The Train Tour

Moscow, Russia. I wake up to the sound of opera from the shower. Easter is upon us, but the Russian capital doesn’t seem to be sleeping through the holidays. Yesterday’s concert was my first in this vast country, I really hope it wasn’t my last.

In only three days, Katrine and I will be heading off to Europe to spend three weeks on rails through the continent. When InterRail heard that we would be doing our entire tour by train, they decided to give us free rail tickets for the whole month. It’ll be a proper Train Tour!

You can follow the tour on moddi.no/traintour, where you can also download the single Train song / Togsang for free! And who knows, perhaps our train tracks cross at some point?

23.04 - La Flèche d’Or, Paris (FR) tickets
25.04 - Barents Ecology Film Festival, Petrozavodsk (RU) - free
26.04 - Grend, Essen (GE) - tickets
27.04 - K4, Nürnberg (GE) - tickets
28.04 - Schön Schön, Mainz (DE) - tickets
29.04 - Lagerhaus, Bremen (DE) - tickets
30.04 - Tonne, Dresden (DE) - tickets
01.05 - Räng Teng Teng, Freiburg (DE) - tickets
02.05 - Franz K., Reutlingen (DE) - tickets
03.05 - KFZ, Marburg (DE) - tickets
05.05 - Jazz Tibet Club, Olomouc (CZ) - tickets
29.05 - Immergut Festival, Neustrelitz (DE) - tickets

As for Russia, I was at first a little nervous about going here. However, talking about gay rights and the Ukraine situation from stage didn’t get me hanged yesterday. On the contrary, I got applauded! Seems like people are just people wherever you go. I’ll remember that.

Day #3 – An Ongoing Naqba

Three short days in Israel and Palestine is really just a glimpse. You could spend three years here and still not get the full picture. However, the things we have seen, and the people we have met, will stay in my heart forever.

We could have seen a completely different picture. We could have lingered in the comfortable Tel Aviv bubble, enjoying the pulse of the city and the warmth of the people there. Instead, we chose to see the other side of Israel. We went to the occupied territories. We saw the watchtowers, the settlements and the soldiers. Today, on our last day in Israel-Palestine, we have set out to see one of the grimmest tools of the West Bank occupation: the separation wall.

The Israeli separation wall (or ‘fence’ for those who wish to make it sound a temporary measure) is indeed a massive construction. A grey concrete beast eight metres tall, running through fields, hills and towns, slicing the West Bank into a patchwork of detached Palestinian villages. The routing of the wall, which sometimes seems almost random, has bizarre consequences, like children having to travel many kilometres to go to school a few hundred metres away, or farmers being denied entrance to their own olive fields. The farmers, unable to make use of their land, depend on international volunteers who can travel through the checkpoints to harvest their produces. If left unused, the Israeli state will confiscate the property within a few years.

‘The occupiers do whatever they can to keep us busy’ says our guide Ala. ‘If Palestinians are forced to waste all their time crossing checkpoints and managing their everyday lives, there’ll be no time or energy left for resistance.’

And while the wall crushes resistance among the Palestinians, it also ensures the comfort of the settlers. Leaving the West Bank for now, we travel along one of the exclusive highways connecting the urban areas of Tel Aviv to the scattered Israeli population in the occupied territories. Around us, the wall rises high on both sides of the road, occasionally painted in bright colours to resemble an art installation, but mostly yielding a continuous, impenetrable grey, stripped of any marks or distinctions. Just a stone’s throw to both sides is Palestinian territory. As we drive across a large bridge, I notice the worn-out lorries limping along winding Palestinian gravel roads underneath us.

Back in Israel we meet Gil and Hillel, the organisers of the concert I chose to cancel, in a café in Jaffa. Jaffa used to be a predominantly Arab district, but although still Arab in style, the houses of Jaffa now host trendy cafés, second-hand stores, flea markets and speciality shops. The streets are seething with life on this warm Sunday afternoon. Bob Dylan and Beatles are humming on the stereo, and a plate of fruity orange wedges automatically appears on our table along with the coffee menu.

I haven’t been looking forward to this meeting – Gil and Hillel have a lot to be angry for, putting up a concert in good faith and without any other motivation than simply loving the music. I still feel bad for letting them down. However, if they are angry with me, they hide it well.

‘When the bulk of Jewish immigrants arrived here prior to the founding of Israel’, Hillel tells us, ‘there weren’t really a lot of Arabs around’. I’ve asked him about the Israeli version of the history of the conflict. He’s talking willingly and appears well-informed, describing the land upon which Israel was founded as ‘mostly desert’. Hillel’s accounts of the history completely breaks with what we’ve heard in the West Bank. To Palestinians, the story of Israel invariably begins with the naqba.

The naqba (or the catastrophe in English) refers to the mass expulsions of Palestinians during the founding of Israel in 1948. As many as 726 000 Arabs were driven from their homes and into refugee camps all over the Middle East. Throughout the whole West Bank, we met families who still hold the key to their long demolished or resettled homes in Israel. Among the people we met, the naqba is a national trauma defining the Palestinian identity almost as much as the Holocaust defines the Jewish.

‘The wall has actually saved many lives’ Hillel explains. ‘After the wall, there’s been no suicide bombings in Israel. I’m not saying it’s an altogether good thing, but leftist as I am, I don’t wanna blow up.’

I feel nauseous from being confronted with two completely different truths at the same time.

‘And 95% percent of what you’ve heard is probably true’, he continues. ‘Both from the Israeli and the Palestinian side. And that’s sort of the problem.’

Yes. That is sort of the problem, I reason. To some it is an Apartheid wall, to others it is a security fence. To some it is an illegal occupation, to others it is the righteous settlement of the Promised Land. To some it is a systemic oppression of a whole people, to others it is a security measure to protect one’s family. To some it is the only Jewish state and safe haven in the world. To others, it is a slow genocide, an ongoing naqba, 66 years after it started.

Night has fallen upon Tel Aviv as our taxi returns us to Ben Gurion airport. Three short days here has given memories for a lifetime. Although sleepless and confused, one thing is certain: This was not my last time visiting this tragic, but yet so wonderful land.

Day #2 – The Heart of Hebron

Getting into Israel was surprisingly easy, as was the bordercrossing to the West Bank. Norwegian passports seem to make a strong currency here, and with no mention of our plans to go to the occupied territories, the border police seemed to have little interest in us. In a café in Bethlehem, I am soon to be reminded that I’m among the privileged.

Kristel, a woman in her thirties, has invited us for a real Palestinian breakfast. Born in the Netherlands, she now lives in East Jerusalem, pregnant with her first child together with Israeli Palestinian Tariq. Every day they drive from Jerusalem to the West Bank, to run Singer Café, a European style café where they serve ‘anything but Arabic coffee’. The table is set with small plates, jars and baskets full of delicious breads, cheeses, jams and pâtés of local produce. Breakfast in Palestine is indeed not for the continental smallmouth, and is the perfect occasion to get to know one another.

‘It was a nightmare to get our marriage approved’, Kristel tells us while pouring hot water over the tealeaves. ‘Tariq is born in Israel. However, his Israeli ID card states that his nationality is “Arab”, not “Israeli” as you would have thought. We had to explain quite a lot about the laws here in order for our marriage to be formally accepted.’

The Israeli categorization of citizens into ethnic groups is one of the reasons why many critics have made parallels to the South African apartheid regime. In fact, Tariq’s ID doesn’t even state that he’s an Israeli ‘citizen’, but rather a ‘permanent resident’. The difference may seem subtle, but in reality it means that if Tariq and Kristel choose to move to the West Bank to get closer to their job, they can never go back to Jerusalem. Neither can their unborn daughter.

There’s many things to talk about and so much to learn, but with half of our breakfast feast still on the table, we are called out in the street by our taxi driver. He’ll be taking us to Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, and also one of the ugliest sites of the occupation.

On our way to Hebron we pass by olive groves, farmlands and small villages. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, with dry, deep valleys and rolling green hills under a clear blue sky. What completely engulfs my attention however, is the numerous and fearful watchtowers seemingly keeping an eye on every inch of the land from within their barbed-wire-and-concrete compounds. Every five minutes we pass by an Israeli settlement, all thoroughly fenced-in and with a weirdly homogeneous look to the houses when compared to the more disorganised Palestinian villages scattered throughout the land. To distinguish them is easy: every Palestinian house sports a black water tank on top of it, saving water from the pipes which open only once every second week. The Israeli houses need no tank, as they have constant access to water.

Hebron is a city of 250 000 people and one of the oldest in the whole World. Home to the tomb of Abraham, it is a holy city to both Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Abraham’s tomb lies at the heart of Hebron, and at the heart of the conflict here. The tomb has historically served as a place of worship for all three religions, but also staged numerous bloody conflicts. Following the infamous Goldstein massacre in 1994, when the fanatical Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers during prayer, the building has been divided in two: one side is a Mosque, the other a Synagogue. Between them is wooden wall so thin that one can easily hear footsteps and people talking on the other side.

I’m amazed that a divide between two cultures can be so thin, so symbolic, and yet so heavily guarded by fences, barbed wire and machine guns at each entrance. But the threadlike borders of Abraham’s tomb is nothing compared to the intricate division of the city itself. As we walk towards the city centre, our guide Ala navigates with startling precision to avoid streets and corners where Arabs have been banished. Without him, we would easily walk ourselves into trouble.

Around 500 settlers live in Hebron, driven by a desire to live as close to the holy place as possible. Protected by 1200 soldiers, the Israelis of Hebron enjoy a secure road connection to Jerusalem and safe passage from the settlements to the synagogue at Abraham’s tomb. To ensure this, the Israeli Defense Forces have closed down entire streets, deported whole neighbourhoods, erected road blockages, fences, control posts and watchtowers throughout the whole city. Since year 2000, 1829 Palestinian shops in this area have closed down due to military orders. The result: an urban desert, sterilized from Palestinian life; A barren wasteland at what used to be the beating heart of a city.

‘Look up’ says Ala, pointing towards the narrow street ahead of us. Here the settlers have colonised the upper floor of the buildings, and regularly attack Palestinians below by throwing things out of the windows. Palestinian shopkeepers have spanned out netting above them for protection. ‘The settlers will every now and then throw rubbish, rotten fruits and even urine down on normal passers-by. The netting helps, but not always.’ He lets his arm fall. ‘A few weeks ago, they threw a sofa’.

Climbing up onto the roof of an abandoned Palestinian house, we encounter two small children playing with chalks on the rooftop. ‘Shekel, shekel!’ they shout at me, begging for money when they realise I’m a tourist. They must be used to tourists up here, I reason, because the view is amazing.

Hebron lies underneath us, a beautiful city with stone houses filling every metre of the available space. It looks like a horizontal game of Tetris, draped in the light colours of the afternoon sun. A tiny four-step staircase separates us from yet another roof belonging to one of the Jewish settlements. ‘Two Palestinian kids were shot after passing that line’, Ala tells us. A few hundred metres away, we can see an Israeli soldier patrolling the rooftops with an machine gun over his shoulder. And he can see us. Once again, I am reminded of the many invisible borders of this land.

Day #1 – The invisible borders

January 2014 I travelled to Israel and Palestine to see the reality of the occupation with my own eyes. This is an excerpt of my encounter with the conflict.

Parts of this text are based on the notes of my travel companion Maren.

It’s strawberries for breakfast. Sitting on a beach in Tel Aviv, where happy sounds from children playing in the sand blend perfectly into the roars of the Mediterranean sea, the scene could have been taken from almost any European costal city. We arrived in Israel late last night, and start our journey here, just a few kilometres from the venue where my first concert in Israel was supposed to take place this weekend. For the first time in my life though, I chose to cancel a concert, and instead, we’ve set out to see with our own eyes the reason why I did so. We’re traveling to the occupied territories of the West Bank, or, as I soon shall begin to call it: Palestine.

Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel. It looks just like any Western city: lively streets, espresso bars, white beaches, green parks and advertisements for American brands and movies on almost every corner. On this particular day, white tents fill the street, selling all sorts of bread, homegrown fruits and ecological vegetables with unpronounceable names. On the surface there’s absolutely nothing suggesting that this city should be at the heart of one of the most longstanding conflicts in the World. Life in Tel Aviv is peaceful. It is normal. And the strawberries are delicious.

Just a few hours away from Tel Aviv lies the holy city of Jerusalem. Only the look of it is enough to convince me of its holiness. As our bus reaches the hilltop, a sparkling sea of white, one-storey stone houses fills the entire view. It is as if the sun shines a little stronger here – even the playgrounds look sacred! This is West Jerusalem, the largest city in Israel and the seat of its government. I’m only able to enjoy the breathtaking beauty for a few minutes before the scenery suddenly changes again. It’s like we’ve crossed an invisible border to another country. East Jerusalem, with its towering minarets and Arab style flies past my window. And in fact, we have crossed a border. Officially, we have already left Israel. East Jerusalem however, is under total Israeli control.

A few hours later we find ourselves on the doorsteps of a house in Sheikh Jarrah, historically an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem. The front of the house looks abandoned, with pulp plates covering half of the windows, graffiti scrawled along the walls and a big, blue Star of David sprayed onto one of the doorways. We’ve been invited home to Mohammed, a fifteen-year-old Palestinian whose family has recently lost half of their home to American Jewish settlers after a prolonged lawsuit in the Israeli court.

Muhammed welcomes us with Arab coffee. It tastes deliciously of cardamom and sugar. I’ve emptied my cup almost before I’ve received it. «It’s the only thing I’m really good at», says Mohammed from the kitchen, «making coffee». But soon after he is telling us about his family’s history with precision, a sense of detail and a historical consciuosness that impresses me. He performs a poem about growing up in Jerusalem, written in perfect English, and translates fluently when his grandmother adds a word to the conversation in Arab. He never gets loud or angry when he talks, doesn’t speak about hate or revenge and when we ask about the American settlers who now live next door, he simply smiles. «They think that they have the right to live here because God gave them the land». He shakes his head and laughs. «But God is not a real estate agent!»

The case not unique. On the contrary, it is one among many ongoing legal disputes in East Jerusalem where Palestinians seem to draw the shortest straw ever more often. Jewish diaspora who are able to prove an historical connection to a given plot of land are granted the «right to return» there by the Israeli state, even if it violates the rights of the ones currently living there – and even though East Jerusalem is not internationally recognised as a part of Israel. Mohammed and his family were «lucky», they only lost half their house for now. But many Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah fear that they will be the next to face an exhausting trial to defend their own home. And unlike the Jewish settlers, they have nowhere to go. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were thrown out of their homes during the establishment and expansion of the Israeli state do not enjoy the «right to return» anywhere. Most Palestinians do not get building permits in Israel.

Stepping out again onto Mohammed’s doorstep is like standing on the fault line after a massive earthquake. Suddenly the borders do not seem invisible anymore. Rather, they run straight underneath our feet.

And tomorrow, we’ll be crossing the real border. We’re going to the West Bank.

Silence is the loudest song that I can sing.

Why I have chosen to cancel my concert in Tel Aviv.

The last few weeks have presented the greatest challenge ever since I started making music. I have always had an unwavering belief in art as a unique arena for public debate. Faced with the political situation in Israel I have for the first time been forced to ask myself if silence can sometimes be the strongest message.

I was going to play the Barby, a well-known club in Tel Aviv, known for a keen audience and an international line-up. Instead I have now cancelled what would be my very first performance in Israel. Or rather, postpone, until things have changed for the better.

The situation should be well known to most people. While peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine maintains the status quo, expansion of Israeli settlements onto occupied soil continues. Israel recently announced the construction of 1400 new housings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land which is internationally recognised as occupied. The settlements are protected by an exclusive network of roads, numerous control posts and security fences, tearing the Palestinian community to pieces with every security measure that is taken. The poverty and injustice lead to desperate and even violent resistance, claiming both innocent lives also on the Israeli side and nurturing the intense fear that drives Israel’s politics. 

Although music can be an arena for public debate, the debate has in this conflict been misused for a long time. Discussion and dialogue creates an impression of constant progress, while the realities of politics are very different. The discourse of peace creates a thick veil, concealing the increasingly tighter besiegement of Gaza, the ongoing fragmentation of the West Bank and the continuing discrimination of Arab-Israeli citizens. By encouraging ‘dialogue’ and ‘tolerance’ as ideals, I am afraid that my voice will do nothing but to increase the already dysfunctional divide between words and action in a conflict where no one seems to trust each other’s intentions.

Music has brought me to controversial places before. In Turkey, Kurds and Armenians are denied their own language and culture. I Ireland rape victims must go abroad to have an abortion. In Russia homosexuals are systematically harassed and activists get locked up. In Norway we pay slave wages to workers in distant lands for the clothes we wear. Despite these being unacceptable situations, the Middle East conflict falls into a category of its own, and a category which I as a musician wish did not exist. While information and dialogue is the key to humane development in the countries mentioned above, the case of Israel seems to force the last alternative: Silence. Everything else has failed.

It is not the lack of knowledge that is hampering change. Since the announcement of the Tel Aviv show, people from all over the world have contacted me. Israelis, too! These tell me that they are aware of what is happening and feel ashamed of their own government. They ask me to use the concert for something good, speak up against injustice, to call for human rights and equality through music, to encourage dialogue and respect from the stage. That was also my original wish. It breaks my heart to disappoint those who have asked me to stand together with them and join their struggle from inside.

Many musicians have been in this situation before. Jello Biafra, the former Dead Kennedys front man, has written this very thought provoking article about how he found himself in the impossible dilemma: Should he support his fans and the good forces from within, or should he use his position as an acclaimed artist to apply international pressure? Like him, I feel caught in the crossfire of a debate so intense and polarised that any act will be interpreted as support to one extreme. Those artists who play and ‘refuse to choose side’ or ‘just want to spread a message of peace and understanding’ will automatically get adopted by one of the sides.

The debate is black and white, while solutions usually are to be found somewhere between the extremes. An artist is in a unique position to create common arenas for dialogue. When I choose to cancel the Tel Aviv show, it is because dialogue has failed. In fact, it has been abused for decades. A discourse of peace has served as a thick veil, concealing what has only recently begun to dawn on the rest of the world: there is no connection between talk and action. The Gaza siege, the fragmentation of the West Bank and the discrimination of Arab-Israeli citizens continue in spite of dialogue, in spite of peace talks and in spite of all agreements. I fear that encouraging ‘understanding’ and ‘dialogue’ as ideals, is in reality to insist on the hope of empty words. I fear that a boycott of Israel is the only way to force a connection between what is being said and what is being done.

For a musician it is a painful decision to cancel a concert. For one whose life consists of talking and singing, silence hurts more than anything. I also disappoint my listeners in Israel, and the wonderful people who have been preparing this show for months. But I can’t help it. For now, I choose to encourage a real political dialogue and as long as that lasts, a halt to the expansion into occupied areas. One day in the future, when dialogue is an instrument to solve problems rather than cover them up, and when basic human rights are granted to all citizens, I hope to carry through with my very first concert in Israel. Until then, silence is the loudest song that I can sing.

PS: I am overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. I will be going to Israel and to the West Bank to see things with my own eyes, ready to change my mind if it changes my view. Nothing would make me happier than to realise that it wasn’t that bad after all.