INTERVIEW: Mallee Songs

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Michael Skinner with a Palestinian girl at a skatepark in Asira, West Bank

Melbourne band Mallee Songs released Suburban Horse, their quiet and focused third record, late last year on Dusty Tracks, a label run by Lucas Harwood (King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Atolls). The dark-folk outfit is led by Lucas’ brother, Michael Skinner, whose wry, melancholic songwriting exhibits shades of David Berman, Jason Molina and Galaxie 500. The new album brings some Tex-Mex polish to the band’s introspective style, with flashes of trumpet, piano and pedal steel rounding out Michael’s fingerpicked melodies.

In March, Michael travelled to Palestine’s West Bank with SkatePal, a UK-based charity that runs skateboarding classes for local kids, building skateparks and bringing in equipment. It’s an attempt to provide a semblance of normal life for Palestinian children, who suffer disproportionately under the brutal Israeli occupation. Kids as young as 11 have been arbitrarily detained, beaten and shot; just the other day, a nine-year-old boy was killed by an Israeli sniper. The journey to and from school is hazardous. Random attacks by bored IDF soldiers have been reported, and the route home is regularly disrupted by gates and checkpoints. Schools themselves can be the target of IDF actions, and an appalling number of children experience conflict-related trauma.

Suburban Horse single ‘Drinking the Sea’ was written as ‘an expression of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom’. Set somewhere in Palestine (‘The pull of the ocean/Rust in the well/Endless white houses/Stretch out on the hill’), the song describes a dawn raid on an Arab family – a random act of terror that’s become routine across the occupied territories:

I saw a crowd around dawn
They gathered and swarmed
Tore all the wood from your door
And then you were gone
Dragged through the fog on your back
The awful sound of the rifle crack

Michael shot a video to accompany the track while travelling around the West Bank – from Asira, his village base outside the northern city of Nablus, to Ramallah and Hebron. Alongside familiar images of guard towers, razor wire, armed foot patrols and long queues at checkpoints are scenes from the old city, the skateparks, hillside bonfires and quiet olive groves outside of town. It’s an eloquent summary of the strange and cruel dilemma of life under occupation.

I spoke to Michael about his time in Palestine, writing ‘Drinking the Sea’, and the political scope of protest music.

How did you get involved with SkatePal, and what were your impressions of the project? What do you think it meant to the kids? I love that girls are a big part of the program. There’s a great video on your Instagram of one little girl in particular who skates like a demon.

I found out about SkatePal by following similar projects on social media, and I applied when their volunteer applications came up in late 2018. They’ve had some great exposure recently, particularly after an episode of ViceLand’s Post-Radical, a series documenting outsider skate scenes around the world.

I did have some reservations about participating in “voluntourism” or whatever you might call it, and there are for sure NGOs out there that operate as a more palatable form of imperialism. Plus there’s the long and recent history of Western intervention in the Middle East, so you have to ask yourself, am I just contributing to a colonial project? Maybe you can’t fully escape this, but after a point you’ve got to ask if, on balance, the thing has a positive impact.

I really think SkatePal does, for a few reasons. They’ve done a great job of partnering with local organisations in Palestine; they appeared on the scene just at the right moment when the first few kids were getting into skating in the West Bank; and they’re part of a broader movement working to push skateboarding away from its hyper-macho, sometimes weirdly libertarian roots. New skate scenes have been cropping up all over – across Africa and the Middle East, in Cuba, even in Gaza – and most of them have involved Westerners bringing over gear or helping build DIY spots; at this stage it just seems necessary to kick things off.

Plus, somewhere like the West Bank the only practical way to get boards in is via the monthly changeover of volunteers. Israel makes it extremely difficult to bring equipment into the West Bank in bulk; SkatePal once spent four years waiting for the approval of 30 complete skateboards to be sent into Palestine. As you can imagine, this means the project has had to remain outwardly apolitical to stay afloat.

The skatepark in Asira felt just like one at home; it had quiet moments and sometimes it was really packed. There were a core group of kids – mostly girls – who went along as often as they could. The girl in the video is Sedra (check out her Instagram, @sedrathefearless), and she’s definitely the star of the park. She absolutely shreds! She can drop in from this one spot where I didn’t see anyone else go: a two-foot vertical drop into a really zippy quarter pipe that shoots you out over a flat section and then off another five-foot drop!

What was your impression of daily life in the West Bank?

Normal life persists as much as it can under occupation. People have a rich and generous culture they want to preserve and share. You can buy delicious food and a locally brewed beer in Ramallah. I milled about in cafes, barber shops and gyms in Hebron. The pace of life is quite slow and relaxing most of the time, everyone seems to know everyone else in their home cities and towns and will welcome you into these social circles without a moment’s hesitation. There seemed to be a real building boom in Nablus, and most people drive late-model cars. If there’s a wedding or two on in town, you’ll be invited at least one and it won’t matter if you accidentally stumble into the other. People study law and comparative literature and medicine. And they do all of this in the face of the world’s longest running military occupation.

Even in Asira, a village that, on the face of it, may seem relatively unchanged by the occupation, the IDF still carries out its routine campaign of targeted violence and intimidation. For example, a few days before the first group of SkatePal volunteers arrived in March this year, the IDF arrested Abu Ali, one of the village’s most talented skaters, and hauled him off to an undisclosed military prison. As usual, they raided his family home in the middle of the night, trashed the place, and left his parents terrified. We found out shortly before I left that he was being held for three months in administrative detention, without trial. A teenage skateboarder poses no threat to the IDF, of course, and it sounds like they don’t even bother justifying these kidnappings on their own absurd terms half the time. It strikes me as just the blasé operation of the military-industrial complex, finely tuned to constantly punish a minority population. I’ve just seen on Instagram, though, that Abu Ali has just been released and the whole village of Asira is celebrating his return.

Asira is a village just north of Nablus. On the first day I visited Nablus, the whole city was in shutdown and mourning, as the night before two young men had been killed by the IDF. They had been providing a military escort for settlers to come into Nablus overnight to worship at Joseph’s Tomb, a monthly occurrence. The IDF provides armed cover for the hard-core religious right – who are already living in illegal settlements on Palestinian land – to make further incursions into what’s left of Palestine proper. It’s a huge provocation in what is a fairly peaceful city. The residents there protest with whatever means they have; often the response from the IDF is live fire, and the cost is Palestinian lives. And whatever the specifics of each clash between residents and the IDF are, one thing remains constant: the occupation is the root cause of the violence.

I can’t talk about the occupation without mentioning Hebron, which has been a flashpoint for so much violence and death, again all underwritten by the constant expansion of illegal settlements. (Hebron is the only major Palestinian city with an illegal settlement right in the centre of town.) The first time fellow volunteer Max and I visited Hebron, we were shown such incredible hospitality by a group of young Palestinian guys, Omar, Omar and Zaid. They put us up in an apartment for next to nothing, gave us a tour of the old city and the settlements, shouted us dinner, even gave us free haircuts and clean shaves! (One of them runs a barbershop.)

As was so often the case in Palestine, any time we tried to pay for anything we were laughed at and pretty much had our wallets smacked out of our hands. Palestinian hospitality is on another level. Being welcomed, looked after and well fed is par for the course – generosity abounds. I realise this is a common experience across Arab countries, but I’m going to be biased and say the generosity is dialled up a few notches again in Palestine! It’s made me reflect on just how atomised, suspicious and out for my own I’ve felt since getting back home. Australia, like Israel, feels like an increasingly cold and cruel country.

The only place these guys couldn’t show us was the Al Ibrahimi mosque, which is behind a military checkpoint; I don’t know why, but the IDF wasn’t letting us through that day (this scene is in the music video actually). This was the case all over Palestine: young men between the ages of, say, 15 and 25 are policed with an extra degree of suspicion, callousness and derision. One of the guys from Hebron, the youngest, offered to take me to Al Ibrahimi mosque on another occasion, but backed out at the last minute because there was a good chance he’d be strip searched at the checkpoint.

I returned to Hebron a few weeks later and was given an even more thorough tour of the old city, the mosque and the settlements by a local high school teacher named Basel. As he was walking me through Al Ibrahimi mosque, pointing out the architecture and explaining the history, we came to a bullet hole-riddled column, which had protected him from Baruch Goldstein’s machine gun fire during the 1994 massacre in which 29 worshipers were murdered. So these are the stories you constantly encounter in the West Bank.

They’re the more violent and really tragic incidents I heard about, but more the more common complaints were about freedom of movement. A constant thing we heard, especially from young Palestinians wanting to travel outside of Palestine, was just how useless their Palestinian passports were. Palestinians are denied visas to most countries unless for study or humanitarian reasons. And getting one of those visas is no easy feat either. If they are granted permission to travel, they’re not allowed to go via Tel Aviv, so they must travel to Amman, Jordan, which involves passing through a complex series of Palestinian Authority, Israeli and Jordanian checkpoints. And you’ve got to be in a certain position of wealth and education to get to the point of travelling outside of the West Bank, too. Even then, you’re going to be subjected to some truly dystopian border control that sounds like something straight out of The Trial.

A long-time friend of SkatePal, one of the first skaters in the West Bank, travelled through Brazil for a few months in his early 20s. Over there, he met a Brazilian woman and they started dating. He wanted to bring her back to meet his family and see his homeland, so they flew into Amman with the intention of crossing the land border into the West Bank. Now he knew that if Israeli border control suspects they’re travelling together, it’s going to be complicated to say the least. So he schools her before they cross the border: you’re travelling alone, you don’t know me, you just want to visit the West Bank. He has a Palestinian and Jordanian passport and gets into the West Bank fine. He’s waiting for her on the other side and there’s been a long hold up. Border control is interrogating her and the game is up; they know the pair are travelling together, but the Israelis add their own layer of insane bullshit: they posit that the couple are married, and that he’s smuggling her into Judea and Samaria (the area otherwise known as the West Bank) with the intention of occupying land and building a home together. Then he’s stuck in the West Bank, and she’s sent back to Brazil after being put on a watchlist and accused of illegal settlement activities.

Where did you shoot the video? There’s a lovely contrast between the scenes in towns and at checkpoints, vs the time at skateparks and in the hills – a respite from the constant military presence.

I think the video is a pretty accurate representation of travelling up and down the West Bank. You get from city to city in shared taxis – this is where all the footage of soldiers manning checkpoints, setting up roadblocks and guard towers came from. When you leave a main city and get onto the highway, you see settlement after settlement, only made possible by drone-monitored fences, razor wire and checkpoints. It really does feel like a vision of the future for all these countries pursuing ethno-nationalist, hard border policies around the world. The end point is going to look precisely like what Israel has pursued in the West Bank: mono-ethnic enclaves surrounded by a stateless, demonised people with no real political power. It’s exactly what I expected it to be, only somehow more bleak, pathetic and indefensible. It seems insane to me that while all this is happening, the discourse in the US is all about the tenor of Ilhan Omar’s language when criticising Israel, and in Australia we see Labor forcing Melissa Parke out of contention because of her strident views on Palestine.

Most of the more peaceful footage comes from around Asira ash-Shamaliya, a beautiful, friendly village surrounded by lush green hills covered in olive and almond trees.

What does the song’s title refer to?

I lifted it from Amira Hass’s 1996 book Drinking the Sea at Gaza, which was one of the first books I read about Palestine. She’s an Israeli journalist who went into the Gaza strip in 1993 to cover a story for Haaretz and ended up living there and writing this eloquent humanist account of the Palestinian struggle and their resilience in the face of mind-boggling regulation of daily life and the brutal violence meted out by the Israeli state.

Now, over 20 years since Hass published that book, the situation in Gaza and the West Bank feels even more intractable: the settlements expand into the West Bank apace and Gaza is still reeling from 2014’s 51 Day War, an assault that was savagely violent even by the IDF’s standards.

You told me earlier that the song and video are ‘grappling with how to make protest music without being didactic’. The lyrics are slightly oblique; I didn’t actually realise the song was about Palestine till I saw the video. The story could be set almost anywhere in the world. Above all, it seems elegiac to me, mourning for these people’s lives, which I think can be a really effective approach. My favourite political music right now is stuff like ‘Pa’lante’ and ‘Beautiful Strangers’, which are both quite reflective and abstract compared to something scathing and direct like ‘Oxford Town’ or ‘Hattie Carroll’. How did you negotiate those ideas here?

It’s funny you saying this song is oblique, as I try to be as lyrically oblique as possible everywhere else, but I felt squeamish about putting this song out into the world because I thought it was too direct! The second verse, specifically, has some direct references to Palestine, but you’re right, the imagery is still broad enough to be transposed to any number of situations. I’ve been thinking a lot about the cluster of ideas in this last question. Without being too proscriptive about politically charged music I guess my answer is this: a song could never really explain the occupation of Palestine, unless it was like some three-hour spoken word dirge over ambient drone music, but who’d want to listen to that? The real work is done by Palestinians resisting, journalists, academics and activists. Songwriting is primarily about feeling, and I hope and think that in ‘Drinking the Sea’, the feeling, which you accurately described as elegiac, matches up with the imagery I put together in the video. I hope people come away from it wanting to learn more about the Palestinian struggle.



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