February 06, 2013
By Alissa Poh
Like any graduate student, Zaid Mansour's daily schedule is a balancing act between classes and independent research. A first-year doctoral student in the University of Kansas Medical Center's Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, Mansour is here on a scholarship from Hashemite University in Jordan, his home country.
Beyond his academic pursuits, Mansour is an accomplished pianist and equally skilled on the oud, an Oriental stringed instrument that resembles the guitar. He plays the oud with My Favorite Enemy, an international musical group that has gained followers across Europe and the Middle East since its inception in 2009. The band makes its U.S. debut on February 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C., at the 61st National Prayer Breakfast.
My Favorite Enemy is part of the Middle East Program (MEP), a peace initiative that started in 2002 to bring together people from societies that have historically been divided, with the belief that conflict resolution begins by building and nurturing long-term relationships between individuals. The band itself is a motley crew from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Norway and the United States. Many members are well-known singers and songwriters in their respective countries. In 2011, they recorded and released their first CD, a self-titled collection of songs blending contemporary rock and pop with Middle Eastern musical influences.
Mansour recently spoke with us about his studies at KU Medical Center and what it's like being part of My Favorite Enemy.
You've chosen physical therapy as your profession, but did you ever consider a career in music?
I did. But my father is a physical therapist and, having seen since I was a little boy how much he enjoys his work, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I also love teaching, which is why I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in rehabilitation science.
What drew you to this program at KU?
My main focus was finding a good mentor, and I'm lucky to be working with Dr. Neena Sharma. I find her research fascinating: she's studying the biochemical and neural mechanisms of chronic lower back pain. As a mentor, she's amazing - when I return to join the faculty at Hashemite University, I look forward to applying what I've learned from her to become a better teacher
When did you first hear about the Middle East Program, and how did you get involved with its musical aspect?
It was in 2008, back in Jordan. Some program representatives were in town to recruit participants and a friend of mine, hearing that they were looking for musicians, suggested that I meet with them. Two weeks later, they invited me to attend a workshop at the MEP's headquarters in Oslo. I was told I would meet people from several different countries and we'd be working together on some music.
What was it like - that first meeting in Oslo?
When I arrived at the Abildsø Farm - the program's headquarters - I entered a room where there was this stranger at a piano, and a couple of people with guitars. They saw me carrying my oud and invited me to come over. Just like that, we began jamming together. It was crazy. Asgeir Foyen, MEP's founder, was dazzled; he said, "We don't need an ice-breaker with this group, they've done it on their own!" It was a moment when the power of music in breaking down barriers was really apparent.
So you spent the rest of the week composing songs?
Yes, the workshop was pretty intense. We were divided into groups and had four-hour songwriting sessions twice daily, for five days straight. Each group had Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Norwegian members - it was intentionally diverse. By the end of the week, we'd written 18 songs together, which is amazing when you consider that we started out as complete strangers and, in some instances, technically enemies.
In the beginning, was there a pact to steer clear of touchy conversational topics?
Definitely. We even stuck to writing English lyrics initially, not wishing to use an obvious difference - our native languages - as a weapon. Now we have Palestinians singing in Hebrew, Israelis singing in Arabic, and so on.
I'd never interacted with anyone from Israel before. Jordan may be nearby, but there are all these complications that prevent people in both countries from meeting easily.
Over time, we've built a foundation of friendship that's solid enough for us to feel completely comfortable discussing anything, even the most critical political issues. At the end of that first meeting, the Israelis had to leave early to make their flight and I didn't get to say goodbye in person. So I wrote them a letter saying, "My dear enemies, I'll miss you - keep in touch."
That sounds curiously similar to...
Yes, that's how the name of our band came about.
And My Favorite Enemy's members have since met regularly and performed in many different places.
We've performed at the Six Days of Peace global music concert - part of the 2012 Tivoli Festival in Copenhagen - and at the European Union Parliament, among others. The latter is how we got invited to this year's National Prayer Breakfast in D.C.; many diplomats attended that performance and word reached the White House.
We try to meet once a year, as our funds allow. Though we can't afford regular visits or rehearsals, everything clicks in place each time we're reunited and, together, we make music that's truly special. Our performances frequently bring me to tears; there's so much energy and chemistry. I don't think it's solely because of our musical skills. It's also about the personal bonds we share.
What do you think might get people everywhere to begin thinking differently about the Middle East?
A good starting point is to understand that every story has two sides. People tend to see only what they want to see, and we don't get the most accurate picture that way. Even in the worst places, where it might be easy to assume that nothing good exists, there are wonderful people to be found.