Senior music lecturer Dr. Bradley Bolen landed home in the United States on August 13. Readers who have followed Between the Lines know that Bolen spent his summer making a tour of the Middle East and blogging about people and experiences. Bolen served on faculty with American Voices’ YES Academies and spent about a month and a half in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria teaching piano and piano pedagogy to children and young adults. American Voices is a non-profit organization that seeks to engage culturally with isolated or unstable countries through the arts.
Reviewing Bolen’s summer blog is like vicariously unwrapping an onion. The outer skin is the generic, American perception that the Middle East is a homogenous region in terms of ideology, religion, and lifestyle. “Intentionally or not,” Bolen observed, “there is a kind of [media] filter that leads you to believe that there is a kind of monolithic culture.” After getting through that superficial layer, the blog uncovers layers of complexity that should be assumed of any region as large as the Middle East. But experience and assumption are worlds apart. Estimating the religious demographics of Erbil, Iraq, Bolen said that there are roughly equal percentages of Muslim and secular citizens with a smaller percentage of Christians. All of the workshops enrolled Arabs from Mosul, city kids from Baghdad, and Kurds as participants.
“All of these people,” Bolen explained, “they don’t usually work together. When you put them in a room and teach them to dance and play an instrument, they work together in ways they didn’t know were possible.”
The diversity of the Middle East is a large part of its ongoing tensions. The sects, ethnicities, and political views that seem so one-sided to Americans, drive them apart. American Voices, and now, Bolen, hope to help bridge the gap.
Like the community surrounding him, Bolen began to take news of conflict in stride. In an August 5 entry, he describes the tension leading up to a verdict by a UN tribunal concerning the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister five years ago. Shots were exchanged between sides in a dispute over a tree. Threats to flatten Lebanon were issued and Bolen, like everyone else, did what he had to do. He toured the city and enjoyed a rare day off.
The reluctance of citizens to express an opinion about the ongoing war and other regional conflicts is both surprising and understandable. If, even in the midst of the collateral damage, one cannot determine who exactly is fighting for exactly what, people are left with only grief to articulate clearly.
Once instability is accepted as a fact of life, life moves on. “The thing that floored me the most was how resourceful they were,” Bolen said, “and how hungry they were for something that most of us would consider a luxury—something like going to a concert. You’d think that would be the first thing they would abandon.” But, people traveled for miles through a war zone to enroll a child and, quite literally, wait patiently in rapture while they took a lesson.
An onion can be both pungent and cloyingly sweet, depending on its preparation, and the same contrast is all over Bolen’s blog. A woman feeds an entire corral of stray cats daily while, in another place, two dogs left to die on a median in 129-degree heat. Each is part of the life.
Now, Bolen is working to help students in the Middle East travel abroad to study piano and piano pedagogy. His hope is to establish certified piano teachers in regions where there are none. He plans to return to the Middle East next summer to continue his work.