As promised, I’m finally getting round to writing a little about my travels in Palestine in August. Embarrassingly, it’s been more than a month since I got back from there, but a rather busy interim period that involved going up to the Edinburgh Fringe and moving and settling into life as a choral scholar in Norwich means that I have only really been able to get to writing about it now. I feel that, by way of introduction, I should give a little summary of how I ended up travelling out to the West Bank in the first place.
In my final term of university, I was contacted through the Director of Music of my college’s chapel choir about joining an organisation called the Choir of London in their upcoming tour to Bethlehem, to take part in the Palestine Choral Festival. Founded in 2004, the Choir of London is an organisation that allows professional musicians to give their time and skills to working charitably with various initiatives to increase access to music, both in the UK and abroad. The Choir organisers were instrumental in the establishing of links with Palestinian music organisations, and have since worked together to create the Palestine Choral Festival, as well as setting up the Choir of London Bursary Scheme, to give young Palestinian musicians opportunities to study and perform in the UK. The Palestine Choral Festival aims to bring choirs from around the world together with Palestinian choirs to perform in a packed and diverse programme of concerts and workshops across the West Bank, 1948 (pre-Nakba) Palestine and, for the first time this year, Gaza.
Naturally, an invitation to join the Choir of London in their tour was incredibly exciting. However, my ignorance of the region to which the Choir was headed meant that I almost let my confusion and anxiousness get the better of me, and I very nearly declined the invitation. What with being stressed out with revision for finals, the prospect of travelling to what a lot of Western media brands as a warzone, in which (according to the UK Government’s travel advice page) the situation is ‘tense’, was enough to send me running in the other direction. It doesn’t help, either, that a lot of travel websites and guides that I checked discussed Israel and the Palestinian Territories in conjunction with one another, as if a tourist might expect to have anywhere near the same experience in Tel Aviv as they might in Jenin. In a similar vein, it took me far too long to establish that Bethlehem was even in Palestine, and not Israel. Checking Google Maps to try and get a sense of where the border between Israel and Palestine lies did not prove helpful either, but this may actually be down to Google not actually labelling Palestine on the map. This fact actually caused quite a stir online just before our trip out there was due to depart, with several sources claiming that Google was erasing Palestine from the map. It actually transpired that Google has never acknowledged the existence of Palestine, and Palestine has never been labelled on Google Maps. This seems a bit problematic from my, and indeed, the United Nations’ point of view, but it does explain why I was confused.
All this uncertainty was not particularly conducive to my wanting to travel out to the West Bank, but the ignorance I had unearthed in myself of Palestine as a place confirmed to me that I really ought to go. Very persuasive also was the fact our flights and accommodation had all been paid for, but even if that had not been the case, I could not pass up an opportunity to travel to this part of the world whilst performing music to the highest standard, meeting and performing with Palestinian musicians and, crucially, gaining first-hand experience of a place that is well-known but poorly understood by very many people.