The day I became a rebel listening to the bagpipes of Bethlehem

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Memory is a funny thing.

It can sneak up on you in the strangest ways – like when I  get a whiff of cardamom that takes me back to playing at my grandfather’s feet while he drank his coffee as the sun came up.

And suddenly, that memory overtakes me and makes me a child again.

Or when I gather with my family for a festive meal  – the same jokes, the same gripes… our faces may age but we are the same, and I  go back to the role  I always played around the family table — the kid, the jokester.

Or it can happen while as scrolling through Facebook (because what else can I do during the Lockdown when I’m ignoring a sink full of dishes) when I saw this video of the Syriac scouts playing the bagpipes.

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I felt my heart swell with the music as it brought back feelings that I thought I lost.

The music takes me back to beautiful memories — back to my childhood when I used to feel safe, back to a time when I used to think whenever you need water you just open the tap and the water would flow and never finish, back to a time when the Ninja Turtles inside the tv screen were real, and my sister and I would try to figure out a way to sneak into our television to have adventures with them.

We would search for Smurfs in the bushes behind our house — before I learned that mushrooms could be poisonous — Especially the big fluffy red kind with the white polka dots.

I’ve learned a lot growing up. For instance:

I might ruin the tv by playing with the wires — and that’s if I don’t get electrocuted.

And — worse, even — I also know people are dying for water and one day the wars we wage won’t be over oil and riches but water, and simply having enough to drink. As they sing in Prince of Egypt “a lake of gold in the desert sand is less than a cool fresh spring”

But most of my beautiful childhood memories happened during Christmas. For a child, it’s the “tree holiday,” where this guy in a red suit with white puffs of cotton is totally real, and he is definitely not your Uncle Tony dressing up and getting yelled at by Auntie Noel for not taking out the trash.

(“How can you yell at Santa, Amto? He came all the way from the North Pole! He even made it through the checkpoint without a blue ID!”)

But the most beautiful thing about Christmas were the Scouts! Christmas would not be a real Christmas if there were no Scouts, and in order to experience that, you would have to be in Bethlehem.

Before Oslo — when I was really little – the Israeli authorities only allowed Christians to be in Manger Square.

There was an extensive security check: men in one line, women in another.

My family always showed up early so we wouldn’t miss the Scouts playing the bagpipes.

Now some of you might be reading this and wondering why on earth are Palestinian Christians marching through Bethlehem playing the SCOTTISH bagpipes and wearing red berets with pompoms on top?

Excellent question.

The bagpipes were introduced to Palestinians during the British mandate — but there’s irony to it… And it’s really funny:

Many Scottish people wanted (and still want) their independence from the British. The haunting call of the bagpipe became a symbol of this – and a musical instrument of war. In fact, in the 18th century – (all you Outlander fans know what I’m talking about) the British made carrying bagpipes illegal!

And for this Armenian Palestinian Christian boy hearing the powerful sound of the Scottish bagpipes would set this glorious rebellious feeling in me — that feeling of yearning, of wanting to reach for something …. even if I wasn’t sure exactly what it was.

I wanted to be a rebel!

The first time I heard the bagpipes was during Christmas and I was so little that my father had to carry me on his shoulders so I could see.

My father is also a musician — a talented one who has been playing for years – and he loved the bagpipes, too.

So we went every Christmas, and he would lift me on his shoulders until he couldn’t anymore- until I was big enough to see over the heads of the people in front of me, even if I had to stand on the tips of my toes.

I remember as the music swelled all around us, and through my child’s eyes, the Scouts looked so big and powerful and mighty – but they were probably just kids themselves.

“Wow, one day I’ll be a Scout, Baba,” I told my dad.

It was like that at the checkpoint too on the way back to Jerusalem — the soldiers were just kids with guns, but they were also big and powerful and mighty, and I remember I would lean out the window and say “wow, Baba, one day I’ll be a soldier!”

Then 10 minutes later, “wow, Baba, one day I’ll be an astronaut.”

Soldiers and astronauts, Smurfs and Ninja Turtles… and now Scouts playing bagpipes… my dreams were big and colorful.

But… I did become a Scout.

Because it’s a lot easier for an Armenian Palestinian Christian boy from the Old City of Jerusalem to become a Scout than it is for him to become an astronaut or an Israeli soldier or a Smurf for that matter.

But even then, it gets complicated: like realizing that red mushrooms with white dots are often poisonous, that you can’t go inside the tv and play with the ninja turtles, that water cannot flow forever.

I was still young and I didn’t know much about anything and I asked too many questions that made my teachers angry, so they told me to shut up and behave.

As I grew older I learned we are not one nation. We are 2 nations and that these nations are divided into smaller nations.

No one told me being a Christian among Muslim Palestinians would make me feel like a Jew wandering in the desert, with no real home – a minority within a minority. And no one told me that the Jews who once wandered in the desert wouldn’t want me either.

But I joined the Scouts. The Salesian Scouts. It was the oldest of the Brass Instruments Bands, and I was thrilled.

But then, after I joined and had my little uniform, I learned the terrible news.

After all these years of admiring the Scouts and how they played the bagpipes, guess what? The Salesian Scouts did not have bagpipes!

And I was not happy about it.

And can you believe it??? They forced me to play the trumpet. I hated every second of it — although now when I now hear jazz players playing the trumpet, it’s really something. Louis Armstrong, especially. He blows me away.

But for a little kid, that trumpet was heavy. It sounded awful. It was my scourge. And my lips doubled in size after playing for 10 minutes. I looked like an Armenian Palestinian Christian Angelina Jolie dressed in a Scouts uniform.

(So anyone who wants lips like that, you don’t need fillers or surgery: just get yourself a trumpet and play)

But I did my best. After all, my dad is a musician — and we take it seriously in my family.

Christmas came and it was to be my first march with the Scouts. But to add insult to injury, they didn’t even let me march with the band with my trumpet!

They stuck me with the kids who couldn’t play instruments!

I was devastated! I didn’t join the Scouts just to march around with some kids! I wanted to play music!

I come from a family of musicians! My father and his cousins played in the Oslo Peace Band on the White House Lawn!

I have a musician’s heart!

(And a Scouts’ heart! And an astronaut’s heart! And a rebel’s heart!)

But back to the music: I really loved it. I started repeating what I would hear on the trumpet — I guess it’s called “playing by ear.” I could do it with other instruments as well, like the piano and the flute. The notes came easily to me, the music filled my heart and helped clear my mind.

I especially loved the flute and began focusing on that.

For the first time in my life, something I loved was in reach. I was good at it.

Some people were proud of me. They supported me. Some of them were talented musicians who understood that the little Armenian Palestinian Christian boy had something special. I will always remember their support and be grateful.

But some weren’t supportive — and they gave me the Evil Eye.

Both Arabs and Jews believe in this — when someone is jealous, they can wish you misfortune – sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident — and if you aren’t careful, they can bring bad luck on your head and your home with their envious glances.

I will never forget how one day a man as old as the ancient stones of the Salesian of Don Bosco building where we had our rehearsals came into the room. By then I was playing the flute — no more trumpet! — and I was showing off for the girls — hey, I was 12 by then.

The old man wore these glasses — the light reflected off them like discs of silver, I couldn’t even see his eyes, but he fixed his face on me, his silver glasses piercing me like lasers, and he spoke:

“This guy,” he said, and be pointed his knobby finger, “this guy is the strongest musician between all of you. This guy…. he’s got the talent!”

Well, when you’re singled out like that at being really good at something, that is not the best way to make friends or win any popularity contests…. and some of the other kids hated me for it, and tried to bully me, and I learned how to fight back and defend myself.

I might be a musician, but I also had the heart of a Scout! And an astronaut! And a warrior and rebel, just like I felt the first time I heard the ancient cry of the bagpipes!

Some of the musicians in the band decided to let me March with them … But back then The Salesian Band was trained by great musicians and the head of the brotherhood, Don Errando Vaca, wouldn’t let me march with the band until I learned how to read notes.

But music didn’t come to me through the notes printed on a page — I couldn’t make sense of the dots and squiggles. Instead, I would hear the melody and play it back. I would anticipate the changes, and the surges, and the notes that were to follow. Even to this day, I cannot read a single note but my heart is not satisfied unless I am holding a flute or a nye or duduk – an ancient Armenian instrument carved from an apricot tree. (The trumpet? No thank you.)

And you know what? I did become a musician — not even the Don Errando Vaca could stop me!

I’ve appeared on stage with some of the most talented musicians in the world – Palestinian and Israeli musicians. I toured with the winner of Arab Idol Muhamed Assaf. I played with the incomparable Nasreen Kadri.

And in the audience, one night was Don Errando Vaca and afterward, he shook my hand and we embraced.

“But, you’re still lazy and should learn to read notes!” He said.

I never did but through it all, my rebel heart learned music is another language no matter your political agenda or race or identity – a real musician’s music should be only music.

But back to that kid again in my Scouts uniform. I was in the back with all the kids. I hated it.

But something wondrous happened that day: for the first time, the Salesian Scouts joined the Syriac Scouts and we marched together. For the first time that Christmas, the boom of the brass and the cry of the bagpipes were together and it was a sound that held the earth to the sky in a pillar of perfect harmony.

Now: you think I would just stay back with the kids and listen and look without being a part of this magical moment?

Come on. Remember, I have a rebel heart!

So I found a drum and a pair of batons that someone left behind, and I picked it up, and it was mine! Don Errando Vaca couldn’t stop me!

The sound of the Scottish bagpipes with the brass and the banging of the drums made all of the priests peer out from the high windows of the churches, and I later heard that one of them — an old man who was born during the Ottoman times asked “are the British back? Will they at least fix the roads?”

And we marched and it was glorious. I was a Scout, a musician, and a rebel — I was behind the screen and inside my dream – living my fantasy with the music and the marching altogether.

My heart still rings with the memory of it.

At the end of it, we had this amazing picture together. And of course, I had to be in it.

Can you see me?

That was the last Christmas of my childhood — the following Christmas, the bagpipes were drowned out by the rumble of Israeli tanks and machine-gun fire from the militias in Bethlehem.

Even though only a year had passed, the Second Intifada changed everything and I was no longer a kid

It never went back to how it was: Christmas is not what it used to be anymore. The talented musicians that I once knew left the region long ago in search of real opportunities.

The Scouts become a joke — anyone could march with the band. Don Errando Vaca didn’t matter anymore.

Meanwhile, beyond Bethlehem, Israel continues to build its military power.

The soldiers are at the checkpoints and they may be kids, but they are still big and mighty and powerful.

And on the other side, Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to build THEIR own power — even in Bethlehem.

And for us Christians, what do we have? Bagpipes? And what are the bagpipes going to do? Protect us from what might happen?

Protect us as it happens?

They haven’t so far.

Did they protect the Christians in Syria and Iraq and Egypt?

Are we Palestinian Christians only here for everyone’s amusement during Christmas where suddenly the Muslims claim Jesus was Palestinian and Jews say he was a rabbi from Judea?

Are we merely a puppet for both governments using us for their own agendas?

You can feel the depression among the youth in our community — you can see it as our numbers are shrinking — we are only 2% here in Israel today, and according to Times of Israel, in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a tiny manger, the Christian population has dropped from 86% to 12% just in the past 60 years.

Meanwhile, most of my friends are waiting for a visa just to get out already — being trapped between two nations that don’t want you is exhausting and demoralizing.

And every year is worse.

But now we are all stuck together – locked down behind the high wall and barbed wire of COVID-19. And we are united — all of us: Jews, Christians, and Muslims under the yoke of this new plague, in a world where there are no hero Ninja Turtles, no magical Smurfs to make things better, where my father hasn’t lifted me on his shoulders since before the second intifada, where Manger Square was silent during Christmas this year, where we now know we can take nothing for granted — not even the flow of air through our lungs.

But with all of that, after I saw this video of the Syriac scouts, it sent a tremor of hope through me.

Fine! My rebel heart agrees: Let us bring amusement to this land. Let us be the joy! Let’s carry our bagpipes and march with our red berets for the world to see!

And let us hear the sound of freedom… even if we cannot see it.

Thank you to The Syriac Scouts for inspiring my memories and thank you to Sarah Tuttle-Singer for her beautiful literary edits.

About the Author
Joe Zaarour is a professional musician, a licensed Israeli tour guide, and loves sharing stories from between different worlds in the Holy Land.
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