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From the back of the bus at Allenby to Jakarta’s symphony hall

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The Palestine National Orchestra, in rehearsal in Jakarta’s Aula Simfonia Hall, with soprano Mariam Tamari (photo source:

Whether or not art and the wider issues of humanity are ever really separable, they certainly weren’t in Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta during the last week of March. Art, history, politics, and humanity were all very much entwined, because the Palestine National Orchestra, Palestine’s preeminent symphonic ensemble, was in town for concerts in the city’s ornate Aula Simfonia Hall. Concert-goers were enthralled by the energetic performances, yes, but their presence was also a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom. The yoke of occupation and oppression that Palestinians know today, Indonesians, historically, have known all too well. 

Indeed, there is a principal common denominator to Palestine’s and Indonesia’s millennia-old attraction to outsiders: For all of recorded history, both Palestine and the western Indonesian islands have been coveted for their pivotal geographic positions. Palestine is the axis where Europe, Africa, and Asia meet (medieval mappaemundi often placed Jerusalem as the center of the world for theological reasons as well).  And the western Indonesian islands occupy an analogous position, the crossroads of travel and commerce between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

In the early 1200s, the Indian kingdom of Chola wrestled the region from Indonesia’s Srivijaya Empire after more than five centuries, and a formidable but brief series of official Chinese voyages under Zheng He in the early 1400s left its mark as far away as eastern Africa without altering the geopolitical landscape. But meanwhile, European geographers, largely inspired by their Arab colleagues, were seeking a more sophisticated world view and—crucially for Indonesia’s future—began challenging the belief, handed down from the ancient Alexandrian cosmographer Ptolemy, that the Indian Ocean was a closed sea. As with scientific research and the military-industrial complex today, while the new theories may have captivated cosmographers because of their lust for knowledge, they interested sovereigns and entrepreneurs as a way to power and wealth.

Indonesia’s moment of reckoning came in 1511 when the Portuguese, having already reached India with the assistance of Arab navigators, captured Malacca (southwest coast of Malaya), monopolizing the straits and hiring Malay pilots to bring them to distant Indonesian markets. First the French, and then the Dutch and English tried to snatch Portugal’s new cash cow, and in the 1590s Dutch ships evaded Portuguese control by reaching the markets of Java through the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java. The Dutch remained the principal occupying power until Japan’s horrific invasion in the Second World War, in which an estimated four million people perished.[1]

But while the geopolitics are similar, parallels between the Zionist colonization of Palestine and the Dutch in Indonesia are few. One is the efficient control of the occupied by coopting the local rulers: local indigenous Indonesian leaders controlled their people on behalf of the Dutch in order to remain in power themselves; and Tel Aviv delegates responsibility (not prerogative or autonomy) to a Palestinian Authority that serves only at Israel’s and the US’s pleasure. But in its most defining characteristics, Zionism is unique among settler projects. Future historians will always be able to explain the Dutch and other interlopers in Indonesia as unapologetic imperialism; but to explain the West’s fanatical support for a race-based settler project that justifies itself by an ancient religious text and by exploiting previous injustices of the very sort it employs—all this in our post-colonial ‘enlightened’ age—will leave future historians baffled. Only its inevitable failure will make sense.

The modern nation-state of Indonesia, encompassing myriad diverse peoples stretching from New Guinea to Sumatra, is itself the legacy of colonialist consolidation. Its post-colonial governments inherited, and exacerbated, the colonial legacy in places like East Timor and Aceh (Sumatra), but Indonesia’s own settler colonialism is in easternmost Indonesia, Irian Jaya, the western part of New Guinea. When it won independence in 1949, Indonesia claimed (rather ironically) that it should include all the land once controlled by the Dutch. But the Dutch did not then give up resource-rich western New Guinea, and in 1961 Jakarta invaded. The UN ordered a plebiscite to be held so that the people there could determine their own future, but as with the Vietnamese a decade earlier and the Palestinians in 1947, the right to self-determination was denied. Sukarno’s military appointed one thousand ‘voters’ to get the desired tally, and used the Communist threat as leverage to secure US and European cooperation with the charade, especially with the war against Vietnam then in its early escalation. With the complicity of the US, which had its eyes on Indonesia’s resources, one and a half million people were seized in Indonesia’s anti-Communist purge in the mid 1960s, and more than half a million were slaughtered.[2]

The ‘Red Menace’ also loomed large on the Palestinian chess-board: Communism was a constant part of the US’ and UK’s maneuvering with Palestine in the late 1940s, analysts in both countries weighing the risk of Arabs vs Zionists turning to Russia if they were let down by the West.

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Palestinian clarinetist Mohamed Najem and Egyptian percussionist Sarah Mahmoud playing darbuka. (T Suarez)

But back to 2013. The PNO left the West Bank on the heels of President Obama’s token crossing of the Green Line in March. Unlike Obama, Palestinian musicians are forbidden from using the Tel Aviv airport, and Israel prevents Palestine from having its own airport. The only way out is to cross the Jordan Valley, to fly from Amman. But Israel controls that border as well, and so as in pre-Rosa Parks Alabama, when reaching the backlogged facility (which was closing early due to a Jewish holiday), we had to pull to the side to allow any Israeli buses behind us go to the front of the line. So our bus dutifully sat at the back of the busline for about two hours as we watched Israeli buses cut ahead of us: not unlike the situation near Israel’s ethnic-based illegal settlements at rush hour, when Palestinian traffic is stopped to allow unimpeded traffic to and from the settlements.

In Jakarta, supplemented by four Indonesian musicians, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony 7, Mozart’s Symphony 41 (‘Jupiter’), the 2005 work Wedding by the Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Kinan Azmeh, and two arias, Mozart’s Martern Aller Arten and Rossins’s Non si da Follia Maggiore. The Palestinian-Japanese soprano, Mariam Tamari, was the soloist in the two arias. Principal flutist Wissam Boustany performed his unaccompanied work And the Wind Whispered.

The Palestine National Orchestra was the brainchild of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, which has been expanding to meet the demands of Arabic and Western music education in Palestine. The Conservatory currently has branches in Ramallah, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Nablus, and Gaza City, with other locations covered by outreach programs. Several of the Conservatory’s teachers are among the PNO’s musicians. It is Palestine’s first home-grown professional symphony orchestra. (An orchestra called the Palestine Orchestra was founded in 1936 by the violinist Bronislaw Huberman, but this was essentially an imported European orchestra which, after statehood, became the Israel Philharmonic.)

Yet although it is Palestine’s own symphony orchestra, it is unable to play in its own land with all its own nationals. Israel’s expulsions of well over a million people in its major ethnic cleansing operations of 1948 (750,000 to 800,000 people) and 1967 (300,000+), and its continued blocking of the displaced peoples’ return in defiance of international law, means that many Palestinian musicians are unable to enter Palestine, and that those within any of the three parts that Palestine is currently divided into can never with any predictability get to the other two. Only once did the orchestra perform in the West Bank, and even that performance required flying in European musicians to take the place of Palestinians whose participation Israel made impossible.

Sophisticated ensemble playing is by its nature an intensive human interaction, and the circumstances of the PNO make it a particular point of cohesion for its musicians. Although the orchestra’s ratio of Palestinians and other Arab nationals to foreigners such as myself is fairly typical for a modern, major symphony orchestra, most of the Palestinians are in the diaspora, and so when the orchestra brings us all together geographically, it is as if the PNO becomes its own surrogate Palestine in exile. But someday the ‘conflict’ will end, and with it the obstacles around which the PNO has been forced to operate.

In an address to the audience at a concert that fell on Easter Sunday, the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia, Fariz Mehdawi, used the Easter theme of rebirth as an analogy of Palestinian cultural revival, of which the Palestine National Orchestra is but one example. Palestinians, he said, will not be victims.

Thomas Suárez, a violinist, is the author of three works relevant to this article: Early Mapping of the Pacific (Charles E Tuttle, 2004); Early Mapping of Southeast Asia (Charles E Tuttle, 1999); “Early Portuguese Mapping of Siam”, in 500 Years of Thai-Portuguese Relations [Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011] 

1. Wikipedia, citing John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986; Pantheon).

2. John Roosa and Joseph Nevins, 40 Years Later The Mass Killings in Indonesia,
in Counterpunch, November 5-7, 2005. Accessed April 10, 2013.


Tom Suarez
About Tom Suarez

Tom Suarez is the author, most recently, of State of Terror, how terrorism created modern Israel.

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One Response

  1. a blah chick
    a blah chick
    April 12, 2013, 6:51 pm

    As the daughter of parents who grew up in a segregated south I can only say “Stay Strong.” It’s hard, very hard, but I really feel that sooner rather than later that whole regime will fall due to the sheer weight of the injustice. And they will have no one to blame but themselves.

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