Jerusalem.

His town was an Arab town northeast of Haifa. That means that in driving to him, I drove through the three largest cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

Israel is a small country, and such a trip is only about 110 miles long. But getting through the cities is difficult, and I had no idea how long it would take to make the journey.

I took directions from my teacher over the phone. It wasn’t until I hung up and reviewed what I had written that I realized that in all his directions, through the three largest cities in Israel, through the several different geographic zones that in Israel are so close upon one another, in all the complexity of his directions that required three free hours of driving and navigating, in all those directions there was not one street name. It was all “right at the bridge. . . left at the garbage dump. . .two o’clock at the rotary. . .” etc. Not one street name.

My teacher lived in Shfaram, there are no Jews there today, it is one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. Today there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs, and Druze living in Shfaram. There is an ancient synagogue there and I was told by an old Arab man on top of a nearby mountain that there were Jews living there as recently as the early Seventies but none since. At one time, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met there.

I started off on my first journey to Shfaram on Sunday, which is called in Hebrew “yom rishon” (Day One) and is so named from the account of Creation. Six days of creation followed by Shabbat, day one, day two, day three, etc. The Muslims identify their days the same way. Sunday is therefore a full day of activity in Israel, there is no such thing in Israel as a weekend really, there are six days of work (well — Friday a half day), one day of rest, just like in the Bible.

So on Day One, I was hurtling through the Israeli countryside on my way to Tel Aviv and the up the coast to Haifa. When you leave Jerusalem you descend. Jerusalem is relatively high, and you move from the heights of the Judean hills around Jerusalem through the corridor (called the “prozdor”) that has connected Jerusalem to the Sea for millennia, driving down through the forested landscape to the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv is a large, smelly city, very fast and busy. There are always many distractions in Tel Aviv, but I didn’t stop.

I hurtled through Tel Aviv and found my way onto the coastal highway that runs next to the Mediterranean all the way up to Haifa. About half way up the coast toward Haifa, the road relaxed from the tension of Tel Aviv, curved even closer to the Mediterranean, and for the first time I saw the sea. I could smell it in the air.

This is the “new road,” that is how it is known to Israelis. On maps it is designated as number two, but Israelis know it only as the new road. The old road which is marked on the maps by the number four, is parallel to the new road a little inland and often you can see one from the other. The new road is under constant renovation, especially around Tel Aviv, and it would take a few more trips until I realized that the old road is faster, especially when there is traffic.

I came to Haifa. Both the new and the old roads lead to Haifa. I would later discover a road that leads to the north and avoids Haifa altogether, winding around the gentle sweep of Mt. Carmel. Haifa is the port city of Israel. It is built mostly on hills that roll down to the natural port on which Haifa is built. There are beautiful places to go in Haifa, but I didn’t stop.

I passed through the port of Haifa, still hugging the Mediterranean but now I could see the ships docked in Haifa, from Holland, Africa, Kuala Lampur, a dozen exotic addresses. Haifa is also busy, dirty, and smelly especially by the sea, it took me almost an hour to crawl through the center of the city.

Once through Haifa, I headed toward the western Galilee. Just north of Haifa, the scenery once again changed dramatically. I had entered the Galilee, in the distance I saw small villages nestled into the sides and on top of the hills. It was green and unobstructed, less populated compared to the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor I had just passed through. The air was clean, cool, fresh. I followed the signs to Shfaram where my teacher lived.

I had never been to an Arab town before. Taiseer’s directions were precise but none of the turns were marked with the names that he gave them. I had found my way by intuition and a pretty good road map tucked into my sun visor. I found the town easily, with not one wrong turn, and it was only when I entered the town did I get lost. I would later find out that there are two entrances to the town, I had taken the wrong one.

We had scheduled to meet each other at the gas station; there were several gas stations in the town and I had found the wrong one. I drove out in search of the other. I got hopelessly lost in the dirt roads of the town. Soon I was driving among shepherds with herds of sheep and goats, nothing was paved, the roads were barely wide enough for a single car to pass. Everyone stared at me. I stopped a shepherd and showed him my instrument, thinking he would know where the oud master lived. He sat down on a rock until I played him a tune. I found my way back to a main road. I was an hour late and looking for a phone to call him. I finally found a phone and just at the moment when I was about to exit my car to use it, I saw Taiseer in his car at the very same moment he saw me. He was looking for me. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He had given up on me and was on his way home; we exchanged stories, and I followed him to his house.

He lived on the edge of the town (the other edge), overlooking a meadow below and the Galilee spread out in the distant east. It was a beautiful view. All the windows were open and the air rustled our papers on the music stand. His wife served me cola and some fresh figs and other fruit. I assumed that she spoke no English, I spoke to her slowly and simply, later I learned that she taught English in a school in Acco.

Taiseer and I went right to work. He began by showing me the basics, how to hold the instrument, how to manipulate the plectrum, called a reeshi which means eagle feather in Arabic, because that was the traditional way to pluck strings. We discussed the intricacies of extracting sound out of the instrument, we talked mostly in metaphor and Taiseer intuitively illustrated his points sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in Arabic (he was delighted that I read and write Arabic), sometimes in English. He showed me the traditional modes, called makamat, of the music.

It was very difficult, a complete re-education for me from the way I had taught myself. It required extreme concentration just to play through all the examples he showed me. Learning to use the reeshi, the plectrum, was difficult because I was accustomed to playing oud with my fingers as I played guitar. We were head to head for two hours. He gave me a reeshi that he no longer used, made of bone.

The reeshi was especially difficult for me to use. I worked it too hard over the strings. Taiseer lifted my hand and taught me an exercise, my hand floating up and down as if lifted by a pillow of air. I practiced the exercise while driving, sitting in a chair, watching television, walking down the street, gently lifting my hand up and down isolating the motion of the hand at the wrist. “Do this everyday,” Taiseer said.

He heard something in my playing that I myself would not hear for months. When I began studying with him, I said to myself, “I’ve taken on too much here. I can’t possibly do this.” Taiseer listened to me and said, “we will accomplish much in the months we have together.” After every lesson, he congratulated me. I felt foolish, I could not even hear the notes at first.

He told me to close my eyes and listen to the notes, to hear them first and then to find them on the fingerboard. I couldn’t find them in the beginning. They are microtones, notes that we do not use much in Western music, notes that are closer together than each adjacent key on the piano, or each fret on the guitar. I could not hear them because I had never played them before, you cannot reach these notes on the guitar (unless you bend the strings), nor can you play them on the piano. They are not ordinarily a part of Western music at all.

“Listen,” Taiseer said and I closed my eyes and heard the note in my head. Then I found it on the fingerboard. It was more mental than physical. I could find the note only when I paused to listen for it. I sat in his living room overlooking the western Galilee with my eyes closed, trying to imagine in my mind the note I was trying to find on the neck of my instrument. Then I plucked the note, and I began to find it the more I listened.

The real work of playing an instrument at this level, I realized, is internal. “You have to listen,” Taiseer said, “then you play.” One time I sat in a master class with a great Spanish classical guitarist. Someone in the audience asked him which finger exercises he used to warm up for a concert. “None,” he said, “is not physical. Is entirely mental.”

Like matter and energy, the relation of which is fixed deep within the structure of things but not perceived, the relation of mental and physical, inner and outer, clarified for me on the fretless fingerboard of my beloved oud.

I realized that in our time together, we exchanged not one sentence of personal information about each other. It would be this way the entire time he taught me: I would show up, we would play for two or three hours, discussing only music. He knew nothing about me, I knew nothing about him. We spoke only music to each other and it was through the music that we became connected.

He gave me my assignments for next time. “Do you have time to practice?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “that’s what I came for.” He seemed genuinely delighted with me as a student, and he knew how eager I was. “We will do a lot,” he said again. He gave me more directions, and I headed back to Jerusalem just as the sun began to find its way home in the west.

I was back on the road toward Haifa. As the darkness settled over the north, I watched the villages on top of the hills in the distance light up. It was lovely and peaceful, the traffic had diminished, and soon I was smelling the Sea again and heading for Tel Aviv. I did not stop on the way home, I gobbled up a couple of sandwiches in the car, and I was home in Jerusalem just over two hours later.

I was not at all tired, as a matter of fact, I practiced for two more hours that night. By the next day, I had begun to read the pieces he had given me, the world contained for me in holding the reeshi, finding the notes, playing the pieces. I was finding something in the oud that linked me with my teacher. I also felt that somehow through the music we were contacting what was common in our peoplehood, something so deep that we were unaware of having lost it, deeper than the divisiveness of our history. It was a nod to the future as well as a visit to the past – music as a clue to our shared character and a possibility for a peace of self reflection. I realized that through the music we had entered a place deeper than our differences, before the separation of Isaac and Ishmael, the music of Abraham, and all the peacemaking Isaacs and Ishmaels of the future.

The oud had opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.

This is the story of one of the best days of my life.