The Imaginary Village

June 1st, 2004 | Produced by Sandy Tolan & Melissa Robbins

The streets of the Dheisheh refugee camp; photo: Evan Roberts

Notes from Sandy Tolan

A donkey waits by a door in the small Palestinianvillage of Nahalin in the West Bank.
A donkey waits by a door in the small
Palestinian village of Nahalin in the West Bank.
Photo: Evan Roberts

I recorded this story beginning in December, 2003, in the West Bank, but really the voices of people like Abu Hani had been playing in my head for a decade. I’d wanted for so long to capture the longing for land, for spice and fruit and rock and village, in the tenor of Palestinian voices in exile. So when I went to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Lebanon in December, mostly to research a book that grew out of my 1998 Fresh Air documentary, The Lemon Tree, it was time to begin recording those voices for real. This was especially true given that my colleague at Homelands Productions, Jon Miller, saw this piece as a natural fit for our Worlds of Difference series, which examines questions of identity, tradition, connectedness and change.

An elder from the Beit Jibrin refugee campin Bethlehem gives a group of teenagers a tour of thevillage he fled from during the war in 1948.
An elder from the Beit Jibrin refugee camp in
Bethlehem gives a group of teenagers a tour of
the village he fled from during the war in 1948.
Photo: Evan Roberts

I used a Sony PCM-M1 DAT machine with a four C-cell battery adaptor, both tucked into a small canvas bag with belt loops and a plastic window to make for hands-free recording and easy on-and-off at the belt. I used a stereo headphone mic by Leonard Lombardo’s Sonic Studios for sound and some interviews, with the bulk of the interviews recorded on a Sennheiser J3U shotgun. That mic started giving me static hassle later in the field and I had to switch full time to the stereo mic. I returned to Berkeley, California, in January and launched immediately into an intense international reporting class at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism. The DATs from Palestine would have gathered dust were it not for Melissa Robbins, who arrived fresh from the Salt Institute in Maine in January to work with the Kitchen Sisters and with me. We’re all most fortunate to have worked with Melissa; in my case, her work was instrumental to bringing this piece to life.

Notes from Melissa Robbins

The shadow of a telephone pole cast against a wall of political graffiti in Dheisheh refugee camp.
The shadow of a telephone pole cast against a
wall of political graffiti in Dheisheh refugee camp.
Photo: Evan Roberts

When I arrived at Sandy’s doorstep this winter, armed with more enthusiasm than experience, I set to the task of logging tape from interviews he had gathered in December. Transcribing is by no means glamorous work–and I am a terrible typist–but these hours spent at the keyboard helped me gain a level of familiarity with the tape that would save me loads of time later on. And I learned so much from listening to Sandy’s interviews–about how to tactfully adjust a situation to ensure a good recording, how to work around language barriers and with translators (something I had previously found very intimidating), how to listen for and draw out subtle points, how to approach grief with delicacy and how to let silence speak for itself. I felt like an incredibly privileged witness to these intimate conversations.

After all of the tape had been logged, I went through the quotes and cut them by half, then half again. I presented Sandy with these “greatest hits,” and we began to talk about various directions the story might take. Over coffee one day, he came up with the idea of crafting the story almost as a fairytale, a meditation on home and memory that would begin with Abu Hani flipping through the pages of his book. Sandy then wrote a script and allowed me the great honor of participating in the shaping and editing process.

Meerna al-Azzah stands in a field in the abandoned village of Beit Jibrin, where her family lived before the war in 1948.
Meerna al-Azzah stands in a field in the
abandoned village of Beit Jibrin, where
her family lived before the war in 1948.
Photo: Evan Roberts

Everything was loaded into Pro Tools LE through Sandy’s trusty Mackie 1402-VLZ mixer. In the beginning I was meticulous about organizing input with a separate track for each person, but by the end the screen looked like an aerial photo of Los Angeles during rush hour. If I had to do it over again, I would try to prolong my organizational stamina in this regard, which always proves time-saving (and more aesthetically pleasing) in the end. One thing that I found especially helpful was to load and edit a scratch track of Sandy’s narration. The piece changed quite a bit in the sound editing, and I found it useful to be able to try out different clips for tone and content, before recording a polished track.

A Palestinian youth awaits the fate of hishome in the West Bank, set to be demolished by area settlers.
A Palestinian youth awaits the fate of his
home in the West Bank, set to be
demolished by area settlers.
Photo: Evan Roberts

One of the biggest challenges with this story was to find and record the voice-over translations. It was a real learning process for me, to direct and record these readings in a way that honored the original speakers. Often, tape that sounded great in the field didn’t work out in the mix for one reason or another. All of Sandy’s original interviews had been translated on location, so we were able to provide the readers with some sort of script. But I sometimes encouraged them to re-interpret words or phrases in a way that felt natural to them as native speakers, and often got better recordings for doing so. In almost all cases, we were able to find Palestinian-Americans who contributed not only linguistic accent, but an invested emotional tone to the piece. The voice-overs were recorded on a Sony PCM-MI DAT recorder and on a Sony MZ N10 minidisc, with an Audio-Technica 8T 804 microphone.

It was also a thrill for me to work with an original score, by Palestinian-American musician Mohsen Subhi Abdelhamid–to have the extra tool and the extra challenge of music. At some point, the music began to feel like another voice in the piece, with its own message to shape and respect.

I am incredibly grateful to Sandy Tolan for his guidance, his patience, his trust and his zen-like tolerance of me hanging around his house all the time, drinking all of his beer.

Israeli and American volunteers help to build a makeshift home for a Palestinian family whose house was demolished by the Israeli government.
Israeli and American volunteers help to build a makeshift home for a Palestinian family whose house was demolished by the Israeli government.
Photo: Evan Roberts
The boys of Beit Jibrin refugee camp line up for a portrait underneath political graffiti.
The boys of Beit Jibrin refugee camp line up for a portrait underneath political graffiti.
Photo: Evan Roberts

About Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan has been producing public radio programs ever since he drove off from a coal mine on the Navajo Reservation in 1981 with his Marantz on the top of his beat-up old Datsun. (No, he never found it, and no, he’s never admitted this publicly before.) Since then he traveled to lots of places and invariably has felt lucky for it, especially for how he’s been received and how much he’s learned from people on the ground — on the Mexican border, in Panama and Peru and Ecuador, behind the California redwood curtain, in the Balkans, on an Israeli kibbutz and on the Gaza Strip, in Sri Lanka and India, and his longtime beloved hometown of Gloucester, Mass. He’s now working on a book called The Lemon Tree, which if he’s lucky will be finished in time to be published in MAY, 2005 by Bloomsbury USA. He teaches young journalists at the Grad School of Journalism in Berkeley.

About Melissa Robbins

Melissa Robbins began her career as a newspaper reporter in Brooklyn, where she immediately defined all of the stories she did not care to write about–including police beats, water-tunnel replacement projects, school board nepotism and local celebrities returning to their high schools for a visit. She spent two years in London, where she interviewed inmates and prison employees for The Guardian, followed by an inspired semester at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine. Upon graduation from Salt’s radio program, Melissa was somehow able to convince Sandy Tolan and The Kitchen Sisters to take her under their big, fluffy wings and she re-located to San Francisco, where she plans to remain until they begin dropping obvious hints that she is no longer useful.

About Evan Roberts

The remnants of a Palestinian home after it was demolished by the Israeli government.
The remnants of a Palestinian home after it
was demolished by the Israeli government.
Photo: Evan Roberts


Evan Roberts studied photography at the Rochester Institute for Technology and abroad in London and Israel. An oral history project in Palestine sparked an interest in radio, one that he later pursued at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. He recently relocated to San Francisco, and is still in shock.

Additional Credits

This story is part of Worlds of Difference, a documentary series on global cultural change and a project of Homelands Productions.

The editor was Jon Miller. Original music composed and performed by Mohsen Subhi Abdelhamid. Special Thanks to Nidal Rafa, Leena Saidi, and Lamis Andoni. Major funding was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Rockefeller Foundation.

41 Comments on “The Imaginary Village”

  • Jay Allison says:
    The Imaginary Village

    Transom encourages new work from new talent, but we also encourage experienced producers to work in new ways. This piece is a two-fer. Producer Sandy Tolan came to us with an idea, and we asked only that he try something he hadn’t tried before: find a new way of telling, not to think of it as fitting in with existing styles. He teamed up with new producer Melissa Robbins (Salt Institute graduate) and the two of them built this piece about home and loss with a style somewhere between journalism and impressionism, with delicate treatment of that international radio impediment, translated interviews. Listen and talk about this sensitive story about the difficult subject of the Palestinian right of return, The Imaginary Village.

  • Jay Allison says:
    and photos

    May I also recommend you visit the SHOW Page and look at the photos of Evan Roberts (another Salt Institute graduate). If you click on them, they will enlarge.

  • nsilva says:
    Oranges that grow sweeter

    Who could imagine what exquisite, poetic work Melissa was doing over at Sandy’s studio on the days each week she was absent from The Kitchen Sisters’ office. It has been a gift working with Melissa these last few months and with Sandy at the Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley.

    The voices, music, the beautifully written, rich narration of this piece transport — not just to a place – but to a state of mind. I am particularly taken by how you handled the translations. Can you talk more about the process of casting and directing these readers — it’s very moving. Thank you for this stunning piece. Nikki Silva

  • Melissa Robbins says:

    Thanks so much, Nikki. I feel truly lucky to have been a part of this.

    As for the translations…they were tricky. Generally, people either sound like they’re reading or they sound like they’re acting, but the perfect translation is some fine point in between. All of the readers except for one were Palestinian, and I think this was hugely important because they were invested in the story and they could relate to it.

    I loved the guy who read the part about the pinecones. I think he did that so well- in part because he had his own memories of climbing trees and eating pine kernkernelsa child. He was smiling when he recorded that, and I think you can hear it in his voice.

    My problem was I didn’t always know when I had a good recording. Some stuff that sounded too emotional to me on naked tape worked really well when it was mixed with the Arabic and the music. And other stuff that sounded great just didn’t match up well with the original speaker.

    I have to add, as well, that it was really rewarding to connect with the local Palestinian community in the making of this piece. They were all incredibly helpful and generous with us.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    all at once

    ok so how much untranslated tape? did you get it ALL translated before you guys made choices, or Tolan, did you already sort of know what was gold? Did you already have the translation in your ear or do you speak? Melissa, can you get specific – tell some stories about translating sessions…you said some stuff sounded too emotional. But how can you KNOW???I would have freaked.I can’t imagine doing this as a non-speaker.
    It is SO exquisitely translated. The pine cone guy, I have to say, I went into this remarkable reverie of scent and soft skin apricots and TOLAN !!! that writing, the images you sent us – I could smell things…my fingers turned indigo. and then it was all heart ache.
    Maybe farmers in America can relate to this relationship with a piece of land, but not a village, there is nothing like this in culture I know in this country- you miss the big house you sold when your father died. You remember the endless yard, the pine forest, but you wouldn’t sacrifice your kids for it…you rent an apartment, you move away. You get on with it. I don’t know. I almost felt like I’d rather long for a place then never have had it at all. and still the idea is so foreign.

    Sandy, you’ve been "journalizing" those parts for so long now…but in a different way, more careful almost. Why or how is the telling of this story different for you?

  • chelsea merz says:
    Two of a Mind?

    Howdy–could you two talk about your collaboration? We’re there ever moments of disagreement that then turned in to some amazing revelations that are evident in the piece? Was your vision for this piece pre-production completely different from what you ended up with? Also, Melissa, you thank the local Palestinian community–what was your collaboration/interaction with them like? How long did this take to produce? Hearing it it’s seamless but I can only imagine the complexities involved in putting this together. Many thanks.

  • Sue Mell says:

    Sandy/Melissa—could you speak to the ultimate form of the piece? I know it was part of your Transom "challenge"—to do something different—but having heard The Lemon Tree (and the piece Sandy did about the stripper who disappeared), I couldn’t help wondering: did it feel like a sacrifice to give up a more "story" driven narrative? Or was it freeing? How would you characterize the things that this more impressionistic approach lent you?
    It seems in a way to almost be the reverse—instead of the ocean made comprehensible through a story of drops of water, here the many individuals, like so many drops of water, are blended together and their shared sense of longing washes through the listener like a wave—all the lemons and olives and apricots—that represent their yearning and all they’ve lost—their homes, their families, their place in the world…. This subject is so overwhelming and heartbreaking. In response to this piece I felt the same kinds of things that Vicky did—I was thrown back on myself–trying (and unable) to imagine having those kinds of feelings about home, about the literal soil of where you’re from, in America where all of us move away… This sounds weird to say, but The Imaginary Village somehow made me think more, in an intellectual sort of way, it seemed to require more from me as a listener—and was more difficult in a way—than The Lemon Tree where I was so pierced to the core by emotion and the complexity of feeling. I hope it’s not unfair of me to compare…

  • helen woodward says:

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece. I need time to digest it, but initially would like to know how the music came about? it is so powerful and perfectly integrated into the piece. Did the musician work closely with you as the piece came together, it sounds like that? or was it composed beforehand? Please shed some light on this aspect of the piece.
    thanks again.

  • Sydney Lewis says:

    The blend of elegant narration, compelling voice and music, the flow that feels organic to the material is a wonderful achievement. I’m sitting in Woods Hole and my eyes, nose, and heart are overcome with sensations from this other land. Land. Yeah, it’s hard for those from the transient, pave-pile-and-move-on culture to be quiet and still long enough to imagine the depth of longing and connection to place this piece so respectfully communicates. Thank you all for making work that manages to float pure above politics for a brief stretch, that puts us in touch with one powerful strand of an endlessly thorny reality. I’m curious about all that others have asked. Also, since Jonathan Miller, many miles away from California, edited this piece, I’m wondering how that collaboration worked. Was he sent the material mostly in this order, were sandy/melissa surprised by any of his edit choices? And the music…. was that scored to the finished piece, or composed entirely separate from the voice tracks?

  • Jay Allison says:
    narrative vs. poetry

    As I told Sandy and Melissa, the first feeling I had when the piece ended was wanting to hear it again. I think that’s a both a positive and a negative, because it means there was a lot in the piece, enough to warrant more attention, but also that my attention was not focused clearly enough the first time through to receive it.

    I think the fault may be mine, but I’m not sure. I kept listening for STORY. I wasn’t sure if I should swim or float. I wandered between the worlds of collage and reportage, specific and imaginary, poetry and narrative, not always sure how to listen. I’m a pretty linear guy, but I like the abstract moment. Maybe I wasn’t prepared well enough or needed a different set-up? Or maybe I need to relax. Did others feel any of this?

  • Jon Miller says:
    Editing Imaginary Village

    I just read Sydney and Jay’s comments and it made me think about some of the concerns I had about the piece when I first got a script. Did it move forward? Could it sustain interest for 17 minutes? Was it journalism? Was the basic story somehow emblematic of some larger set of issues, as all Worlds of Difference stories are supposed to be? I, maybe like Jay, think linearly — or at least in terms of narrative arc. Here’s the conflict, here’s Response A, here’s Response B, here’s how it turns out. But the script of this piece DID seem to move forward, to build toward something, and to address larger human concerns. It’s not a tone poem; it’s got a backbone. As its chiropractor, one of my jobs, before I ever heard the voices or the music, was to help Sandy and Melissa smooth out the transitions, cut out repetition, point out places where things seemed to bog down, eliminate grammatical errors and correct bad spelling, which we all know is vitally important in radio. (One spelling-related side note is that Sandy was incredibly rushed when he was putting this together, preparing for another trip to the Middle East. That made me think twice or three times before suggesting changes, but it also put my English degree to use.) The other thing I was concerned about, as the highly anal exec producer of this mainstream, essentially educational series on cultural change, was the tone of the piece. I didn’t want it to sound like a polemic, a political statement. As a journalist I have never covered the Middle East, and it scares the hell out of me. I thought the more universal the story — the more it dealt with issues like the attachment of people to places, the relationship between memory and expectation and reality — the more powerful it would be, and the better it would fit our educational mandate. So part of my job as editor was to look out for language that might compromise the universality of the story, or the sense of empathetic distance that a journalist has to maintain. Which turned out to be a piece of cake, since Sandy is such a terrific journalist.

  • Melissa Robbins says:
    responses all around

    I want to respond to some of the stuff posted up here, but I first want to say to those of you who don’t know, that Sandy is currently traveling between Jerusalem and Amman, gathering interviews for his book and has been periodically incommunicado. (Though I am told when the planets are aligned, he can receive calls in Israel on his Berkeley cell phone number !?!)
    But please don’t stop addressing questions to him. He’ll either join the discussion soon, or Jon and I will start imitating him (to his peril!).

    To Viki’s question about translations-
    Sandy had a translator along for all of his interviews. So we had an English on-the-spot translation for all of the Arabic right on the tape. and while I always thought of translation as a careful and deliberate art, I really fell in love with these spontaneous interpretations. It’s probably not the best way to translate Tolstoy, but I think this informal, searching-for-words kind of speech worked well for this piece.

    As for this longing, this desire deemed worthy of all sacrifice, I am still amazed and moved by it– even after hearing the piece ten thousand times. This may be one point where translation will always fall short. Nadine Ghammache was wonderful when she read the translation for the woman named Fatima, who speaks of sacrificing her children. But nothing can really compare to Fatima’s voice, which is so sorrowful and matter-of-fact all at once. It breaks your heart in any language.

    In response to Chelsea’s question about collaboration- I have to say, from my perspective, this was just the best kind of collaboration. I can’t think of any major disagreements, but there were lots of wonderful moments of going back and forth over little things. And that’s pretty much how this piece evolved–tiny tweak by tiny tweak. I don’t think the framework changed much from start to finish, but we toyed with the details a lot.

    As for our collaboration with the Palestinian community, and (to Sydney’s point) with the musician, I think this was so valuable. For me it felt like a whole new layer, adding these voices–even if they were technically speaking for someone else. And Mohsen, the composer, was a wonderful collaborator–with an amazing sense for the story as a whole. He composed the score after hearing a rough cut of the piece, and he created music in response to very specific moments. I remember being amazed the first time I heard the percussive music that we played under the story of exodus. I had imagined something softer, sadder. But there is an anger mixed into the sadness that seemed so much more fitting than saddness alone.

    Mohsen worked with script very carefully– even coming out to the studio one day to help us mix–and I think we really benefited from his input.

    I’ll stop before this becomes way too long. Back online tomorrow.

    Thanks for all your great questions!!

  • Jackson says:
    Bits of cloud

    This is all so complicated — it’s like trying to grab at clouds. Memories that are intensely real of places that don’t exist.

    I felt the intensity of the feeling, the intensity of the topic — I was reminded of a New Yorker article about the right of return back in 1980, 1981. The lost village in that piece had "the sweetest water in all of Palestine."

    But I wonder if already existing forms can’t cover your tape better. A narratorless story, a la Kitchen Sisters, for example, offered in a reverse timeline from incandescent memories of apricots and pine cones to the moment of loss. The narration explains so much, whereas I think the listener really needs to find his/her own way through.

    Or pick a village and find people from that village — maybe on one of those streets in the camp. Does the community of that village still exist? Do the memories coincide or collide?

    This is great stuff already. The oud is wonderfully evocative. The challenge is how to bring memory to substance — or it is substance to memory.

    Or had you tried these strategies already and they didn’t work? (always a possibility!)

  • Jon Miller says:

    Narration is obviously useful in grounding a piece, in letting listeners know who and what they’re hearing. In some ways an unnarrated piece can be (and feel) more manipulative, I think. But as Jackson implies, narration also introduces another character — a sort of meta-dude who sees and knows all, and who can undermine the sense of discovery that comes when the listener has to make the connections. I’ve been struggling with the question of how to use narration but still make sure the piece in some cosmic sense "belongs" to the folks who are in it. Maybe that’s the most dishonest approach of all. In this piece Sandy uses the first person just once, early on, at the same time he introduces the main speaker, Abu Hani — presumably to establish that he is THERE, that this all means something to him. Then he drops it. Still, the poetic nature of the language throughout — the repetition, the tone of voice — keep you aware that this is not just a reported feature, narrated by a neutral meta-dude. Maybe like what Conrad does in Heart of Darkness — tells someone else’s story, but frames it in terms of his own discovery. I’d like to know if folks think this works.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    Mohsen !!!!!!

    Now Melissa, WHY did you have to go explain the music layer like that? He WROTE that after he heard the first cut???? I’m all jiggly. now I have to marry him !!!!!!!!
    that music was as much a character as the others speaking and it transcended gender while portraying each fully. The exodus piece was adrenaline – a pissed off determination of the husband and the woman’s molecular-rearranging fear of the unknown.

  • Viki Merrick says:

    "Maybe that’s the most dishonest approach of all."

    Jon, Why do you say that? It’s an honest intention and I don’t think it backfires. I asked Sandy to talk about how this piece is different for him, from his reporting pieces – (like the first time you take your socks off to put on sandals …? vulnerable and scrawny and unweathered)
    Tolan’s writing is exquisite (even with your spelling degree Jon) and it is imbued with all the things consistent with the speakers and the dream and the place. Although he is also the voice of reality, the reminder of the phantomness – he is not the reporter pointing also to the "other side" but he’s not Shakespeare’s Chorus either, touching on all the parts.
    Tolan’s not being political, but regardless, I don’t think you can remove the inherent politics of the issue (like the hand moving through the barbed wire to Palestinian AIR). Yesterday, I thought to ask and then didn’t: Even if the Israelis had moved in only as a governing power, without creating camps; displacing Palestinains etcetera ( I know, that is one of the biggest etceteras on the planet) would a village have been so vital? so important- or is it all about politics? Had it not been taken away, would there have been less attachment? no more angst than a son leaving the family home? But that is moot isnt it? that’s like expecting the new wife to leave the deceased wife’s drapes on the windows,her embroidered linens in the cupboard, her worn-smooth mortar and pestle in the kitchen.

  • Viki Merrick says:

    poetry vs narrative was not a problem for me. This piece was like one of those long (width-wise) tapestries – it has forward motion in general, but along the way there are several stories involved. Tolan’s "narrative" helped me pause here and there almost as a camera would, zooming here, panning there. I think if it had been narratorless I might have shut down in sorrow and not felt every single thorn. But Tolan urges me on, he provides oxygen, so does Mohsen, but no kleenex. There’s no wiping away.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    Honest to God I’m going back to work now


  • sandy says:
    hey from Jerusalem

    HI All –

    wow, great discussion, i oughta join it! Sorry to be incommunicado as I’ve been away from the internet for a while. Thanks for all the kind, thoughtful comments and the questions of insight.

    I wanted to address the question of narrative v imagistic treatment…one thing that seemed important is that there had to be some information. you couldn’t really understand the longing without knowing some of the facts of what happened. and yet we didn’t want those facts to be barriers to the simple poetry of the voices. in my mind i had the idea of an "essay with voices," and I guess that’s how it comes across, which perhaps, as Jay and Jackson point out, may cloud what kind of piece it is. It’s both, but for some that may be too much mixing of form. As Sue points out, most of the pieces I’ve done over the years are far more narrative driven, and we didn’t want that for this piece. Part of this is because the whole idea of Transom is to free the producer to not produce "for the market" It was satisfying to be able to say something about what I know, what I’ve learned over the years (and which has been much more deeply informed by the book researhc I’m doing), and then to weave that in with those voices of longing I’ve heard for so long. To do that without worrying whether "this will fly" or not was really liberating. Perhaps there were times when there should have been a tweak here and there, or a better set-up for the listener’s expectation, and I’d be curious to hear other and more specific thoughts about that.

    As for the collaboration, working with Melissa was truly a great experience for me. We really clicked and…Melissa correct me if I’m wrong… but I don’t recall any disagreements. Just a lot of extreme deadline intensity. Melissa has a great ear and is a smart and wise person, and without her believe me those DAT tapes would still be on the shelf. And Jon has already talked about his role, which was vital and clear. His suggestions made the piece much stronger and more clear.

    Melissa described the music collaboration. I have to say Mohsen’s contribution went beyond anything I could have hoped for. His keying into specific points in the piece, and composing for that — yet, respecting that we might decide to put this piece here instead of there — made this whole collaboration all the more satisfying.

    Thanks for all of your comments and to Jay, Viki and the transom team for incredible support.

    Looking forward to talking to you all more.



  • Jon Miller says:
    Honestly II

    My half-point about the quiet respectful 3rd person narrator making way for the "real" voices in a piece being potentially dishonest is a sort of post-modern idea that I’m not fully comfortable with. But I’m more and more aware that when I produce features that deny or ignore my existence as shaper and chooser and teller I RISK being dishonest in a weird counter-intuitive way. Still, when push comes to shove, I resist making my pieces about me, unless they ARE about me, which they basically never are, and just try to be honest. In iVillage, Sandy says right out, "I’m here," then helps the folks tell their stories without ever pretending not to be there. The message I get is "these people’s stories are important to me and I’m making an effort to get them to you in an artful way and I really hope you’ll listen." Which seems like pretty firm ethical ground to me.

  • Jackson says:
    Honesty vs. Truth vs. Facts on the Ground

    Who was it? Helsingborg? Simply by observing, one alters the events one perceives.

    The intriguing thing about this story is that the closer you get to the truth — say, the community of Palestinians was framed by their old villages — the farther you get away from reality — those villages are gone.

    And the farther this passes in time, the "truth" above assumes mythic proportions — in that New Yorker article I mentioned in my last post, it was a young boy, born 25 years after the end of his village, who spoke of the sweetness of water he had never tasted.

    Now, what does all that say about truth and reality? I think that that is what lies at the heart of the challenge facing Sandy and Melissa. The passage of time engrosses myth — if you don’t believe me, look who’s playing Achilles these days.

    Four generations after the fact, children are still associated with these villages, and the reason for that must be that the camps are so godawful no one wants to identify with them.

    Sandy, is it possible that your narration is too sensitive, too richly hued (I’m thinking of the analogy between the amputation and the imaginary village just here)? Doesn’t all come down to one essential fact: In 1948, 750,000 were driven from their homes; four generations later, 4.5 million (or whatever the number is) are still waiting to return. And the longer everyone waits, the worse the math is going to be.

    Everything else you say beyond that is superfluous.

  • Melissa Robbins says:
    re: Viki’s marriage proposal

    not only did Mohsen compose the music after hearing a rough cut of the piece–he did it in, like, three days!

    but alas…I think he is happily coupled and content in his role as a new father.

    yet another oud player, breaking hearts all over town.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    this land, that land

    One thing I love about this piece is what Sandy describes as its "essay with voices" quality. It felt directed by someone outside the experience, but empathically so, in a very "felt" way. And still, for me, achieved Jon’s goal of being "somehow emblematic of some larger set of issues." As Viki mentioned, you can’t "remove the inherent politics of the issue…" But the issue of diaspora is not limited to the Middle East. For example, this got me thinking about "my" land, which was once very much someone else’s land. I would be interested to hear a Native American’s response to this work.

  • sandy says:

    Jackson wrote:
    Four generations after the fact, children are >still associated with these villages, and the >reason for that must be that the camps are so >godawful no one wants to identify with them.

    Actually it’s the other way around. The camps are there, and the way they are, BECAUSE of the attachment, and this attachment, and the pain — bpth passed on through generations — has in large part driven the various Palestinian factions demanding the right of return. If the longing and the attachment wasn’t there, perhaps the camps wouldn’t be either – more people would have moved on and settled, I think. So, to me, talking about the attachment isn’t superflous, because has driven the politics and the rage from day one, and it continues to do so now, even though so many people describe it as irrelevant. Perhaps if there was something missing in the narrative or the set up it was saying something this explicit.

  • sandy says:
    universal and specific

    hi again,

    i’ve been thinking about intent here… as Jon did i wanted this piece to be speak to some larger sense of longing that, as Sydney mentioned, is embedded in so many diasporas. But I also wanted it to be specific to a particular landscape, not simply so that the details would be grounded, but so that people who hear these voices might think about the issue in a different way. I wanted it to be kind of like learning a language. You hear the words and it comes to you slowly, and then you start speaking it and suddenly you realize you know something you didn’t know you knew. In a smaller way, in this piece, I was hoping that the attachment — or love, as one person wrote — would put a different context on a story many people think simply as the expression of ancient hatreds.

    As for intent in the use of first person, I’m interested in what people thought. But actually it wasn’t so deliberate. I suppose if I had looked at the script for that all-important 86th time, I might have said, hmmm, more first person or less. The truth is I just liked the sentence, "I know a man named Abu Hani." It had a pull to it that helped frame the piece, and since it was with me from the beginning I just never thought of dropping it or adding other first person references.

    will try to write more soon. all the best from Jerusalem.

    – Sandy

  • Rupa Marya says:

    I thought this piece powerfully communicated a sense of longing for something that was no longer necessarily attainable, a strong sense of desire. All voices- the narration, the storytellers, the translators, and the music- weaved together to form an intricate composition which was finely produced. It felt incredibly musical in the rhythm of the language and the ways the stories followed one another, strung together like beads by Sandy’s inviting imagery and the evocative sounds of the oud. I did find my mind wandering a few times during the piece and wondered why. Unlike Jay, I like pieces that are linear and also those that are impressionistic but I think even in impressionism, there has to be thread (ugh, is that linear?), something to pull us along. I’m thinking of Rothko. Even in his abstract images, there’s a tension, a pull, something that draws us closer and holds us for a moment.

    Can Melissa/Sandy describe a section you really wanted to include that you didn’t in the end and describe why you decided not to. How did you decide which stories made the cut?

    To Jackson, it’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. And I don’t know which is more truthful, less manipulative: a piece where the subjects narrate for themselves or one with a narrator. I think Sandy pulls off setting us up, allowing us into this world where dreams of a land are so strong. I don’t feel he overwhelm the piece with his images. The use of the first person lends an intimate feel to the narration upfront which I think works well. I agree there are cold facts associated with the displacement of Palestineans from their lands, but letting us in from an emotional, intimate impressionistic angle allows the story to get digested in the more subtle areas of our consciousness.

    Excellent work to all involved.

  • Jay Allison says:
    which is which

    Unlike Jay, I like pieces that are linear and also those that are impressionistic

    just to be clear, I like ‘em both too, but in a time-based medium like radio (unlike the experience of Rothko) the random reception of impressions is always delivered via the linearity of time.

    My mind, in responding to that linearity (esp. the longer it goes on) starts to ask for direction, for STORY… unless it is instructed not to. In this piece, I kept hearing story clues and character development and wondered if I should be paying attention to them, following them. Should I get to know Abu Hani? Is he coming back? Will his story evolve? What about the woman with the key in her pocket, what happened to her? The historical details… are they building toward something? Questions like those kept me from fully relaxing into the poetry, the impressions.

    If I had could have seen this piece from above before I heard it, seen the uneven right hand margin, I might have listened better the first time through. That’s why I was asking if about a possible change in set-up to help me know better HOW to listen.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    slight of intro

    I think the intro might be too much of a set up for a story. Beyond the image of the woman with the key in her apron – I didn’t need to know more to just listen, with that image in my hand: geeze, a key to a no-more home, not on the wall, not with a key ring, with other keys as a memento, a single key in a pocket, every day…
    Moving into describing the Imaginary Village, the fairy tale, was an invitation to expect a story. The intro was loaded with linearity.

    The thing is? This is the worst kind of story, in real life, outside the radiobox…there is no end. They’re just stuck in the place that can be taken away at any moment. Where else could it have ended?
    it could have gone on never-ending. I thought the ending was brilliantly and bravely unsatisfying.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    voice vibration

    Rupa nicely describes the work’s emotional angle that “allows the story to get digested in the more subtle areas of our consciousness.” Which is what Sandy’s talking about too. What great historical fiction or any great fiction does –– allows us to absorb whatever from a tale speaks to our own life. Whatever vibration we feel allows us to understand someone else’s story in our blood and bones. To use this approach with such a hot, opinion-embedded issue is a gift to whoever hears it. And that music, oh, my, so beautiful.

    The first person use felt right to me… the poetic title of the piece tips us off that this probably isn’t going to be a standard report on the Middle East. “I knew a man…” let’s us know that a person is about to share something, we don’t yet know what, but something that the “I” registered, something that moved through that person’s awareness – voices, information, sensations – and so it seems to tug at the listener’s ear in an immediately personal way. That the “I” vanishes never felt like a loss to me. A nice whisper, here, let me share this, and then the vista opens out from that “I’s” eyes and ears to those voices the “I” wants us to know about.

    Thanks to all involved for your notes and postings, photos, too. And for this special work that for me lingers like a scent I can’t name, but know.

  • bw says:
    story vs impressions

    I’m with Vikki on how the ending matches the limbo of these real people stuck with out an ending. I noticed this moreso on the beginning though. It felt like this piece really didn’t begin till the 1948 history began, but it was a real satisfying beginning. I think one of the biggest lies about the mid east is that the story supposedly goes soooo far back that it is stupid to talk of beginnings, when in fact 1948 is a pretty good place to start.

    lets face it – the longings of these people are painful – and painful to listen to – I think that we are almost trained now a days to shut them out, this piece is a very powerful reminder of a very real injustice. Great work.

    The music really comes from three days?

  • helen woodward says:

    Syd says:
    that this story does…"What great historical fiction or any great fiction does –– allows us to absorb whatever from a tale speaks to our own life."

    and indeed it does. Since listening to this piece last week I repeatedly find myself pondering the parallels between this story and that of many immigrants; obviously the latter have made a choice, and not been forced out of their home country, but there remains a sense that what has been left behind is gone and gone forever: the last vestiges of an immigrant’s original, "real" identity, that fades with the years that are spent away. Being able to return "home", having the right to return "home", brings the chasm between memories and reality into stark focus, forcing a reassessment of past, present and future.

    The people in this piece dont have that opportuntity, and as such are held in a kind of purgatory, unable to move on or move back. this piece conveys their struggle well, and perhaps will illuminate their plight for immigrants everywhere who will surely recognise the "vibrations in their blood and bone" when they hear this work.
    Are there any plans to broadcast this further afield, in the middle east perhaps?
    thanks again.

  • Melissa robbins says:
    felt truth

    I don’t want to beat this to death, but in response to the many impression v. narrative discussions, I just want to say that originally, I think we planned to craft a more radically "imaginary" village, more of a genuine fairytale. But the facts of the story, and the integrity of the voices kept insisting themselves.
    And for better or worse, I think in the end the "felt truth" format of this piece- the delivery of its message through mood and whispers as well as narration– matches the felt truth of the story itself.

    One of the most powerful elements of this story for me is the way memory is influenced by love and longing. The way the "apricots grow sweeter every year."
    There are historical facts. And there are the imprints of facts–softened and sweetened by memory. And the truth of this story seemed to demand an acknowledgement of both.

  • faysal bibi says:

    thanks for a great piece of work.

  • Jay Allison says:

    Melissa writes: "the way memory is influenced by love and longing."

    …which recalls that Faulkner line from Light in August which fits here, "Memory believes before knowing remembers."

  • Scott Gurian says:
    balancing act

    Finally had a chance to listen, and I was impressed as I always am with Sandy’s work. But I wanted to raise a general concern I’ve been struggling with that this piece exemplifies.

    As several people commented, "Tolan’s not being political, but I don’t think you can remove the inherent politics of the issue." I personally had no problems with the piece, and in fact thought it was beautifully constructed and very moving. But I doubt ATC or ME would air a piece like this because it’s not "balanced." I’ve heard Jay Kernis quoted as saying (and priding himself on the fact that) NPR won’t air a commentary with a "pro-Palestinian" POV until it has a commentary with a "pro-Israeli" POV lined up for the next day. This applies to other issues as well, of course, but we all know the "Middle East" is particularly contentious.

    As someone who has just started working as a public radio News Director and is in the process of drafting a newsroom guide of ethical rules and procedures, I’m wondering what people think about all of this. Most people would agree that it’s wrong– in a standard news report– for a journalist to take a clear point of view in the first-person, but what about when it’s more subtle? Certainly, I think the rules should be more lenient when a piece is more documentary than hard news, but since most documentaries contain strong elements of news, how necessary is it always to acknowledge "the other side?"

    I sense it depends largely on what the piece set out to do. Since this was framed as a piece about the general concepts of home and loss rather than claiming to be a piece about the specific history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (even though it WAS largely about that), it was OK to include only Palestinian voices. But I think there are many others in the public radio community (including my PD) who would disagree and argue that it’s ALWAYS necessary to include all sides. I fear that would change the entire tone of a piece like this and ruin it in many ways. Sure, there are ways to masterfully include several sides and avoid the "he said, she said" trap of dull, stereotypical NPR features– as Sandy beautifully demonstrated in "The Lemon Tree." I’m not convinced, though, that all pieces need to be constructed that way. What do other people think??

    Scott Gurian,
    Salt Radio alum

  • Rogi Riverstone says:
    O/T Scott

    Dear Scott,

    I’m very interested in your work on your newsroom guide!

    I’d sure like to see it, when it’s ready!

    Rogi Riverstone

  • sandy says:
    balance and truth

    hi all,

    checking in again from jerusalem after a hot day in the west bank. not the best day for the ac to quit but so is life. at least i didn’t get stuck five hours trying to go 40 miles like a young guy i met last night.

    I appreciate this thoughtful discussion. not always possible on pieces from this part of the world. i’ve been thinking about Scott’s post and how he thinks NPR wouldn’t take it because it tells "only one side" of a story. This goes to the heart of whether every story about anything must be "balanced" in order to be broadcast. Under this formala an essay like this, which explores a particular longing from a particular place about specifics fruits and stones and smells, wouldn’t be broadcast. I’ve long argued that that formula shuts out whole worlds — that "balance" is achieved in a stream of programming, not in every essay or story which explores a slice of something. I agree that balance, such as it is, should be sought vigorously for news stories, and that all stories should scrupulously seek to be fair. But if every piece of work we did had to adhere to the he said/she said formula, meaning would suffer. I know something about this world and sought to explore longing (as Rupa pointed out) in a way that would illuminate a feeling behind a political issue we all have read reams of copy and watched endless videos about. There are countless such worlds out there, and if every time we had to have someone provide counterpoint we would lose the point of the work.

    Another example: IN 1992 I produced a piece about missionaries and one of the last nomadic chiefs in the Amazon. The piece explored the world of the missionaries without judgment, putting their words out there for all to consider, but not providing scholars or experts of anti-missionaries to say, They’re wrong. And we got a lot of heat for the story because we didn’t condemn the missionaries in some way. But we were exploring a world, not analyzing it. It’s not perfectly analogous to this story but it speaks to the principle of how balance can actually diminish understanding.

    Another example, again not perfectly analogous: In the 1980s Ray Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto to the NY Times and Wash Post respectively discoved a horrific massacre at El Mozote in El Salvador. Their stories ran, linking the massacre to the U.S.-supported Salvadoran army at a time when a major US aid package was up for a vote in congress. The state department and Reagan administration, as it was shown indisputably by Mark Danner in a long New Yorker article, began a campaign to discredit the reporters, saying they were "dupes" for the communists when they (US officials) knew all along the Salvadoran army was responsible for the massacre. So, the subsequent stories that ran about whether the massacre had happened were "balanced" — and half of the content of those were lies. So seeking inherent balance, I think, should not always be at the heart of journalistic or for that matter non-fiction inquiry. Fairness, for sure, and accuracy, and honest reflection of what you see and hear, and in this case, what is remembered. But "balance" inherent in every story, especially something that’s not hard news, can be a trap. There is always, anyway, another day, another week, another broadcast.

    Greetings from here and I’ll try to check in soon.


  • Nubar says:
    Sandy & Melissa

    I was deeply moved by this piece and it affected me on many levels: as a person, a journalist, someone working in the arts, and as the member of an immigrant family. Though I think the discussion above about fairness in reporting is relevant, I’m doing by best to avoid being pulled into it. Rather, what I really want to say is that this piece had so much delicacy AND nerve, that I’ve been carrying it around with me for days. Did I dream those voices? Is the sadness I feel their sadness, or does it belong to me. Where does their sadness end and mine begin? And on and on.

    Like all compelling work, having heard this piece makes any confusion I sometimes feel about what I’m doing evaporate….my own internal "he said she said" approaches, like the differences between what I feel I must do vs what the piece itself is asking for… all goes away. And for this, I thank you both. It’s an amazing piece of work. And I can hear both of you in it.

    PS to Sandy: Like the man who reached through the fence to feel the air of his homeland, I feel like you’ve reached across into the "art" of storytelling with this piece. And brother, there’s juice there!!

  • Nubar says:
    Oh. The Photographs

    Rather than seeing photographs with this piece, I might have preferred some childrens’ drawings, or something more abstract to echoe the "Imaginary" part of the "Village" in this story. Odd coming from a photographer, I know.

  • Michelle Orange says:
    A practical question

    Hi Sandy,

    Congratulations on a very compelling piece, it’s so nice to see how it has moved the people here to try and figure why they were so moved. I have a question about time that may play into something you said about the transom experience, the issue of linearity vs. impressionistic storytelling and designing something for a wide audience. Let’s say NPR offered to air your piece, they did not have issues with the content or balance per se, and wanted to keep the feel of it intact, but needed it shortened by say 5 minutes. Could you cut it? Would you? If so, do you know how? I know it’s an agonizing prospect, after the work that goes into getting a cut your happy with, but if there was an opportunity like that, what would you do?

  • Sandy says:

    greetings Michelle, and all –

    I’m still on the road. Sorry for the delay in responding. As for your question about cutting this piece — well, first I’d want to talk to my partner Melissa about it and see what she thought. But in general I’m not opposed to trimming to create another version that would fit a "hole" in a network show, provided that the piece, or the new piece, still holds together on its own. I don’t think you could cut five minutes in "keep the feel" of the piece; something would have to give, either a larger section, or the pacing, or some information. And so it would become a different piece. And that would be ok, I think. There comes a point where cutting more and more eventually takes the heart out of the piece, but my guess is, the essence of this story could be told, in a somewhat different form, with five minutes gone. I don’t know, Melissa, what do you think?

    best to all


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