PORTLAND, Maine — After more than ten years of constant work, Amos Libby, and his band Okbari, are the most visible face of Middle Eastern music in Maine. They perform a rich mix of contemporary and historic tunes from across the Middle East including classical Ottoman, rural Turkish, Syrian and dance music from the Armenian diaspora. This music has led them to gigs all over New England and the Midwest. Their standing First Friday gig at Blue, on Congress Street, is in its second decade.
Now, Libby is branching out into journalism. Just back from his third extended teaching stint in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he has photographs and first-hand stories he wants to share. On Friday, Libby will take the stage at Mayo Street Arts with “Muqawama: Images of Resistance and Survival from Palestine.” Muqawama is the Arabic word for “resistance.”
Libby intends to tell personal stories from his time in the West Bank, show his photographs and host an interactive discussion about Palestine. The night will also include music and poetry. Joining Libby for the event is Ayman Nijim, Director of Programs at Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services. Nijim is a native of the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip.
Libby, 40, grew up in Windham. He got interested in Middle Eastern culture by chance. When he was 14, he picked up an Egyptian pop music CD without knowing what it sounded like. He just thought the Arabic writing on the cover was beautiful.
“I wanted to know what was inside that disc, I wanted to hear it,” Libby said. “It was totally compelling to me.”
It turned out to be cheesy pop music, but it had enough classic Middle Eastern elements to make him want to hear more.
“It was a chance attraction to an alphabet I thought was beautiful,” he said, “and the music followed. It’s turned into a whole life.”
The exotic sounds of that CD first led Libby to learn the tabla, or Indian drum, in Brooklyn in the 1990s. He began to study the oud — the 11-string, Middle Eastern lute — in 2002. Since then, Libby’s become fluent in Arabic and studied music in Turkey, India and Morocco. For the past decade, he’s taught oud and Middle Eastern music at Bates and Bowdoin Colleges.
Last week, I sat down with Libby to talk about his experience in the West Bank and find out why he wants to tell his story on stage.
Q: What first led you to visit the West Bank in 2014? Why would you want to go to an international conflict zone?
A: After meeting some Palestinians at Arabic language school, hearing about their experience, and other people who had been to the region, I really wanted to see and experience it for myself because there’s so many conflicting narratives out there about what’s happened. So, I went and volunteered as an English teacher.
I don’t like to use the word “conflict” because it’s not one. It’s really an oppressed indigenous population, without a government, without an army, without any defense at all, kept in a giant, open-air prison by a regional superpower with a mechanized infantry, air force and major international allies. If we use the word “conflict” it paints it as if it’s symmetrical war between two equal sides fighting each other and it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Q: You’re an activist of sorts?
A: Yes, but I don’t operate for any organization or group. It’s an independent calling for me to expose the truth through interviews, photographs and a lot of social media posts to the community back here at home. I’m not interested in changing the world, being able to come up with a solution on a broad level — just bring the truth of this to my community here, at home, in Portland, so that people can have another avenue of learning the truth about what’s happening there and make their own decision about how to react to it.
Q: What is daily life like in the village you stayed in this time?
A: It’s called Beit Ummar. It has about 17,000 people and it’s about 40 minutes south of Jerusalem. It’s in the area of the West Bank that is completely under Israeli military control.
It’s a community like any community. It’s a busy, vibrant place. Normal life is happening inside the village. There’s schools, restaurants, markets, homes, a soccer field. This normal life is occurring under this military occupation. It makes it possible for this all to be disrupted at any moment — and it is. It’s not uncommon, on a nightly basis, to hear Israeli troops raiding homes to arrest people. This isn’t a narrative people hear here, they don’t know this.
Q: Should people coming to this event expect two hours of anti-Israeli propaganda?
A: This isn’t me being anti-Israel, anti-Semitic. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the occupation. The state of Israel and the religion of Judaism are separate things. This is about one, illegal occupation of people that constitutes a massive violation of human rights. There’s no propaganda. It’s just what I witnessed.
Q: What do you want people to get from this event?
A: I’d like them to walk away with new information that illuminates the preeminent human rights catastrophe of our time, based on truth and experience. I hope to be able to engage people in conversation. If they see an image that doesn’t make sense to them, if they doubt its veracity, or if they don’t understand how this could happen, I’d like to be able to have a conversation with them — not deliver propaganda.
I want try and honor the people that I worked with, and taught, and love in Palestine that asked me, specifically, to raise awareness about this as a foreigner who is allowed to come and go — because they’re not.
I’d like to say: “This is what I saw.”