I just got back from Indiana University
, where the String Academy
is in session. In addition to rehearsals, I enjoyed sharing meals, movies, and laughter with old friends. One of these friends has never studied at IU before, and in fact, has never been to the United States.
His name is Nidhal Jebali. When I taught him in Tunis as part of Music for the People's Project I
, I realized that his is a talent beyond my capacity to develop. In a country where cello teachers tell their students to hold the instrument any way they want, this young violinist had somehow emerged, a quick learner and sensitive musician. On the last day of my workshops in Tunis, I told him that he should apply to the String Academy, where my beloved teacher Mimi Zweig
could give him the kind of rigorous instruction he needed. When I returned to the States a few days later and gave a recital at IU, I told Mimi about him in hopes that she would accept him.
Fast forward half a year. Via email, I kept pestering him to apply, and reminded Mimi to look for his application. To my delight, he was accepted, and is now halfway finished with the academy's four-week course. Getting Nidhal to come here is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.
He is learning so much, and has improved beyond recognition. The teachers are thrilled with his progress. Though he misses the dusty white brilliance of Tunis, he enjoys the verdant beauty of Bloomington. From what little I could see, he has made more friends than I did when I went to String Academy in 1997 and 1998!
These are kids whose first questions for him were: Are you a Moslem? Do you eat pork? Do you hate America? And now they know him. One hundred kids who have probably never met an Arab before are friends with a shy, brilliant kid with a gentle soul, a winning smile, and a nascent affection for pizza.
In just ten minutes, America turns 230. The matriculation of a Tunisian teenager at a music festival seems to pale next to the birthday of a colossus. But should it? Why is it that people come to America from all over the world to study music? Nidhal has been to France, which has a longer history of producing great musicians than America. So why come here?
I cannot explain, nor do I understand, the reasons for America's place in the global classical music scene. But I know this. When Hitler unleashed his horror on Europe, the great musicians came in a flood to America. We were the beacon of hope then. And now?
On the eve of America's birthday, I will not catalogue the atrocities that have besmirched her name. The warmth with which the String Academy students and faculty welcomed Nidhal is but a small light sputtering in the shrieking winds of terrorism and war...but that tiny light hints that America may become a beacon of hope once more.