Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land

A reminder of the power of music in this excerpt from Sandy Tolan's new book, "Children of the Stone"

Editor’s note: 

We have always been fans of Sandy Tolan and have heartily and frequently recommended his first book The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East to the Euphrates community. We are thrilled that Sandy has written a new book and welcome him here as a guest blogger to introduce this important and timely story to you. This message of overcoming hardship and turning violence into hope is especially relevant in light of today’s heightening unrest in Israel and Palestine. The following excerpt from Sandy’s Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land (Bloomsbury), introduces readers to Ramzi Aburedwan, a child of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-93) who later put down his stone and picked up musical instruments.  The book documents Ramzi’s dream, against the odds in the midst of Israel’s military occupation, to build music schools for Palestinian children.  Today Ramzi is director of Al Kamandjati (Arabic for The Violinist), which brings musical instruction to young Palestinians in villages and in refugee camps across the West Bank and Lebanon.  Ramzi’s story, writes the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, “is proof of the famous words of Margaret Mead – ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”  Today, despite the bleak prospects for a genuine, lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Ramzi’s music school reaches 3000 children annually, imbuing them with a sense of the possible, despite the grim reality they live in.

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or my blog. Follow Ramzi’s journey by purchasing a copy of Children of the Stone here.

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December 2009

Pronto Italian Restaurant, Ramallah, West Bank

It was a chance encounter, in December 2009, at an Italian restaurant in the West Bank. I was in Ramallah, working on a story on the dim chances for genuine Middle East peace. I was standing with a couple of fellow journalists, looking for an open table, when I heard my name called out from across the restaurant.

Sandy! Sandy!”

I looked at the bearded young man sitting at a corner table. He was beaming at me. I didn’t recognize him. He pointed to himself: “Ramzi!”

I hadn’t seen him in nearly a decade. Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan had been a child of war, one of thousands of Palestinian children who threw stones at Israeli forces during the six years of the intifada (1987–93; later known as the First Intifada), the uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At age eight, Ramzi had been immortalized in one of the most iconic images of the era: a shaggy-haired David with fear and resolve in his eyes, unleashing a stone at an unseen Goliath.

By the time I met Ramzi in 1998, the intifada was over. He was a skinny, clean-shaven eighteen-year-old who lived with his grandparents in the Al Amari refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah. No longer was he sneaking through the camp, hurling rocks at soldiers and dashing from rooftop to rooftop to escape. Now, still relatively early in the Oslo peace process, Palestinians long in exile were returning to the West Bank to help build a state of their own. New cultural institutions were springing up, and Ramzi suddenly had a chance to study a long-held passion: music. He had laid down his stones and, with the help of two middle-class Palestinian mentors, picked up a viola.

Within a year, posters around Ramallah showed little Ramzi, throwing the stone, alongside an image of Ramzi as a young man, pulling a bow across his viola strings. The poster announced the arrival of the new Palestine National Conservatory of Music. It looked like an advertisement for a newly independent Palestine.

In that winter of early 1998, I sought out Ramzi in the refugee camp where he lived with his family in their modest plaster-and-cinder-block home. I recorded his music and his memories of the intifada. He remained proud of his stone-throwing days, echoing the sentiments of many Palestinians who believed, then, that the stone would lead to their liberation. “I wish I could collect all of the stones I threw and frame them or put them on the wall or put them in my own museum,’ he told me then. “Because I was only a child. And all I had was a stone.”

Ramzi’s playing was crude and halting; at eighteen, he’d barely had a year of practice. More vivid were his memories of racing through the warrens of the camp during the intifada as one of the “children of the stones,” as Abu Jihad, the assassinated Palestinian revolutionary, called Ramzi’s generation. Most striking of all was the teenager’s vision to transform the lives of children and show the world what his people could accomplish. “I want to see many conservatories opening up in all of Palestine, so that people can learn to play,” Ramzi told me one cold gray afternoon, looking out his window at the narrow alley in the refugee camp. “And I want for children to understand that there’s something called a viola and a violin. I want people to see that we Palestinians are capable. We are like everybody else in the world. We can do a lot. I hope one day I’ll be a teacher and a professional viola player. I hope we’ll have a big orchestra and we’ll tour the world in the name of Palestine. I want to show the world that we are here, on the map.”

Later that spring of 1998, around the time my story about Ramzi aired on National Public Radio, he landed a coveted scholarship to study the viola at a music conservatory in Angers, France.

We kept in contact for a couple of years. I followed his progress at Angers. I’d heard he’d started a traveling band, playing mostly Arabic music, while he continued to learn classical viola at the French conservatory.

Eventually, we lost touch—until that night at the restaurant in Ramallah.

He joined us at the table.

“What are you doing back here, Ramzi? I thought you were still in France.”

“No, I’m back.”

“So what are you up to?”

“I’ve been opening up music schools all over Palestine.” I got chills. This was precisely what Ramzi had said he wanted to do, twelve years earlier, when he was a teenager.

With the help of musicians and supporters from the United States, England, Germany, France, Italy, and the West Bank, Ramzi had created ten music centers, including three in refugee camps in Lebanon. He called his school, centered in Ramallah, Al Kamandjati—Arabic for “The Violinist.” In five years, his vision of freedom through music had reached thousands of Palestinian kids.

“That was my dream,” he told me at dinner. “I wanted to have many schools, everywhere, in all of Palestine. And now,” he laughed, “I say, ‘Wow, I’m crazy, what have I done?’”

The building of Al Kamandjati is the story of a child from a refugee camp who confronts an occupying army, gets an education, masters an instrument, dreams of something almost surely beyond his reach, and inspires scores of others to work with him to pursue it. Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli musician and director of the Berlin State Opera, was among them. He has performed with Ramzi over the years—at chamber music concerts at Al Kamandjati, and in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra that Barenboim founded with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. “Ramzi has transformed not only his life, his destiny, but that of many, many, many other people,” Barenboim told me. “This is an extraordinary collection of children from all over Palestine that have all been inspired and opened to the beauty of life.”

Not only children: An American violist quit the London Symphony Orchestra partly to help Ramzi build his dream. A French violinist took leave from his Spanish orchestra to help bring the music school to the refugee camps. A gifted soprano who trained at the English National Opera put off her career in the United Kingdom to live in Ramallah and give voice lessons to Palestinian children. A score of Palestinian teachers and professionals signed over deeds to properties, raised hundreds of thousands of foundation dollars, donated thousands of hours of labor, and cajoled local civic and religious leaders to make room for a new form of musical education in the villages and camps.

Here, I realized, was a story in sharp contrast to the darkness I’d been encountering that December across the occupied West Bank. In the South Hebron Hills, children told me of settlers who stoned them, or unleashed German shepherds, as the children made their long trek to school. Near Qalqilya, a few miles inland from the Mediterranean coast, I met with local Palestinian leaders whose community was surrounded on three sides by the twenty-five-foot-high separation barrier that Israel had declared necessary to protect Israeli citizens from suicide attacks. Yet the wall sliced deep into the West Bank, seizing nearly ten percent of the land supposedly set aside for an independent Palestinian state. It cut off access to farmers’ olive orchards, and in places, it blocked daylight. At the military checkpoint at Qalandia, just south of Ramallah, I watched as Palestinians passed beneath soldiers in machine-gun nests and through long corridors of metal bars, carrying precious permits that would allow them a rare trip to the holy city of Jerusalem. On the Palestinian side of the wall, I met with teenagers in the Balata and Qalandia refugee camps who had given up hope of ever living in a free country. Their leaders, they believed, had sold them out, while enriching themselves and fellow elites with funds siphoned off from the international community.

After my fifteen years of traveling to Terra Sancta, these stories underscored the bleak prospects for meaningful peace. But my reconnection with Ramzi sparked something else. Hundreds of young Palestinian musicians, inspired by Beethoven, Mozart, and indigenous Arabic music, were forging their own independent vision. As the military occupation intensified, shrinking the free space around them; as their own leadership failed time and again to deliver on their promise of a “viable and contiguous” state of Palestine, these young musicians kept playing. Through the music, in small but meaningful ways, Ramzi, his teachers, and his students were creating their own freedom. At times it was an interior freedom: In the midst of violence and chaos, music brought inner calm. At times it was external, an assertion of independence in direct resistance to the occupation itself: children standing before stunned soldiers, performing impromptu classical symphonies.

I first learned these details of Al Kamandjati over dinner that night, and then the next night at a Christmastime concert of baroque music in a church north of Ramallah. In the coming summers, on the road in the West Bank; at a Bethlehem music camp with dozens of international musicians; and in a sunny courtyard echoing with the sounds of violin, piano, bassoon, and timpani, I learned a new way to navigate through a landscape of checkpoints, refugee camps, olive groves, military night raids, and endless failed peace talks.

The story of Al Kamandjati is about music, violence, and a dream of liberation. It’s about a growing movement of nonviolent resistance, new ways of thinking across the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the challenge of confronting religious extremism, the potential of music to protect and heal traumatized children, the struggle of one young musician to master an instrument, and, above all, the transformative power of music in a land of brutality, beauty, and confinement.

In Children of the Stone I hope to show what it’s like for ordinary Palestinians to live under a military occupation. Despite the boatloads of ink and forests of newsprint devoted to the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” precious little has examined day-to-day life under its most enduringly corrosive aspect: Israel’s forty-eight-year military occupation. To explore this I have focused not on “both sides” of the conflict as I did with my 2006 book, The Lemon Tree, but rather on the West Bank, on the “other” side of Israel’s separation barrier, through the drama, grace, joy, and hardship of a group of children engaged in learning music.

These children, along with Ramzi and the teachers who work with him, suggest an alternative way of understanding the conflict and its resolution. Edward Said, the late Palestinian intellectual and Columbia University professor, was himself drawn to music as a way of exploring alternative solutions to one of the world’s most impossible struggles. The story of his rare friendship with Barenboim, and the orchestra they founded, is told in this book, alongside Ramzi’s.

“The role of the intellectual is to ask questions,” Said once said. “To disturb people, to stir up reflection, to provoke, you might say, controversy and thought. The role of the intellectual is to challenge power by providing alternative models. And, as important, resources of hope. It’s not our destiny to be refugees. It’s not our destiny to be prisoners of war. It’s not our destiny to be commandos. It’s not our destiny to be an army of occupation.

“We have a choice.”

Ramzi_withOday_2005

At the dinner at Pronto, the Italian restaurant, as Ramzi told me the details of what he and his friends had accomplished, I kept grabbing his arm, leaning toward him, and exclaiming, “You did it, Ramzi! You did it! You did exactly what you said you would do!”

He smiled. “Come tomorrow. You must visit, and learn how we made this happen.”

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or my blog. Follow Ramzi’s journey by purchasing a copy of Children of the Stone here.

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