Scottish Harp Tour - 2017

 - by Fred Schlomka - 
Eight harp players, a friend, a daughter of a harpist and two golfers trickle into the West Port Hotel in the Scottish country town of Linlithgow one day in early June.  Plus the group leader and world class harpist, Sunita Staneslow - and myself. The golfers deposit their collection of clubs at my sister Helen’s house nearby, having satisfied their craving for the game prior to meeting us. One of the group flew in from Australia (a harp player who also brought her fiddle). The rest were an even split from Canada and the USA. We had arrived from Tel Aviv just a few days before.

at Linlithgow Palace
An unusual mix, yet strangely compatible in part because we all share a love of music. We meld and bond together during the tour. Most of the tour group have either been on other harp tours with Sunita or taken her harp workshops in the US or Canada. The group is a bit tentative at first but a nice camaraderie evolves over the course of the trip as shared experiences cement a bond. These include a whirlwind of harp lessons, shared accommodations, castles, walking tours, some wet squishy weather, pubs, fish & chips, meeting locals, and of course lots of music. The weather overall is surprisingly mild and warm for Scotland. Our route follows part of the 18-week tandem cycling tour Sunita and I took around Europe two years earlier. Now we are back in Scotland sans bicycle, but with this gaggle of harpists in tow. Lots of fun.

Jam session
In Edinburgh, local guide Sara is a big hit on the Old Town walking tour. I spend the
morning taking care of some business and ordering a new bespoke kilt, then rejoin the group with local harpists Corrina and Heather for a festive lunch. Alison Kinnaird’s harp and glass studio was another highlight, as was the visit to the the harp pavilion at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. A fully functional harp/sculpture had been created by master harp builder, Mark Norris, from an old Elm tree that succumbed to the disease that had swept the country. A fine exhibit.

A garden party at Helen’s Linlithgow home is a great place to kick off the tour, complete with piper, session musicians and storytellers, and an eclectic mix of local personas. Husband David is on top form, providing exotic bar-b-q, vegan options, and Scottish craft beer. I wear my kilt.

Mini-concert at Loch Lomond
Next day Ken and Linsay welcome the group to their country home on the banks of Loch Lomond. Their gracious hosting and mini-concert of traditional and original Scottish
music are much appreciated. They meld together an unusual but sublime combination of cello, guitar and voice. Sunita joins with harp for a couple of tunes. After concert and tea, we stroll through their estate, with formal gardens, woodlands, bog, field, and rugged shoreline. A classic Scottish experience.

Fred & Sunita enjoy the highlands
Our harpist friend, Heather of the Clan Macleod, meets us off the ferry on the Isle of Arran. During dinner she regales us with tales of island life, and joins us for an evening of
music and fun at Fiddlers Pub, where her friend Tim Pomeroy is performing. Arran also provides a distillery tour and a hike through the heath in driving rain to the Machrie Moor standing stones. Our hikers are quite proud (as they should be) of their determination and stamina. Only Susan travels with her Wellington Boots and returns with dry feet.

Fiddlers Pub performance in Arran
After departing Arran by ferry en route to Loch Ness we visit Davie the harp maker at Starfish Designs in North Ballachulish. Very fine boutique instruments.
Loch Ness reveals none of her secrets and ‘Nessie’ remains in the murky depths throughout our coach trip along the narrow body of water. The group hikes a couple of miles from the dinner restaurant in Drumnadrocket back to our wee country guest house - and find the dirt trail blocked by a crowd of huge longhorn highland cattle. We approach tentatively. The beasts prove to be gentle and we manage to mingle with them as they ignore us and amble along the trail
munching at succulent grasses that grow along the edge of woodland and meadow. The cows are the hobby of Carl, our grizzled cigar chomping host.
Enjoying a walk in the woods by Loch Lomond
We visit Urquart Castle on the shore of the Loch, an amazing edifice that was the site of many a bloody battle. Then, past Inverness to Dunrobin Castle, the seat of the Duke of Sutherland, a notorious oppressor of the Scottish folk in the region. The Highland Clearance site at Badbea was shocking - a windswept bit of tundra-like land sloping down to a particularly rugged bit of coastline on the North Sea. The Scottish peasantry that were forcibly transferred there in the 18th and 19th centuries did not fare well. The infertile land yields little no matter how much toil is invested. I mull over a comparison of the local politics of two hundred years ago, and todays dynamic back home in Israel/Palestine. Not much difference.

Highland Cow at Drumnadrochet
In the far north, Caithness proves to be an edge community, situated at the confluence of Celtic culture and Nordic influence. Many local people reject the Gaelic revival that is gaining traction in the rest of Scotland, since the language is not native to the north. A local resident tells us that there’s much resentment at recent introduction of Gaelic into the children’s classrooms. “Those damn SNP busybodies”, as he put it. Countryfolk and farmers alike, tend to affiliate more with the Viking heritage of the nearby Isle of Orkney, than the English-dominated lands to the south.

We rest a bit for a couple of nights in the restored elegance of Ulrig House, a mansion complete with a maze of hallways, eclectic decor, claw-footed bathtubs, and a hosting style second to none. We are welcomed with a dram of fine single malt. Yasina has an endearing gregarious style, and together with her partner Fredric, laid on a sumptuous breakfast in a private dining room, complete with salmon, kosher venison sausage, and a huge array of other delicacies, including vegan options. In the evening as we sip a wee dram,

Sunita gives some harp classes, then performs in the salon in the evening for our group and the house guests. Tom sings a song. I have an early night.

Harp workshop in Shetland
Graham the Gardener takes us on a walking tour of the estate. His deep knowledge and articulate delivery are much appreciated. Graham took over as groundskeeper on the neglected estate just eighteen months before, and is painstakingly restoring it’s faded splendour. I find the walled garden particularly interesting since I enjoy organic gardening at home and Graham’s techniques are similar, allowing for the difference in latitude, climate and soil.

The ferry to the Isle of Orkney takes less than an hour. We are met by local personage, Stuart Roy Maciver, who escorts us to visit Skara Brae, a restored Neolithic village, and then to the The Ring of Brodgar, a large collection of monolithic standing stones in a perfect circle. In the evening we attend a music session at The Reel, a pub/music centre in Kirkwall, where local and visiting musicians get together for lively jam sessions. Sunita joined the musicians’ circle with the harp and Christine joined on fiddle. It was a grand evening.

A new friend
We board the overnight Northlink ferry to Shetland.  The sea is thankfully calm. Everyone gets a good night’s sleep and is ready for the next day. On arrival in Lerwick, Shetland, we were met by Les Sinclair, a scion of an ancient Viking family whose heritage goes back hundreds of years into the mists of time. We were regaled with tales of the isles while travelling north through the main island, past hilly tundra-like landscape, pausing here and there to visit with miniature Shetland ponies and gasp at the grandeur of the the stunning Wormadale cliffs along the west coast the main Island. We visit the castle at Scalloway and the Viking Parliament at Tingwall. An ancient, awesome land. We pause at a monument to the Shetland Bus. Norwegian’s and Shetland sailors shuttled spies and money across the waters between Shetland and Noway in WW11.

The Mercedes coach that is with us from the tour start to finish, is driven by our driver Richard, who navigates the narrow Island roads with patience and skill. It takes two more short ferry rides to arrive at the northern Island of Unst, and our final destination at Saxa Vord. It’s an old airforce base converted to a funky resort and staffed by an eclectic mix of locals, ex air force pals of the owner. It provides fun jobs for the summer for young men and women from all over Europe. We are almost off the map at the most northern place in the UK. The very definition of ‘off the beaten track’.

We are now deep into the Nordic influenced society of the islands. The Viking spirit runs deep, evidenced by the many festivals and events highlighting their heritage. No kilts, bagpipes or other icons of Scottish Gaelic culture to be seen. Crafts and music have relationships with styles seen in Oslo rather than Glasgow, despite Shetland being bonded for centuries to Scotland and the British Isles.

Sunita gives harp seminars. I take non-harpists hiking to Muckle Flugga. We visit the gin distillery, and on the last evening produce a harp and fiddle concert to a packed hall at Saxa Vord.

Performance in the most northern concert hall in the UK
Sunita introduces world class harp playing to a riveted audience of mostly local residents. Over the past six months she had been in touch with 3 local fiddlers and a local harpist. Together they crafted a diverse and entertaining programme for the evening. Our own Christine also joined on fiddle. For weeks, Green Olive marketing wizzkid, Mutasem has been promoting the concert through FaceBook and Google. Kirsty, our local organiser, pounded the pavements putting up posters on almost every bus stop on the islands. It all paid off. The audience swelled to a capacity house of close to 100 people. The electricity died just before the start of the event, so we lighted the stage with our Green Olive solar lanterns, and the musicians played acoustically until the power returned towards the end of the concert. It was a fine evening and worth all the effort. We raised over £400 for the local Heritage Trust.

Western Mainland on Shetland
The tour winds down. Sunita and I see the group off on the ferry to Aberdeen, in the care of Richard. We stay a few extra days in Shetland for some R&R and business meetings to set the stage for next year’s tour. We relax.

In the meanwhile the group continues south from Aberdeen, seeing more of the Scottish highlands and making a pit stop in Dundee. Sunita’s harp is delivered safely back to Helen’s house where Tom and Jill picked up their golf clubs and are dropped at the Linlithgow station for a train to Glasgow. Most of the rest of the crew are dropped off at the elegant Rutland Hotel in Edinburgh’s West End. The tour concludes with everyone happy and filled with lasting memories.

Fred Schlomka was born and raised in Edinburgh and is CEO at Green Olive Tours. He accompanied the group leader, his wife and partner Sunita Staneslow, on the Scottish tour. They live most of the year at their urban homestead on the beach in Jaffa. Sunita spends her time performing & teaching around the world, leading harp tours, recording, and writing books of harp arrangements. She also works one day a week as a Therapeutic Musician at Schneider Children's hospital in Petah Tikvah. -


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Ramadan in Ramallah: A Non-Muslim Fasts for Ramadan

traditional Palestinian suhur (breakfast) meal
Suhur (dawn) mea
- by Katie -
We wake up before dawn, when there is a red line on the horizon, to the sound of the birds, Imsak, the call to prayer preceding dawn, or more realistically, the alarm clock. It's time for suhur, or the morning meal during Ramadan. With eyes barely open, I stumble my way to the kitchen and find a table of wholesome, filling foods, to get us through the day ahead. Each family is different, but you can typically find an assortment of delicious Arab foods, such as hummus, and falafel, avoiding sweet and salty things as much as possible. At fajr, the next call to prayer, observants stop eating, and begin their fast of food and beverage until the sun sets. 

During the day, Ramallah is quieter than usual. People walk a little slower, and try to stay out of the sun, since drinking water is not permitted during the fasting period. Cafes and restaurants are closed, but shops and markets are open so people can shop for their evening meal necessities. 

As the sun lowers in the sky, people fill the streets buying fruits, vegetables, fresh falafel, and all kinds of Ramadan sweets for iftar, the sunset meal which breaks the fast. Half an hour before sunset, the shops close, and the streets empty, and Ramallah becomes a ghost town, as the residents of Ramallah head home for iftar.  Surrealistically 

At home, food is prepared and placed on the table as the family and friends gather to eat. We wait for the sunset call to prayer, al Maghreb, to signal that the fasting period has ended, and we may begin. Personally, I go immediately for a glass of water, and a few dates. Others choose to start with milk, or yogurt and dates, or just skip right to the soup. Soup is served first as it begins to re-hydrate the body from hours without water. After the soup prepares the stomach for more food, we continue eating our evening meal. 

As iftar is a bit of a celebration everyday, the meal is always special, and with many components. People tend to eat a main course, of spiced meat and rice, or a vegetable stew, along with salads, bread, dips like hummus, or baba ghanoush, fried snacks, like falafel and whatever else was picked up that day to eat. 

After fasting, the food tastes incredible and I savor each bite. Oddly enough, I am full after eating a small amount, and we sit around the table for awhile chatting, and watching the nightly Ramadan TV programming. Throughout the night, people come and go into the kitchen snacking and drinking water, to prepare for the next day's fast. 

Several hours after iftar, we prepare qatayef, a traditional Ramadan sweet, that is basically a pancake filled with nuts or cheese, then fried, and dipped in sweet honey syrup. We stuff the pre-made dough with roasted walnuts and coconut, then squeeze the edges shut creating a stuffed crescent moon shape, the classic symbol for Ramadan, as the holy month begins on the new moon. Warm qatayef is the perfect midnight snack before heading to bed for a few hours, to wake up for suhur, and start over again.

But Why Fast?

Religious or not, many people fast out of cultural, and family norms and practices. If no one around you is eating or drinking, it almost feels strange to eat or drink. Plus, the family iftar is a nice communal event, and almost everyone, fasting or not, participates in an evening iftar. 

Religiously, fasting is one of 5 pillars of Islam, next to prayer, faith, charity, and haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Muslims would tell you a variety of benefits they get from fasting, with the main intention of deepening their spirituality, and get closer to Allah, God. Refraining from meals during the day can bring people more empathy with the poor and starving around the world, and observants are able to practice patience and discipline in a direct manner.

Ramadan Travel in the Occupied Territories
Unlike many others celebrating Ramadan in countries around the world, the people of Ramallah, in the West Bank, observe under the occupation of Israel. Though occupation imposes all sorts of day to day difficulties and injustices, one thing that occupation means is that West Bank residents are not free to travel across the rest of the country without a permit. The holy prayer site, the al-Aqsa Mosque located in Jerusalem, is not accessible regularly to West Bank Palestinians. This year permits were issued during Ramadan, so Muslims can pray at the holy site during their most holy month, and Palestinians can visit and family in Israel. 

During Ramadan, checkpoints have shockingly long lines, even longer than usual, as soldiers check and verify each person coming through the checkpoint. Palestinians wait at Qalandia, one of the main checkpoints, for hours on end. In hopes to escape the long waits, some people take public shuttles, called service, and head to other checkpoints hoping for a shorter wait time and entry into the Israeli controlled Jerusalem. If all goes well, Palestinians cross over before sunset, in time to pray, or break their fast. 

The Less Spiritual Side of Ramadan in Ramallah

But not everyone in Ramallah fasts during Ramadan; some people are exempt, such as pregnant, nursing, or menstruating women, and those who are not religious or just choose not to fast, or the many foreign residents living in the city.

In the early days of the holy month, which started at the end of May, there were several incidents involving a few individuals publicly eating, some with the intention to incite and torment the fasters, and others wanting to make a protest statement against the domination of the religious rules deeply rooted in the culture. 

In response, the police Chief, inspired by a similar Jordanian law, issued a statement and a warning that those caught eating in public out of disrespect would be arrested and imprisoned for one month. And even since the warning, there have been a few cases of arrest, and detention.  

Another interesting aspect shared with me was the apparent commercialization of the holy month. People tend to over consume in several ways. Food becomes an obsession, and often an over indulgence. There are also many lavish parties that last the whole night, and families often take luxuries vacations. Leading up to the end of Ramadan, towards the high holy day of Eid al-Fitr, people buy many gifts for friends and family, and it has almost become a competition among some, to outspend the others.  

But after all, everyone celebrates and participates in their own way, and has their own family traditions. I'd love to hear more from you:

Do you fast for Ramadan? What are some of your favorite Ramadan meals, and traditions? What benefits do you get from fasting? Do you think that arresting those eating in public, is over the top, or that it is well deserved? Do you think that Ramadan has been commercialized? 


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A Day in Hebron

 - by Tanner McCaskie - 
Our class took a trip to the Holy Land to study the country, its people and the status of the 'conflict'. One of the most important days of our expedition was our trip to Hebron. We left Jaffa at 7am and drove through Bethlehem, a city located in the central West Bank. We passed the Separation Barrier, a formidable 25 foot wall, or as many Israelis refer to it, the "security fence." It was quite amazing. Almost the entire surface in the area we saw was covered by graphic art and political statements such as "Free Palestine" and "Decolonize This Place." This was a manifestation of the frustrations of living under Israeli occupation. These works of art were a testament to the courage of local Palestinians. As we passed in the bus, the class wondered if the wall would ever fall. It looked so permanent.

It wasn't long before the city of Hebron began to appear around us. Hebron is divided into two sections: H1 is controlled by Palestinian authority (80% of the city) and H2 is under Israeli occupation (20% of the city). Immediately after we stopped our bus in the city, groups of young children swarmed the bus and haggled us to buy their goods as we stepped onto the street. The persistence of the children was not surprising since Hebron is a city, like many other Palestinian cities, that suffers from terrible poverty. We were soon greeted by our incredibly charismatic and clever Palestinian guide, Mohammed. A native of Hebron, Mohammed began by explaining the details of the Israeli occupation in the city. We then set off for a walking tour through H1, the Palestinian-controlled section of Hebron. Mohammed led us through winding paths of markets as he discussed the many issues faced by Palestinians in Hebron, such as poverty, police brutality, insufficient infrastructure, and so forth. We noticed wire cages covering the markets above our heads, and one Palestinian seller explained how the cage protects Palestinians from debris thrown down by Israelis living above.

Afterwards we passed through a checkpoint in order to get into H2 (the section under Israeli authority). There we visited the Cave of the Patriarchs, a holy site for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. In the synagogue of the site, we met a young Jew originally from Brooklyn who explained to us the significance of the site in Judaism. Among those believed to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs are Isaac and Rebecca, Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Leah, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jews. The Cave of the Patriarchs is also known by Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, and later on the class returned to the site to visit the mosque.

We left the cave to join Mohammed for lunch in his home. We ate rice, yogurt, meat, and vegetables and passed around Mohammed's Palestinian ID card. He explained how Palestinians who were considered to be trouble-makers were issued a green identification card as opposed to the normal orange cards held by most in the West Bank. Mohammed was once considered one of the trouble-makers by Israeli forces, and so he actually had a green ID card himself. Today, however, all Palestinian identification cards are green. We finished lunch and thanked Mohammed for his wonderful hospitality. It was truly a privilege to be able to spend time with someone who has a firsthand experience living in the current conditions of Hebron.

We returned back to the Cave of the Patriarchs to see the Ibrahimi Mosque. It was a beautiful mosque with tones of green and gold, although it was not void of a dark past; the mosque was the site of a horrifying terrorist attack on Muslim worshippers in 1994 which left many dead and even more wounded. Since then, the site has been heavily guarded and is equipped with many security cameras.

The class then left the mosque and wandered down toward the ghost town section of Hebron. Due to the fact that many Israeli Jews have settled in parts of Hebron, Israeli forces have closed off a section of the city to Palestinians in fear that they will hurt the settler Jews nearby. Streets that were once bustling with Arab markets are now completely abandoned and covered in propaganda against Palestinians. Tourists and Israeli Jews are currently the only people allowed to walk these streets. According to Israeli forces, streets of these closed-off areas are "sterile streets": sterile, that is, of Arabs.

Walking further down the empty part of the city, we came across a group of young male settler Jews who we asked to answer some of our questions. One guy in particular stepped up to talk with us; most others seemed more shy. He told us how he did his military service in Hebron, and how he experienced violence from Palestinians against him and his fellow soldiers. When asked about his views of Palestinians, he said that he had spoken to some and that he would probably live among them if they were not so violent. The class also asked him if he supported Donald Trump, to which he said yes and explained how Trump was a straightforward man who loves Israel. As we asked further questions pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a crowd began to form around us and the discussion became more and more heated. It was really a fascinating experience to be able to get down to the tough questions and have a discussion with those involved in the issue of interest. We all felt like real journalists.

The discussion ended and we continued through a military checkpoint, back into an area managed by the Palestinian Authority. As we entered the area, there was a striking difference from the Israeli controlled sector. There were many people on the streets and there was a hustle and bustle in the air. Then we were back on our bus and heading out of the city, trying to process the truly bizarre situation in Hebron. It was a privilege to have met the people and heard the narratives of both sides.

In May, 2017, Tanner McCaskie participated in a study tour of Israel organised by Green Olive Tours for St. Lawrence University.


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