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Letter from Gaza: Breakerz in the house

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2011 - Marc Thayer, formerly a member of the staff of the St. Louis Symphony, helps musicians in crisis situations continue to work on their art. He previously wrote Voices articles for the Beacon from Iraq, and recently had an adventurous entry into Gaza from Egypt. See the sidebar for more information about his work with the Association of American Voices. His story of recent experiences follows.

I haven't written much about the Camps Breakerz Dance Crew in Gaza. Mohammed "Moh" Ghraiz founded this hip-hop group in 2004. Each of the members has a B-boy nickname and I can't remember everyone's real name. Moh goes by "Funk" and he started the group shortly after moving to Gaza from Saudi Arabia where his father had been working. His grandfather had moved from central Palestine to the Gaza Strip after being forced out 40 years ago. Many Palestinians living in other countries went to Gaza to study prior to 2005 when the borders were closed by Israel.

Moh's two younger brothers are also members of CB Crew. Shark (Ahmed) is the middle brother, 22, a very serious guy, hard worker, with a great smile when you can find it, and a trained nurse like Moh. Shark is a whiz with computers, videography, web design and social media. You can see much of his work on their website: www.campsbreakerz.com or look for Camps Breakerz on Facebook.

Jarule (Abdullah), 18, is the happy one, always smiling, the most flexible member of the crew. He can put both legs behind his head and still dance, great tumbler, and lots of positive energy.

Puma (Faoud) looks more Native American, long braided hair, Xs shaved into his beard and an intense first appearance that quickly gives way to his great sense of humor, his nurturing manner and good English skills. Puma really took care of me when Moh was working at the hospital; and I'm grateful for his help, patience and good nature.

Chino is the only black member of the Crew, very quiet, tall and strong, a real athlete. Our conversations were limited because he speaks as much English as I do Arabic, or maybe even less. But Moh and the crew respect his silent strength and they trust him when any kind of help is needed. His connections got me in and out of the tunnels and made my visit go smoothly.

Dark is also quiet and mild-mannered, and he just got engaged. Congratulations. His upper body strength makes him quite a gymnast and tumbler, a big part of hip-hop dance, and he works as a sports educator at a school.

Don, also 18, is small and limber, he can spin on his head or on one hand for a long time, seeming to bounce off of the floor with ease. His ready smile and generous manner gave off such enthusiasm for dance and for his friends, I wish we could have talked more. I must study the language.

Pipe is the quiet, serious, tall manager who dances a little, also works as a nurse and is very focused on the future of the Crew and the Youth Center.

Moh and his family returned to Gaza to be closer to family members and built their home in the U.N. Camp called Nusirat. The first floor is mostly unfinished. Moh's father envisioned retail stores or apartments in this space but only one rental apartment ever materialized on one end of the building. Moh's family lives in the 2nd and 3rd floors; and a few years ago, Moh moved into the only other finished space on the first floor.

This large room, surrounded by other larger unfinished rooms, serves as Moh's apartment, the Crew's rehearsal space, and the classroom for students coming for dance training and other social activities. This was also my guest room for the week. The Crew has begun finishing the other rooms and hopes to complete the only Youth Center for dance and music in the heart of the Nusirat Camp where there are particularly fewer services available than in Gaza City.

Dec. 18-20: My last couple of days were spent walking through markets and other parts of Gaza City, visiting the hospital where Moh works, and talking with the music teachers and dancers about how we can collaborate in the near future. We will work with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and various foundations in the West Bank to try to secure funding for more activities and resources in Gaza. We'll also invite them to upcoming programs presented by American Voices in Iraq, Lebanon and Thailand to provide teacher training and other classes with hopes that the Embassy or other sponsors will assist with travel costs and permissions.

The night before my departure we ate at a small restaurant near the beach in Gaza City, enjoying some spicy shrimp and vegetables, various chopped salads and cole slaws, unidentifiable pickled items and Coke. There is no alcohol in all of Gaza since Hamas took over. I'm not sure if the dancers have yet forgiven my failure to bring any vodka with me from Cairo.

The next morning we were picked up by the same driver as the first day and driven south to Rafah City on the border with Egypt. Not sure what would happen at the official border crossing, we opted for another tunnel journey, the way we came in the first place. The region of the city closest to the actual border fence looks like a large sandy construction site with pieces of buildings full of bullet holes and dusty roads winding along dirt piles and tents. Some tunnels are large enough to bring cars through and new ones are always being made.

First police stopped us, checked our ID and passport and waved us through. We went to a different tunnel under a large canvas canopy and the guys working there said I needed some document from the police station before they would let me go. We went to a small circle of aluminum shacks surrounding a fenced courtyard. I waited in the car and watched donkeys pulling carts along side the dump trucks and Hummers, 1960s Mercedes taxis and kids on bicycles. I felt like I was breathing more dust and sand than air as the temperature in the car heated up. I knew that getting out of Gaza wouldn't be as easy as coming in.

Soon Moh motioned for me to come into the station office and said that everything was fine. I went to a corner office with two desks and three guys working who must have been under age 30. They looked like the angry Palestinians officers we see in silly Hollywood movies but acted nothing like them. They were friendly and tried speaking English, staring at me out of curiosity. One said "Welcome to Palestine, how did you find it here?" I said I liked it, lots of great people. Others guys came up to me and said "You speak English?" while shaking my hand. Others just stared and smiled.

After he used my passport to fill out another document by hand, he gave it to one of the other bearded fellows using a computer. I have no idea why I needed an official exit document to go through an unofficial border tunnel, but it seemed to make them happy. As I was leaving, the first guy that spoke to me came to the door with me, shook my hand and said "Islam good, Islam good." I told Moh to tell him "I know, I know."

I wanted to hug him and tell him I'm sorry things are the way they are, that Americans don't all hate Muslims, that we're trying to make things better and smarter, but we had to go.

We drove back to the tunnel and got my two small bags out of the trunk. We went into the area under the canopy and I saw the metal grate around the elevator that I was about to take down into what looked like a mineshaft. The guys all said this is a better tunnel, larger and well lit. I said my good-byes to Moh and Chino and got on the little platform with a stranger that would accompany me and take my bags for me.

This tunnel was much deeper, dug into the bedrock and impressive with a string of lights throughout. The Middle East has been using the energy-efficient iridescent round light bulbs for many years that were such the rage in the eco-friendly U.S. a few years ago. We half ran, half walked through this tunnel for what was probably 6 or 8 minutes. Some areas were just 4 or 5 feet tall and as wide as I am with a sandy floor so I was grateful to have the "valet" following close behind.

As we neared the other end the floor slanted upward and wooden slats in the floor assisted with the ascent. One wonders what will meet you at the other end. As I climbed out of the last part and up a wooden ladder a smiling teenager held out his hand and said, "Hello, Mister." Four other young guys were sitting around the hole and stared at me.

The valet insisted on taking my bags and we went through another side yard, through a hole in a cinder block wall, out a driveway and into a back alley similar to the one I had seen eight days earlier. The valet then wanted money for bringing the bags, and I was more than happy to give him close to $10, would have given him much more. We walked to a larger street and there was Salama waiting for me, how happy I was to see him. Salama is the one who saved me late one night after the long bus ride from Cairo to Aresh and took me to the hotel. He and another guy drove me to Cairo in a small Mitsubishi with air conditioning: such luxury. I felt like the king in the back seat.

After seven hours of slow driving due to horrendous traffic, gridlock, diesel fumes and a dust storm on the outskirts of Cairo, we finally made it to the airport. Reports of the renewed protests in central Cairo were all over the news and my sympathy for the Egyptian people came back to me. Already it felt like so long ago that I had been inside Gaza and missed my friends there.

The flights to Amsterdam, Detroit and finally to St. Louis, as well as the time changes and the long layovers in generic airport terminals, give you the sense of waking up from a fantasy and being dumped back into the real world. It seems like all of this happened a long time ago, now back to Christmas shopping and reading holiday cards. I'm lucky to have the opportunities that I have to meet people, especially artists, musicians, dancers and teachers. We have so much to be grateful for in this country.

Happy holidays and here's to a better year for our world in 2012. Special thanks to the Beacon and to Donna Korando and Bob Duffy for their help with this project.

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 U.N. 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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