Friday, 28 December 2007

Christmas Songs

We are invited to Campbell's for Christmas dinner. His entire family is there, all 21 of them (with Robert and I added as last-minute guests), too big to fit in their home, so they rent out an entire bed-and-breakfast for themselves. They are, on the surface, a typical mid-west family: sweet, polite, apple pie and gingham shirts. Campbell's grandparents introduce themselves: "I'm grandma," his grandmother chirps and shakes my hand. "And I'm grandpa!" his grandfather chimes excitedly. It's all so sweet and bible-belt looking it's easy to forget these people are actually fairly radical pacifists, many of them willing to break federal law to help "fugitives" escape from the U.S. military.

My first impression of the sweet, harmless family is quickly shattered when we start talking about international politics. There aren't many Mid-west Christian families who can talk confidently about Palestine and Israel, some of them from first-hand experience having worked there in peace-making and human rights teams.
"What do you think of this Annapolis Conference?" Campbell's uncle asks, smiling deviously and sarcastically fishing for a reaction. "They've never tried that before have they? It looks like it'll be sorted within a year..."

When Campbell's grandfather bows his head to say grace before our meal, he asks if anyone would like to sing a song before we start. Dara, one of the younger granddaughters, requests "Joy to the World," and I expect (as I'm used to hearing at impromptu family sing-a-longs) a half-hearted, off-key rendition. But I'd forgotten the Menonite tradition, explained to me earlier by a proud Campbell, for spontaneous group singing in harmony. In Campbell's family, they take this tradition particularly seriously.

"Joy to the World" was a rousing, beautiful ode in four-part harmony, with everyone knowing their part perfectly. I struggled to choose a key. Robert was hopeless. As the family finished the meal and moved into the living room to read the Christmas story and sing more hymns and carols, it became increasingly clear that Robert had absolutely no hope of singing anything in key. He couldn't even follow the melody. I tried to throw in a few harmonies to impress the family (no one noticed) but as I filmed Robert, I started to feel bad, slightly embarrassed for him. He really was terrible. At times when he did actually make a sound, it was way off. Not even close to the tune. I was filming him closely for the documentary, but it ended up looking like an exercise in humiliate him, and getting it all on tape for future humiliations, possibly broadcast around the work on Al-Jazeera International.

No one said peace-loving, Christian army deserters had to be able to sing.

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