I have just returned from an 11-day trip to the Middle East with my chorus. We performed for more than 6,000 people throughout Israel and Turkey. We saw many beautiful sights, and met wonderful people. We also saw humanity when it gets ugly. And there were many times during the tour when I was reminded of why so many of our ancestors came to America, whether during the 17th century, or the 20th.
There were 120 of us travelling overseas on this tour. This included more than 100 singers, plus our staff and supporters. The first travel day involved two flights and a bus ride that would have us travelling a total of sixteen hours to arrive at our first destination. The first plane ride was a red-eye lasting for almost ten hours.
Economy class seating on airlines is not known for its spacious accommodations for passengers. Quarters are very cramped, and movement is restricted. We are constantly invading each others’ personal space, either by reclining the seat or by climbing over each other to get to the restroom. It occurred to me in the middle of the night, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, that this is the modern-day equivalent of our ancestors travelling in steerage to get to new opportunities in America. Of course their trip lasted far longer than ours did, going on for days or weeks (depending on the time frame in which they travelled). Whether travelling alone or in a family group, the space was very close quarters. One shared space with total strangers.
It is very difficult for me to sleep on planes, although travelling with friends made it slightly easier. Because I sat next to one of my close friends, we were able to literally lean on each other to get some rest during the night, similar to the way families travelling together would share their space to make it easier for the entire family to cope.
While in Israel we visited the Dead Sea, Masada, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. We saw where people have been living next to each other for centuries. And it certainly gives one a new perspective on old rivalries in the area. But it was our visit to Turkey that really hit home why people would pack up and leave the only life they’ve ever known.
During the last elections the head of the Turkish government sought to increase his power. Instead, the population dealt him a resounding defeat. Desperately trying to form a government, he started pandering to ultra-right wing groups. We lost our performance space because our message was considered evil. Fortunately, a local university stepped in and invited us to move our performance there. The effort to stop our performance and dampen our message of peace and civil rights totally backfired. We received much press attention, and the new venue allowed for almost twice the number of audience members as the original. Crowd estimates put the audience at more than 3,000 people
We were invited to join in a peaceful demonstration the next day, and annual tradition that has brought upwards of 100,000 for the past few years. That afternoon, as we moved to join in we were stopped by police forces two blocks from our hotel. We were ordered to disperse, and told that if we continued we faced arrest. The U.S. consul’s office recommended that we return to our hotel, as they could not guarantee our safety. As we moved back towards the hotel, our mobile phones started beeping with notices. Worldwide press (including the U.S.) were covering the event. Permits which had been granted for the event were pulled at the last moment by the government. Government officials then ordered police to attack the peaceful marchers, which they did. They utilized pepper spray, tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets. A number of members of our group slipped up as individuals to witness the atrocities. Turkish citizens have few rights.
After hours of demonstrations in Istanbul, water still runs in the streets from water cannon (courtesy of the author, used with permission).
It is because of situations like this that many of our ancestors left for a new world in the United States. Although our government has many problems and issues, in the United States I am allowed by our Constitution to stand up and say so. We are allowed to gather in peaceful groups to protest treatment by our government and by others. These are rights that many in other countries do not enjoy. And these are reasons why our ancestors came here. For a better life, more peaceful and unfettered than they had before. Don’t ever take for granted the rights you have as an American, rights that our Ancestors came here for so that we could have a better life.