A German Brass Band in the Middle East

Touring the Orient with a Trumpet and a Notepad

When Udo Moll toured the Middle East with the Schäl Sick Brass Band, he met with Mohammed Mounir, he encountered a young and kind man called "Jihad", and an image of Khomeini resembling Sean Connery, all of which he noted down in his diary...

Uda Moll, photo: &copy http://www.ssbb.de
Udo Moll, trumpet player of the "Schäl Sick Brass Band" - a group that started out as an alternative, multi-culti Carnival band in Cologne ten years ago

​​The adventure begins in earnest in Frankfurt. Here is where the real intercontinental flights take off – the planes are much larger, and the stewardesses look much more chic, move more eloquently, and wear a permanent smile.

Some 15 minutes before we land in Teheran comes the great transformation – all the women pull out their headscarves, put them on, and adjust them properly so that with not too much hair shows, but also not too little.


The international airport in Teheran feels very comfortable straightaway. Everything is visibly laid out and the surroundings possess an atmosphere something like a faded tearoom, only decorated with worm-like writing on neon signs. The souvenir shop sells life-size replica plastic bazookas. Apparently, the myth of the resistance fighter plays an important role here.

We are then taken to the domestic airport. Here, there are separate entrances for men and women. Even when we were on the intercontinental flight, a young Iranian offered our singer Hajnalka an impassioned apology for her having to wear a headscarf, as if he personally felt responsible.

The waiting lounge looks like a Salvation Army dormitory. An Iranian is lying on almost every bench, sleeping until the check-in counter opens, shoes off and orderly stowed away in pairs under the benches.

It is three in the morning and we drive through Teheran. Chains of light and neon effects – on all buildings and public spaces – are obviously very popular here. It looks like Cologne's "Schildergasse" at Christmas.

Emerging out of the darkness over and over again are small groups of street sweepers, dressed in orange-colored overalls and facemasks, risking their lives by sweeping in the middle of the city expressway. They carry grotesquely large brooms with shovels at the opposite end. It seems to me like they are part of a misguided government work program – or a prison battalion.

Next stop: Shiraz (click 2)Shiraz

We arrive in Shiraz early in the morning. First to the hotel and a few hours of sleep. Shiraz is located between mountains and a plain. The predominant color of the region is dusty brown. The beauty of Shiraz lies hidden in the city's large gardens and parks.

Persepolis (photo: AP)
No shade in Persepolis - and Shiva as the guide

​​We rehearse with Iranian musicians at the local cultural center. Mohammed, the percussionist, doesn't understand English, but catches on pretty quick. Hanni practices a couple of pieces with two girls and three boys from the local choir group.

We then arrange everyone together on stage. Six performers sing in unison and it is pretty impressive. The head of the local organizing group, the Fars Foundation, sits in the hall and listens closely. The sound levels have to be carefully adjusted so that the male voices appear somewhat louder than the female voices, as women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran.

Later in the hotel, I am approached by two Saudis, who are here for a tourism congress. They express total enthusiasm on hearing that I am a musician who has come to Iran. They already read the concert announcement and truly regret that they can't attend.

They wish me all the best, and, extremely pleased, shake my hand. This all takes place within the span of 40 seconds. I am overwhelmed by this openness, warmth, and friendliness of strangers. The Iranians are also all so unbelievably curious. As a foreigner, I am spoken to on the street, asked about Germany, what Germans think of Iran, and so on. Small groups of people gather and are excited to be able to speak with a foreigner.

The next day begins with a bit of tourism. We visit the ruins of Persepolis. Our guide is Shiva. She is young, very pretty and dynamic, speaks excellent English, and takes her job seriously. Persepolis is impressive, but the heat is sweltering and there is not the slightest bit of shade. Tonight is the first concert of the tour.

Some 800 people show up at the Shiraz Palace of Culture. The audience goes wild for the Bavarian and the Iranian songs. Real enthusiasm. After the concert, Zaha, one of the singers, was worried. She could be heard singing alone for about 20 seconds and some moral repression idiots promptly made a scene.

The next day we hold a workshop at the cultural center in a small hall. Like everywhere else, the room is framed by portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei to the left and right. The workshop turns out to be more of a press conference and a question and answer session.

There are about 30 people, mostly young, in attendance. I sit with Raimund on stage and answer questions. Time and again, band members are asked to give special explanations about their instruments.

The level of questioning is actually surprisingly high compared to international standards and shows background knowledge of music and a level of intelligence. Not just the usual, "What does the name of your band mean?" or "What was the inspiration for these pieces?".

We are subjected to some very specific technical questions. Gellert has to explain the secret of the fourth valve on his tuba, they want to hear special sound effects on the trombone, and we are even asked about "post-modernism in music" and my opinion of the group "Rammstein."

photo: www.ssbb.de
"It has to be said that Khomeini looks exceedingly good, very charismatic", Moll notes down, "with the gaze of Sean Connery"

​​Return flight to Teheran. For the first and only time in Iran, I see a portrait of President Khatami next to the unavoidable other two at Shiraz Airport. The lighting around Khatami, of course, doesn't work. While the other two shine, he sulks in the murky darkness. This probably reflects the true balance of power in the country. It has to be said that Khomeini looks exceedingly good, very charismatic – with the gaze of Sean Connery.

Teheran is gigantic and it is all uphill. There is a 700-meter difference in height between the southern and northern parts of the city. Northern Teheran is located at an altitude of 1700 meters – you can see the mountains and the smog is somewhat more bearable. As a result, the north has the better residential area and the rents are beyond the means of the average citizen.

We drive by the street in which Khomeini lived. Khamenei, in contrast, lives in the center of Teheran, which is considerably cheaper. He isn't as rich as Khomeini, says Babak, our tour guide. His portraits really do have a touch of "the ordinary man" about them.

Apart from that, today I noticed for the first time a huge wall painting celebrating Islamic martyrdom nonsense. We later experience more religious ecstasy at the Shiite holy shrine housing the remains of Emam Zadeh. He was the son of an imam and was tortured to death by the Saudis. Babak asks if we, as Christians, are also allowed to visit the holy shrine. We're allowed.

As always, men and women are separated. Hajnalka was given an extra black chador to wear. Once inside, we find a relaxed, cheerful, and peaceful atmosphere, and it feels like an oasis of calm in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the neighboring bazaar. We enter the actual shrine, with our shoes off.

It is a small room vaulted by a dome covered in mirrors. Behind a continuous metal mesh lies the coffin of the martyr, draped in a silk cloth embroidered with citations from the Koran and a large book on top.

The men here inside are visibly moved, sobbing, kissing the bars of the mesh, rubbing the walls with their hands and then massaging the holy aura in their faces, and praying fervently. Even more moving is what one hears from the other side door separating the shrine. There women are wailing, singing, and sobbing – and rather loudly.

They are certainly making considerably more racket than the men. I am quite moved to see these people so animated and vulnerable. It is an intimate situation, and I am torn back and forth between a deep respect, a feeling that it is a great privilege to witness this, and uncertainty as to whether I am disturbing something and if I should really be here at all.

Next stop: Beirut (click 3)Beirut

Flight from Teheran to Damascus. The next day marks the start of our bus trip adventure – Damascus to Beirut by land in a minibus. We have two choices with respect to air conditioning: either have it turned on with the ice-cold breath of death coming out of every crack or turn it off and sit in a sauna and be broiled.

photo: laif
The largest part of Beirut, to Moll, looks like "a wet dream come true for investors and real-estate developers"

​​We have already been waiting for an hour at the Syrian-Lebanese border. There is a lot of traffic here, but everything is taking its course – slowly. Raimund has already been approached by the chief border guard. Fitting his station, the guard proceeds to scare the wits out of him.

It seems to me that in this region, the little game of making clear who is boss - part of the standard repertoire at every border crossing around the world - is staged here with particular passion and an appreciation for theater.

Behind the veil of a thoroughly sincere and polite demeanor shimmers the possibility that at any moment the slightest signal of displeasure from the local powers-that-be could prevent our entry. And this was only the departure from Syria! We just assume that everything is fine.

We rejoice too soon. There remains another border station and here unfolds the first border crossing drama of our trip. It is a quiet, slow moving drama without any actual dramatic moments. After we fill out the omnipresent embarkation cards, they don't want to let us pass. The head guards are called in and discussions begin.

The actual problem only becomes clear bit by bit. It has something to do with a missing work permit and whether we are there as tourists or engaged in some sort of business. Our visas state the reason for our visit as "concert musical," so we can't claim we are traveling for purely personal pleasure. In any case, the visa as it stands is invalid.

There is no indication whatsoever that they want to harass us. It is simply that no one wants to make a mistake. A German band crossing from Syria to Lebanon is apparently a special case without precedent.

So we wait in an air-conditioned kiosk at the border, drink tea, and sample a selection of Arab cookies and chocolates. The TV is airing an Egyptian soap opera about girls in a judo school. Absurd overacting by all involved.

Meanwhile, a border soldier makes friends with us and wants to come to our concert. We politely decline his invitation to visit his home in Beirut due to our tight schedule. After four hours, we are finally issued new visas and can continue our journey through the desert-brown mountains towards Beirut.

The largest part of the city currently looks like a wet dream come true for investors and real-estate developers. Construction is going on everywhere – glass palaces, Potsdamer Platz-like environments, and even a section of historical Beirut circa 1920 is being faithfully reconstructed.

In the evening, we go down to the "Barometre," a bar and underground meeting place for local young people. We sit packed together at a round table and drink Arrak. Everywhere here people are subjected to the icy breath of an air conditioner. The locals seem quite used to it, but I am starting to feel ill. Arab pop songs are sung at our table and we are right in the middle of things. All at once, I feel good again.

The next day's concert is held in an old former movie theater. The building is rather ugly, but enormously large. It stood empty for years and now the plan is to bring it back to life, culturally speaking. We are the opening act for the new cultural series.

After the concert, I meet with Mazen Kerbaj, (presumably) the only trumpet improviser in the Middle East. We have a very pleasant and animated conversation about the heroic battle by the handful of improvisation musicians in Lebanon against the ignorance and abuse of the daily press. Mazen is the first person I have ever met who can cover his shirt in red wine stains faster than I can.

Next stop: Damascus (click 4)Damascus

Back to Damascus on the tour bus. In contrast to Beirut, Damascus is truly the Middle East. Everything is much more fragmented, bazaars, souks, traders on the streets, water pipe smokers in small cafes everywhere, and hustle and bustle on every corner. Here, as well, the people are extremely open, friendly, and interested in foreigners.

photo: AP
In Damascus, the band gives a concert in Tishreen Park. "Towards the end of the concert we exhort the audience to dance", Moll writes, "and they comply enthusiastically"

​​We wake up early the next day. A tour through the old city of Damascus begins at nine. Half the band has been hit with an oriental intestinal tract infection and our tour group is correspondingly smaller. Five of us march along behind our guide, Dr. Omar Madani.

He is a friendly old gentleman, an architect, who after three years of unemployment turned his energies to the tourism sector. On the way to the old city, we notice many Muslim pilgrims, especially black robed women from Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq.

A memorable scene takes place at the entrance to the Souk Hamidiye. A crowd of these black-garbed women, each reminiscent of the palace ghost, congests startled and cackling at the foot of an escalator. Some of them are already on the escalator and have broken into a state of panic. Screeching, some have sat down or even fallen over. The escalator has to be stopped and only after massive encouragement by a number of male passers-by does the group succeed, reluctantly, to climb the stationary escalator.

Most likely, these women have never seen an escalator before in their lives. Why they just didn't use the directly adjacent normal staircase remains a mystery.

That evening we give a concert in a 1960s built amphitheater in Tishreen Park. Towards the end of the concert we exhort the audience to dance, and they comply enthusiastically, which is not usual elsewhere in the Middle East.

Next stop: Aleppo (click 5)Aleppo

We leave for Aleppo at nine in the morning, four hours by bus. The landscape is largely desolate – a brown, stony hill desert. There are only isolated settlements with green fields. The land is irrigated here to grow vegetables for Damascus.

photo: www.ssbb.de
In Aleppo, the band played with their backs to the wall - but the audience was pleased and even clapped for an encore, "which is not usual in the Arab world", as Moll proudly adds

​​The country has obviously been suffering a shortage of diesel fuel for the last few days. Our driver stops at every petrol station and is greeted with shoulder shrugs and negative gestures. There is simply no fuel. Diesel in Syria is state subsidized and extremely cheap, but exclusively for use in buses and trucks. There are no diesel cars in Syria.

We will only be one day in Aleppo, so as soon as we arrive, we head straight off for the bazaar. Spread out over eleven square kilometers, it is the largest bazaar in the Middle East. After a bit of searching about – most of the city's residents can't speak English and therefore couldn't read the map given to us by the hotel – we find ourselves right in the middle of the souk, and it is more Middle Eastern and fragmented than in Damascus.

Here we are surrounded by just about everything – halved mutton, layered and decorated pyramids of coffee with cardamom, wedding dresses, gold, Berber costumes, cloth, hardware, rugs, and tents.

Back to the hotel and then directly to the concert venue by bus. The concert is to take place at an abandoned Syrian Army barracks located on a mountain with a panoramic view over the city. The former splendid garrison headquarters is built in an Arabic pseudo turn of the century "Gründerzeit" style with balconies, wide staircases, and pointed archways.

It has been abandoned for many years. The doors are hanging crooked at angles, the windows are broken, it is overrun with weeds, and cypress trees are thriving on the fallow land. A real ghost town – idyllic and surreal on account of its military past, but also a little creepy. Yet a fantastic backdrop for a concert.

Our stage has been built on the sporting grounds. You can see the black and white painted cement hurdles over which the soldiers were chased. A huge frame with climbing ropes, a horizontal bar for chin-ups, basketball rings, and everything in black and white cement style.

In the shattered window of a garrison building hangs an oil painting on cardboard. It depicts battle scenes with the Syrian flag waving victorious over a shot up tank with a Star of David. This scene was probably pure wishful thinking. As far as I know, such a victory never took place in reality.

A pleasant evening breeze is blowing and the sun sets with a mild golden glow. Suddenly, we are sitting in the dark on stage. There is no electricity. For the last two hours, a number of Syrian technicians have been working around a transmission pylon, trying to tap electricity from the power line, obviously without any success. An hour-and-a-half wait in the darkness follows.

A generator finally arrives along with delicious shawarma and falafel sandwiches for all. The bus is transformed into a dressing room and everything now seems to be going well.

Raimund tells me that the garrison was built in 1910 by Germans for the Ottoman Empire. That explains the Wilhelminian-Syrian mix of architecture.

The generator runs, the concert takes place, but it is rather windy and for the first time during the tour I am glad that a jacket is part of my stage costume. There isn't enough time for a sound check – the public has been sitting with amazing discipline on little plastic stools for an hour already in the wind.

During this time, our sound technician Stolli has turned the sound system on full blast and bombarded them with 1980s disco hits. He seems to be having a good time.

Unfortunately, we can't see the public. The first row is some 30 meters from the stage and we are directly facing the spotlights, which blind us. We are therefore playing in the dark without a sound check; the drummer is still weak from illness. He and Matti (the trombonist) caught the bug today. I am one of the few remaining without any gastro-intestinal problems.

This all made it a difficult concert, but the audience was pleased and even clapped for an encore, which is not usual in the Arab world.

Another day on the road – the same route back to Damascus. I chat with Manfred Ewel, the director of the Goethe Institute, about twelve-tone music and African art. At the Goethe Institute, I briefly go on the Internet and by chance read that this morning at 10:45, as we were still in Aleppo, the Israeli secret service blew up a Hamas leader here in Damascus and subsequently assumed responsibility.

For a moment, I feel a slight sense of unease that a foreboding of violence and terror has directly passed us by.

We continue to Amman. We wait at the Syrian-Jordanian border one-and-a-half hours. This time, everything goes smoothly. At the main checkpoint, a number of rows of wide, bricked-in tables have been installed between the lanes.

Here guards intensively search, frisk, and control. Not for us, though. It must certainly have to do with the fact that our bus driver has discreetly bribed the responsible authorities with various banknotes, as he has apparently done at all the previous border crossings.

The sound of overexcited birds twittering away can be heard throughout this roofed inspection hall. It is like we are in a giant exotic aviary at the zoo but judging from the uniform intervalls of the sound I guess it must be an audio cassette to ease the minds of the people waiting.

Next stop: Amman (click 6)Amman

Amman is a relatively young city, even more Western than Beirut, rather chic, many new buildings, traffic circles, and six times as expensive as Syria. We meet with the director of the Goethe Institute at the hotel. A humorous fellow, from Franconia, I believe, and who is married to a woman from Istanbul. She will be cooking for us tomorrow evening and that is an enticing prospect. Apparently, the head of the Jordanian secret service is his immediate neighbor and diagonally opposite lives the daughter of Saddam Hussein.

Schäl Sick Brass Band (photo: www.ssbb.de)
A young fellow from the hotel's security service befriends the band. "His name happens to be Jihad", Moll notes in his diary, "and he is very bright, open, and tells us all kinds of stories"

​​The next day we take a trip to Mount Nebo with a Goethe Institute trainee and its driver. This is where the Jordanian plateau steeply falls in the direction of the Jordan Valley. It offers a breathtaking view over half of Palestine. To the left, the Dead Sea is glittering.

Monastery ruins on the site mark the grave of Moses. Supposedly, it is here that after 40 years of wandering in the desert, he stood together with the people of Israel, saw the Promised Land, and promptly died.

That evening we are given a private reception at the Goethe Institute director's home. He lives in the diplomatic quarter, full of tasteful, large modern buildings with brand new Toyota luxury jeeps and Mercedes parked in front.

On every other corner, a street is closed off and heavily armed police urge us to move on. His is also a new building, but slightly Jordanian in style, with brick arches and pillars on the balcony. The home doesn't appear ostentatious, but rather pleasantly spacious and it is tastefully furnished with old oriental furniture.

After we return to the hotel, Gellert, Marcellus, Afra, and myself throw the first proper room party of the tour. My colleagues have supplied themselves with cans of Amstel beer. I keep to Fanta and Pepsi. There was no wine to be found, and certainly not at the hotel.

A young fellow from the hotel's security service has a look in, since we left the door open. His name happens to be Jihad, and he is very bright, open, and tells us all kinds of stories. He finds Germany great, although he has never been there. He imagines it as country with a lot of work, much money, and easy living. We set him straight.

He promises to come to the concert tomorrow before his shift at the hotel begins. He has to work the night shift six times a week in order to finance his brother's studies.

The next day, I walk down the main street to have breakfast downtown. This is the old section of the city, which here means the 1930s. Some of the vegetable dealers at the local market sing little songs they probably made up themselves in praise of their wares.

The melodies are unremitting and repetitive, but sung well. The heat and the crowd start to get to me and at times I feel somewhat queasy, especially on corners where strange scents of stewed mutton bring me to the point of throwing up. But I am always relieved the next moment by the fragrant smell of cardamom or fresh fruit.

Back in the upper part of town. Freelance scribes sit in front of the courts and consular buildings at small camping tables equipped with sunshades. They properly fill out applications, forms, and any sort of paperwork for a fee, as well as offering legal advice from the sidewalk.

Later we take the bus to the concert location – King Hussein Gardens (almost all public places seem to be named after the former king). The newly built park grounds are surrounded by walls with formal entrance gates with gatehouses. Nothing here seems to be completed yet – the planted trees and bushes are much too small. The atmosphere is one of wasteland and Disney World – without the Disney.

The Amphitheater in which we are to play is massive. At least it has been completed, although it is baking hot in the brutal afternoon sun. There is not the slightest bit of shade here, so we disappear into the underground catacombs of the dressing rooms. The concert turns out to be very good.

Next stop: Jerusalem (press 7)Jerusalem

The most important border crossing point from Jordan to the West Bank is the Allenby Bridge. Stretching across the Jordan River, this border crossing is one of the most impressive locations that I have encountered on the trip. Even the organization of this crossing from the Arabic world into Israel – and since the annexation in 1967, the West Bank is de facto Israeli territory – required months of elaborate preparation.

Israeli border police officers in Jerusalem (photo: AP)
After having entered Israel, the band drives through a barbed-wire corridor and a roadblock "reminiscent of East Germany"

​​Before the trip began, we all had to apply for a second passport, because the Israelis forbid anyone entering the country who has an Arabic stamp in their passport. The reverse case is true for Arabic countries.

A chubby, gum-chewing Israeli soldier seriously scrutinizes my virgin passport. The next moment, I am through the cordon and in the Promised Land.

It is 40 degrees Celsius outside and we get back in the Goethe bus and drive through a barbed-wire corridor and roadblock reminiscent of East Germany into the West Bank.

The buses of the Goethe Institute are recognizably painted with the German flag on both sides and on top. This has little to do with patriotism, but rather is an attempt to prevent being mistaken for Israelis by Hamas fighters or for Arabs by Jewish settlers. Either situation could be deadly. Vehicles are ever more frequently being attacked by rockets and automatic weapons.

Ramallah is like a large open-air prison surrounded by barbed-wire fences and the new, notorious Israeli-built wall. One can only enter or leave the city via two checkpoints. One of these is reserved for diplomats. Palestinians are forbidden to cross here.

The diplomatic crossing is not as severe as at the other checkpoint, but the sight of a 19-year-old soldier with an automatic weapon and bullet-proof vest, whose Rambo-like posing probably arises out of a mixture of uncertainty and delusion, is enough to make it clear to me that this is the gateway to a completely other world.

On this side of this border we take a shared taxi, and drive along a well-built city highway to the famous Damascus Gate, which in Arabic is called Bab-al-Quds.

In these parts, one's sympathies are made quite clear merely by choosing to use either the Jewish or Arabic name for this gate. One is either a supporter of the strict Zionist faction or that of the Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

In any case, this gate is the heart and entrance to Jerusalem's old city, which is populated primarily by Arabs. Andreas explains to us that East Jerusalem has the most all-encompassing surveillance of any city territory on earth. And in fact, I now discover hidden video cameras in every nook and cranny and on the corner of every house. Surveillance really does seem to be complete.

We visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which holds a number of chapels and shrines, each administrated by one of the large Christian world churches.

The tomb of Christ (in which, of course, Jesus never laid) is looked after by Egyptian Copts, in the Syrian Orthodox cellar you can see burial shafts from which the resurrected Jesus disappeared, the Greek Orthodox section features the true cross, which was found in a historic trash heap, the Roman Catholics have a beautiful capella, and so on.

Everyone, it seems, has their own holy corner. The stone slab upon which the body of Jesus was washed and anointed is soaked daily with aromatic oils so that pilgrims can rub the messianic fluid on to cloths they bring with them from home.

It is not far from this first-class holy site to the next one – the Wailing Wall. The path leads straight through bazaar-like Arab alleyways, which certainly must be unpleasant for the orthodox Jews who are crossing our path with increasing frequency. Without looking either to the right or to the left, they make their way through assumed enemy territory at a veritable marching pace.

The large plaza in front of the Wailing Wall can only be entered after passing through an identity check and a metal detector test.

It is unusually full here. This probably has to do with the fact that the Feast of the Tabernacles begins tonight and many orthodox Jews from around the world have come to Jerusalem for the occasion and to pray at the still standing Western Wall of the legendary temple of Solomon.

They greet each other, chat a bit, are boisterous, and even dance together in a circle. Everyone is dressed in their "Sunday best" and the very orthodox women have shaved heads and wear wigs.

At a certain distance from the actual wall is yet another barrier. We cannot pass, as we are neither of the proper faith nor do we have the appropriate head covering. Praying here is also separated according to sex – women right and men left.

After so much religious life, we are exhausted and take a shared taxi home. It is already night and the checkpoint closes at 1 AM. After that, you can't get in or out.

Next stop: Ramallah (press 8)Ramallah

The craziness of Ramallah continues undiminished the next day. My feelings tell me I am now truly right in the center of the Middle East conflict. In the morning we go the cultural center, a brand new, relatively attractive theater on the edge of town with a view of Ramallah.

Raimund Kroboth, musical director of the band (photo: &copy Udo Moll)
On the life-sized photograph, Arafat "has a distinctly bulbous nose, but otherwise looks quite relaxed, friendly, and confident. This might not have been the case in reality"

​​The Japanese sponsored the construction. Everything is spotless and of the very best quality – quite a contrast to the rather run down districts surrounding it.

We are greeted in the entranceway by a life-sized photograph of Arafat in front of the Dome of the Rock. He has a distinctly bulbous nose, but otherwise looks quite relaxed, friendly, and confident. This might not have been the case in reality.

We do a sound check and then rehearse a few songs with a Palestinian singer. Her name is Reem, she is a shade over 40, has three daughters, and sings beautifully. She is an Israeli Palestinian and lives in a village on the West Bank.

Actually, Reem is not allowed to travel to Ramallah. She is here illegally, although she has often sung and taught in the city. Every time she had to be smuggled in at her own risk by the Goethe Institute or the German Embassy.

There is a rumor going around that even Daniel Barenboim had to be smuggled out of Ramallah in the trunk of car after giving a concert here.

Reem tells us of her everyday life and I am once again deeply moved. She says that absolutely no one in Palestine thinks about what will happen next year or can make any sort of plans for the future.

It is all about survival and one has to devote a considerable portion of one's life just to organize getting from one place to another, how to bring your children to school across a checkpoint or how to visit your sick father, who now suddenly lives on the other side of a ten-meter high wall.

We turn on the television that afternoon. Israeli soldiers fired a tank shell into a market place in Gaza, killing 24 people. Half of the dead were children. Al-Jazeera shows nothing else the whole afternoon. Only dead and injured children and their desperate and crying parents.

Switching stations on the hotel TV, RAI Uno is showing a competition to make the world's largest pizza hosted by smiling, seemingly empty-headed beauties. After this television experience I can completely understand the sense of hate expressed by those in the Arab world towards the West.

We consider whether it would be best to call off the concert. We go on with the show, nevertheless. Farid, the director of the Goethe Institute in Ramallah, will give a brief speech dealing with the events in Gaza before the concert.

There is the apprehension that not many people will show up, either out of dismay or fear. Yet, quite a lot of people do come and it is the most memorable, beautiful, and intense concert of the tour.

We change our program and begin with rather contemplative pieces. I am somewhat tense to start out because I don't know how the audience will react. Yet from the first song onwards, they are a very attentive and warm crowd, enthusiastically applauding. It keeps on getting better. Towards the end of the show, everyone is in a real party mood, they dance, and demand an encore.

The audience is obviously grateful for the music. Many come up and approach us afterwards and thank us.

Even some foreigners living in Ramallah are visibly pleased that we had the courage to come here. They asked us to tell everyone at home what life is really like on the West Bank and to help fight against the distorted image promoted by the media.

Upon leaving the venue from the performers' entrance and out in the open, we look down at the city. Shots can be heard repeatedly. Andreas explains that after such incidents as in Gaza today, an unofficial, mandatory national mourning, in other words, a compulsory general strike, is usually called.

Members of militant underground groups, Hamas, and Al-Aqsa Brigade, roam masked through the streets and shoot into the air in order to intimidate the population and to force shop owners to keep their businesses shut. People out on the street are sent home so that no one can have a good time.

And, indeed, we too get caught up in this. We all drive to a nice garden restaurant, sit down, and prepare to order, when a number of armed figures masked in black appear, demanding that the waiters turn off the music and bright lights.

Immediately afterwards, we hear a couple of shots nearby. The air rings with the loud and nasty sound of gunshots. The whole nightmare has soon passed, but the effect remains. The pleasant atmosphere has been trashed. Most of the guests in the garden get up and go home, quietly and disciplined.

For a brief instant I am worried. The situation is stressful and uncomfortable. Then the waiters come by and calm us down. "Don't worry, everything okay!"

Slowly, the shock melts away, normality returns, but the restaurant empties quickly.

Next stop: Tel Aviv (press 9)Tel Aviv

We leave Ramallah, travel in two buses via the diplomatic checkpoint and once again into the West Bank towards Tel Aviv. We have a guest with us, a young Palestinian from Nazareth, who also shouldn't have been in Ramallah. With our diplomatic status we smuggle him past the checkpoint into the West Bank. Everything goes well, although at the passport control the guy trembles like a leaf, turns pale, and struggles to maintain his composure.

Tel Aviv (photo: AP)
"After Ramallah, Tel Aviv is a complete culture shock", according to Moll. "It is like a large European city, a shining, stylish party city on the sea, and full of buxom beauties"

​​The hotel has a fabulously central location, only ten minutes from the beach, and is housed in a former Bauhaus styled movie theater. There are quite a lot of well-maintained buildings from this period as well as from the 1950s. Architecturally charming. I embark on my first walk through the city.

For the first half hour I am still very tense. I am constantly checking my surroundings. Can I get through this crowd? Don't wait at the bus stop! Are there any suspicious characters here? The feeling that you can be blown to bits at any moment is both extremely present and yet diffuse, as I have no way of judging if, when, or where.

To some extent, I too am infected with the Israeli permanent paranoia, but it soon relaxes its hold on me. My safe return to the hotel is notched up as a success. By my next excursion, the fear is gone. It is probably the same for the people who live here. You have to simply get on with life. If you think about bombs the whole time, you will be completely paralyzed and unable to do anything.

And despite this, the threat is ever-present as a possibility, as a hidden tension, preventing everyday life from ever getting too simple or too unconscious.

Once again, the next morning brings two hours of beach life with swimming, sunburn, and snoozing. Things here are also very similar to every other Mediterranean marina. In the afternoon we drive to the concert hall, a relatively newly-built cultural center with a medium-sized theater.

Just this once, we decide to go out to eat before the concert, which turns out to be a mistake. First of all, the food is bad, or at least the main dish, and second, the whole concert long it feels as if there is something heavy in my stomach that occasionally wants to come up.

I should have known better. The concert, nevertheless, goes okay, but nothing special. We had to ask if we could start with our German march "Hoch Heidecksburg," yet it wasn't a problem.

Andreas and Samira came to the show with some friends as the West Bank fan delegation, and I was truly moved. We see the director of the Tel Aviv Goethe Institute for exactly thirty seconds before he disappears again.

Back on the road again. We drive to Ben-Gurion Airport. This is the only international civilian airport in Israel since the destruction of the EU financed airport in Ramallah by the Israeli military. Hard-core security technology is everywhere. There is even a checkpoint control at the approach to the airport.

The check-in runs as follows: first, an army of security agents swarms out and receives the travelers. Most of the agents are quite young and the girls have to wear ill-fitting uniforms. The shorter agents wear what appear to be orthopedic insoles in their running shoes, so that they look taller and can maintain a sense of authority.

Then the interviews begin – all kinds of questions about where you come from, the purpose of your journey, the name of your bus driver, the name of the bus company, what you think about Israel, etc. After successfully completing the interview, a green sticker is affixed to your luggage.

Then on to x-raying the luggage. Of course, our two Iranians (the percussionist and the singer) are particularly suspect and are thoroughly examined. Afra's clip microphone was taken away to be checked – the cables make it look like it could be a detonator. In the end, they also get the green sticker.

Then we are checked-in, interviewed again if necessary, and once again scanned together with our hand luggage. Everything is conducted professionally by mainly female personnel.

The flight is without incident and we are in the air for only about an hour.

Next stop: Cairo (press 10)Cairo

Cairo is gigantic, and you can't help but notice this right away. The city highway runs through a sea of houses. The mosques have palatial dimensions; the enclosure walls of large building complexes are decorated with many arabesques.

Cairo (photo: AP)
Udo Moll about Mohammed Mounir: "Normally he gives the impression of being a disorganized Egyptian with a mild drug problem, but as soon as he sings, he is 100% present"

​​At the same time, the level under the highway is full with Arabic stores. The hustle of the bazaar lasts far into the night – everything is lit up, the stores are open, and many people are on the street.

In comparison with most Arab countries, there are a surprisingly large number of illuminated advertising billboards plastered to the left and right at various levels along the highway.

One also notices the Coptic churches, built in Romanesque style, but a little more ungainly and, above all, not so old, with their three dimensional neon crosses on the roof.

We cross the Nile a number of times and it is very wide here. The island on the Nile on which our hotel is located bears the pretty name ‚Zamalek’.

The bus to Alexandria leaves at 11 AM. We stop at various locations throughout Cairo to pick up the members of Mohammed Mounir's band. They sit at the back of the bus, we sit in front, and the first chance to talk only takes place when we stop for a break at the highway rest area. The trip is a good three hours drive.

The new hotel lies about forty minutes outside of Alexandria on a dusty secondary road between large refineries and a restricted military area. The hotel is somewhat of an oasis, a sort of Club Med facility in safari park style. Its name, accordingly, is Africana. It is just the right kind of place for hanging around – first at the pool, some swimming, and then lying in the sun with drinks, food, and a water pipe served by the personnel.

A joint rehearsal is scheduled for 6 PM, but by Egyptian reckoning that would be around 7 PM anyway. It's a great confusion from start to finish. We rehearse in the basement pub of the hotel. In a matter of minutes, there are already fifty people packed into the small space.

In order to rehearse, we have to form small sub-groups, simply begin playing, and try to ignore the general level of noise. Sometime or other, Mounir joins in and sings along. It is just unbelievable, like the sun suddenly begins to shine.

Normally he gives the impression of being a disorganized Egyptian with a mild drug problem, but as soon as he sings, he is 100% present, his whole face just beams like a small child, he radiates without end, he is simply charismatic. What a transformation.

And this is exactly what makes the difference between a superstar and the 100 or so other Egyptian pop singers. The rehearsal continues in this fashion, everything takes a long time, but it all seems to work, somehow.

After an hour, Mounir's trumpeter shows up. He is a small, balding man and he speaks German. He is an amusing fellow, a classical musician who had studied music in Frankfurt and plays the C trumpet. He teaches at the conservatory in Cairo, directs a brass orchestra, and takes on every possible studio job. We quickly begin to talk shop about trumpets and mouthpieces, and, for a change, I actually enjoy this sort of conversation.

Next stop: Alexandria (click 11)Alexandria

The bus leaves for Alexandria at noon, and sightseeing is offered for those interested. We first have a look at the citadel. On the sight of this fortress once stood the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The band's drummer Christian Thomé in an Egyptian music store (photo: Udo Moll)
To Moll, Alexandria's bazaar is a "hard-core" bazaar: "You only have about ten centimeters to squeeze past the donkey and the pyramid of vegetables"

​​Afterwards, we are off to the bazaar, at first altogether in a group, but quickly enough it strikes me as foolish, so I turn off on to a side street. Here everything is quite pleasant and calm – it is the stationary wholesalers' district.

I take another few curves and walk a few streets over and I find myself in the middle of the grocers' district. This is a real hard-core bazaar, back in the crowd once again. Pedestrians are moving at a snail's pace on account of the donkey carts and small trucks loading or unloading their wares. You only have about ten centimeters to squeeze past the donkey and the pyramid of vegetables.

There is every imaginable kind of vegetables on offer – appetizing and unappetizing. The sellers have little coal basins set up, which burn incense like crazy, probably to keep the flies away.

I see whole streets filled with live animals, especially birds of every type in homemade wooden cages. Turkeys are running around free, cackling, fluttering, and accompanied by a strong smell. There are pheasants, sheep, and goats. Finally I see a display decorated exclusively with cow heads.

Blood collects in puddles on the road in the butchers' alley. A bull of a man cooks cow bones in a large cauldron and is sweatily scraping the last bits off one of the bones. After wandering about for a short time in this parallel universe, I fall into a trance-like state.

While right in the middle of this miasma, I get an acute queasy stomach. I feel sick and faint and have to find a toilet immediately. I must catch a taxi and get to the concert venue.

Of course, I get a taxi driver who can't speak a word of English and even "Biblioteca Alexandrina" means nothing to him. He nonetheless drives on at random. After further failed attempts at communication, we finally invite a gentleman in a suit up to the taxi. Luckily, he speaks English and translates my desired destination to the driver.

We don't play in the actual library, but rather in the directly adjacent conference center. It is a large hall with very comfortable seats. We do a sound check, Mounir takes longer. Although not everyone has found their seats and people are still being let in, we have to begin playing. Due to technical reasons, we are instructed not to wait. Despite this, the audience claps along to the Hoch Heidecksburg and clearly has accepted us. They are a great public all the way through our sixty-minute set.

The stage is quickly rearranged. Then comes Mounir's classic sense of drama. One after another, first the percussionists, then the bass, guitar, and keyboard join in the groove.

Only after Mounir appears on stage, however, does the audience erupt in a wave of enthusiasm. Everyone is screaming, and he gets a standing ovation just for coming out on stage. The mood continues for the next eighty minutes. He brings out all of his hits and the public sings along. We play the last three songs together to massive applause. Friendship and brotherhood – everything is great.

In the morning we travel by bus back to Cairo. After checking in to the hotel, Afra, Matti, Christian, and I drive to the street where the music business is located. There we see many tiny shops mainly selling drums, ouds, and kanuns. We first visit a small oud factory.

The shop is no larger than a small kiosk. It is divided into two levels by wooden planks at about a two-and-a-half meter height. The second floor is only accessible by a chicken ladder. A carpenter sits up there building the ouds. Hanging on the wall are completed curved oud bodies with a variety of wooden inlay patterns.

The boss and an old lute virtuoso sit at the desk, talking and smoking. We simply come in, say hello and chat a bit, and the boss invites us to take a leisurely look around.

We make a quick stop at the Khan Al Khalili bazaar, but then get stuck on the main tourist strip. Time is running tight, so we jump back in a taxi and return to the hotel. Taxi rides in Cairo are an adventure unto themselves – fast, creative, and with sustained horn honking through the traffic madness. Certainly not recommended for those with weak nerves.

We are picked up from the hotel in the afternoon and, for once, the bus is on time. The concert will be held at a handball stadium on the edge of Cairo. The stadium is architecturally quite amusing, as the spectator stands are only on one side of the semi-circular playing field. The interior is completely laid out with identical Persian rugs – just like in a mosque.

And by sunset, a few of the technicians and guards actually do begin to pray and quite elegantly throw themselves synchronically to the floor. This public, archaic, and here completely natural practice of praying, come what may, is something that no longer strikes me as odd.

I have even gotten used to the muezzin and find pleasure every time I hear the sound. The calls to prayer provide an excellent framework to structure one's day and also offer a moment of reflection reminding you that there is a spiritual dimension to every day life beyond business and personal concerns. They should introduce the practice to Germany – a muezzin calling everyone five times a day.

Before Mounir arrives, all of the dressing rooms are searched and sniffed by bomb-detecting dogs. In all other respects, the contingent of security forces is quite large. After an attempt on his life not long ago, Mounir has understandably become rather cautious.

The concert is fantastic, a great conclusion to the tour. Some 8000 people attend. It is, on average, a relatively young public, and they even go wild for us, the Schäl Sick Brass Band, as the opening act. They cheer, dance, and wave their arms high. When Mournir takes the stage, emotions are fully unleashed to the point of mass hysteria. It must have been similar for the Beatles. Once again, we play the last three songs together. Everyone is happy. No encore.

Epilogue: The flight to Frankfurt (click 12)Frankfurt

The bus reserved to take us to the airport doesn't show up, so we have to take four taxis and a luggage van, but still make it on time. We have to pay 1014 euros for excess baggage weight, otherwise the flight is fine – good food, red wine, and Robbie Williams videos.

Just before landing, Matti throws his Lufthansa pillow at me for fun. I hit back suddenly and crushingly. Within moments, a wild pillow fight breaks loose in the Airbus, quickly spreading from the SSBB to a French bowling team. Giggling and a few, short moments of anarchy while the plane descends.

After a couple of minutes, the head of the bowling club puts an end to the amusement with the words, "C'est fini, discipline..." I believe that it is this art of self-control and moderation in excess that allowed France to become the Grande Nation. The pillow fight subsides. It's a soft landing.

Udo Moll

© Udo Moll 2004

Translation from German: John Bergeron


Egyptian-German World Music
Mohammed Mounir and the Schäl Sick Brass Band
The Egytpian musician Mohammed Mounir gave a concert in Cairo with the Schäl Sick Brass Band from Cologne. Frederick Richter reports on the audience's reaction.

Musical Worlds
The Islamic world and Europe are home to a longstanding independent, modern music scene that transcends belly dance and folk music clichés. In this dossier we present some of its most important figures, styles and encounters.

Schäl Sick Brass Band website

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