Palestinians join Jews in San Francisco for sing-along to promote understanding

At sing-along for peace Sunday night at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, the guest of honor declined to speak.

Asked by the event's organizer, Ami Goodman, to translate an Arabic song, Nader Shahin, a Palestinian musician and local restaurateur, simply nodded his head.

Then he took out his oud — a Middle-Eastern stringed instrument — and slowly plucked a few chords.

"I believe that the song 'Salamat' is a classic Arabic ode to peace," Goodman said to the audience. "But I'm sure that Nader could tell us more about it."

Shahin still sat silently, strumming a few more chords. This time a little faster.

"Could you explain a little of the song's history?" repeated Goodman.

But Shahin was way past history. And way past describing it. Shahin was letting it rip, staging a full frontal assault on the oud's strings.

As members of the audience kept in tempo with their dumbeks, Shahin's flying fingers riffed on the oud like vintage Hendrix. Sweat glistened down his face as he hit one note after the other, head bobbing up and down in sync. Audience members were on their feet dancing the dabka, an undulating snake of flailing arms and legs.

Goodman started to ask yet again for a translation, but stopped mid-sentence. He paused awkwardly, and then grabbed the evening's song-sheet. He used it as a fan to cool down Shahin, who by this time was thoroughly engrossed in an intense dialogue.

With his oud.

On a night dedicated to building bridges — between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, and Americans of all stripes — there was no clearer communication than between the guest of honor and his instrument.

Kumzits, a group that Goodman founded 10 years ago, organized the sing-along. The group meets regularly to learn and play Jewish music. Kumzits is Yiddish for "come sit."

This event commemorated the fourth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. The evening, according to many who attended, was a good first step toward bringing people together.

"Music crosses all boundaries and borders without limits," Goodman said. "That's what this evening is really all about."

Avital Dayan of San Francisco thought it was unique. "It was very inspiring to sit in the same room and sing songs of peace with the Palestinians. Everybody seemed to share the same energy."

Palestinians at the event also viewed it as mostly a success.

Elias Botto, of the San Mateo Jewish Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, wished there was more of a Palestinian presence.

"I think Palestinian people are very pessimistic about peace, equality and human rights in Israel," Botto said. "So, it's hard to get Palestinians out for an event like this. It would help if Palestinian people had more unity, and were better organized.

"One of the biggest strengths of the Jewish community is that they are very well-organized," Botto continued. "I think it would be a great asset for the Palestinian community to learn from their Jewish brothers and sisters how to join together for a cause."

Botto also noted music's ability to break down barriers. "I was hoping we could dance the hora," he said, laughing. "I like anything that gets me on my feet."

Continuing on the theme, Botto likened Israeli-Palestinian relationships to an extended dance in which neither partner knew the steps.

"It takes two to tango," he quipped. "And right now, both sides are stepping on each other's toes. The only way to get in sync is for Israel to realize that its security lies in recognizing the human rights of Palestinians."