Intro from Jay Allison: Come listen to this sensitive story from Homelands Productions' World of Difference project about the difficult subject of Palestinian right of return.
Notes from Sandy Tolan
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.
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.
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Notes from Melissa Robbins
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.
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.
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.
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.