David Harris has travelled extensively through the Middle East and North Africa studying Sephardic music. He says on his travels he heard stories he never saw in the headlines; people talking about how they miss their Jewish or Christian or Muslim neighbors of the past. "One of the things I find frustrating is that when you read the newspaper or listen to the radio, the same story gets told over and over these days: 'relentless ancient conflict reignited!'" says Harris. "There's actually a much more complicated more interesting story - there's a history of co-existence that isn't just about people getting along but it's about great cultural flowerings!"
Harris is the artistic director of Voices of Sepharad, a group that specializes in the music of Sephardic Jews. Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, Sephardic Jews migrated throughout the Arab world. Harris says for years they lived side-by-side with Christian Arabs and Muslim Persians. He says in times of peace, rich music, literature and philosophy has come out of those same regions that are now in conflict.
"For instance I sing a song called Abenamar about the incredible palace in the south of Spain called the Al Hambra, which was built by the Moors," says Harris. "And yet to this day the Sephardic Jews sing this ballad about the Al Hambra palace, this moorish palace which they consider to be part of their own cultural glory."
David Harris says for peace to be possible, people need to be able to visualize it, to know that it has existed - and persisted - in the past. The members of his company are a microcosm of the complexity and diversity within Sephardic culture. They encompass, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and while they all now live in the Twin Cities, they hail from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Jordan and India. They dance and sing on stage to the same music, the same rhythms, each with their own particular cultural stylings.
Leili Tajadod Pritschet grew up in Iran where, until the mid-'80s, she had a very successful career.
"I was quite known as an artist," says Tajadod Pritschet. I did many things in the opera house and dancing and theater also, but one of the things I did as a hobby was four live programs a week for children on national television, so I was in everybody's home."
So when Tajadod Pritschet spoke out against political and religious oppression, the government of Ayatollah Khomeini took notice.
"I could never shut up. I'm here in the United States on political asylum," says Tajadod Pritschet. "I escaped to survive and seek freedom."
Tajadod Pritschet tried to flee Iran three times; the first two times she was caught. Because she was a dancer, the government came up with a cruel torture for her; they broke her knees, crushed her toes, and cut the tendons in her legs. Through the Center for Victims of Torture she ended up in Minnesota. Now, almost 20 years later, she walks with a limp and is considered disabled. But she's dancing again.
Maryam Yusefzadeh is a musician and singer who, like Tajadod Pritschet, hails from Iran. But she left the country before the revolution of 1978, and she remembers a much happier time. She says her Christian family was surrounded by friends who were Jewish, Muslim, Zoroastrian and Bahai. She says she's sometimes frustrated by people's ignorance of her world.
"Most everyone thinks that, being brought up in a Shiite muslim country that I was covered with chadours all the time and I didn't do anything," says Yusefzadeh. "I grew up at time when I wore tank tops and mini-skirts and bell bottoms and all the women did that." Iran has changed since those days, and Yusefzadeh says she has a hard time witnessing what its become. She says she seeks to create peace in the world, but she knows religious and ethnic conflict can never be totally eliminated.
"There is no way that we can always have complete peace," says Yusefzadeh. "Conflict is a form of learning. There is nothing wrong with anger and conflict as long as we make use of it in a compassionate way and try to teach ourselves something so that we can become better spiritual beings living on this earth, and better more compassionate beings to the rest of the world."
Peace in the House begins with the creation of the world, threads through medieval Spain and the post-expulsion times when Jews and Arabs lived together in the Middle East and North Africa, and ends with the lives of the performers onstage. Artistic Director David Harris says Peace in the House is about dealing with conflict and communicating across assumed cultural barriers.
"Somehow we've gotten it in our minds that we each have our own discreet cultures," says Harris. "That I have my culture, you have your culture, he has his culture and we find ways to talk to each other. "But the world is so much more interesting than that and the world is so much less pure than that."
For someone like Leili Tajadod Pritschet, who was tortured and lost many of her friends at the hands of a fundamentalist regime, it would seem to go against everything she knows to participate in a concert about peace. Still she speaks with incredible strength of spirit, and with hope.
"Home is your heart and you have to reach out, to come out of your homes and look at your neighbors," says Tajadod Pritschet. "If you do that, and think of them as your family, there will be no problem left in the world. Peace will be among you; find peace in your heart first."
Artistic Director David Harris agrees. He says for us to seek peace in the middle east, we must first seek to create it here at home. Peace in the House runs at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. There will also be a panel discussion on the shared traditions of Jews in the Arab world.