Daily Life in a Land of Conflict

Tolan’s ‘Children of the Stone’ paints an honest devastating portrait of life under occupation


by Pamela Olson

CScoverYou have to hand it to journalist Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree. In his new book Children of the Stone, he doesn’t pussy-foot around. There’s no attempt at false “balance,” no endeavor to spend equal time on the Israeli side or make their situation seem as bad as—or worse than—the Palestinian reality in order to get the “non-biased” stamp of approval. In today’s language, poisoned by politics, “non-biased” means distorting facts to fit a mainstream narrative that amounts to a near-total inversion of reality. Tolan has none of it.
Instead he dares to tell a sweeping Palestinian story, from a predominantly Palestinian perspective, of passion and loss, hard work and violence, perseverance and corruption, focusing on the life of Ramzi Aburedwan, a boy from a Palestinian refugee camp who grows up to found Al Kamandjati, a gorgeous music school and a pride of Ramallah.

Click here to read the full review. Click here to read what others are saying about Children of the Stone.

The Journal of Music (Ireland): A Musical Intifada

thejournalofmusic_squarelogo_webIn ‘Children of the Stone’, a new book by Sandy Tolan, two drastically different visions of music’s potential collide, writes Raymond Deane

Readers of this magisterial book can make up their own minds, as Tolan presents every side of the argument sympathetically. Children of the Stone is both novelistic and scholarly… Those seeking a human interest story will find the book inspiring; simultaneously and effortlessly they will absorb a crash course in Israeli/Palestinian history, a history that involves all of us because of our governments’ failure to act decisively in the interests of peace and justice.

Click here to read the full review in the internationally-renowned, Ireland-based music magazine, The Journal of Music.

Ramzi Aburedwan and Sandy Tolan on “Performance Today” with Fred Child

The power of music

As a boy, Ramzi Aburedwan threw stones at Israeli soldiers. Then he learned to play the viola, and these days, he fights for peace — with music. On the Aug. 8 episode of “Performance Today,” journalist Sandy Tolan and Palestinian music teacher Ramzi Aburedwan join host Fred Child to discuss the power of music and Tolan’s new book, “Children of the Stone.” Click here to listen now.

Ramzi Aburedwan Antonio Olmos/PR

Ramzi Aburedwan Antonio Olmos/PR





In Palestine, A Child Of Violence Becomes A Music Educator

NPR “Weekend Edition”
July 12, 2015

Sandy Tolan and Ramzi Aburedwan in conversation with “Weekend Edition” NPR host Lynn Neary on Children of the Stone.

When the first Palestinian uprising began in the late 1980s, the images from the intifada showed exploding tear gas canisters launched by Israelis, answered by Palestinian youngsters shooting slingshots and hurling rocks.

A photographer snapped a photo of a boy with tears in his eyes, an 8-year-old named Ramzi Aburedwan.

The image came to represent the rage and frustration of life in the refugee camps. But although his face was famously stuck in time, Ramzi’s life changed dramatically when he was introduced to music at age 16. He began playing viola, received a scholarship to study at a conservatory in France and became a teacher. In 2005, he started Al Kamandjâti, schools to bring music to Palestinian children.

Today, Ramzi is touring America, playing an Arabic instrument called the bouzouk, along with other Middle Eastern players from the Dal’Ouna Ensemble. Sandy Tolan, a radio producer and author, has been following Ramzi’s story told in his new book, Children of the Stone.

BBC Radio 3: “Music Matters” features Sandy Tolan on the ‘remarkable’ story behind “Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land”

bbc-radio-3-logoRamzi Hussein Aburedwan, a child from a Palestinian refugee camp, got an education abroad, mastered an instrument and dreamt of something much bigger than himself. The dream was to build a music school to transform the lives of thousands of children, as Ramzi’s life was transformed, through music. During this journey Daniel Barenboim, the eminent Israeli conductor, invited Ramzi to join his West Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he then left due to the tensions sweeping the region, to continue following his dream.

Petroc Trelawny talks to the Middle East journalist Sandy Tolan who has documented this remarkable story in his new book “Children of the Stone – The Power of Music in a Hard Land.”

Listen here as Trelawny interviews Tolan on BBC Radio 3′s “Music Matters.”

Summer East Coast Book Tour & Concert Dates – Featuring Ramzi Aburedwan & Dal’ouna Ensemble

 in Washington, D.C.
National Cathedral, Perry Auditorium
3101 Wisconsin Ave.
7:00pm EDT
Reservations not required.


Ramzi Aburedwan & Dal’ouna Ensemble with Lena Seikaly and Sandy Tolan
in New York, NY
Le Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker Street
6:30pm EDT
Presented with in-kind support from Alwan for the Arts. Click here for tickets.

Ramzi Aburedwan & Dal’ouna Ensemble with Lena Seikaly and Sandy Tolan

in Bethesda, MD
Westmoreland UCC
1 Westmoreland Circle
7:00pm EDT
Click here for tickets.

Ramzi Aburedwan, Dal’ouna Ensemble, Sandy Tolan & the Seth Kibel Jazz Trio
with vocalist Lena Seikaly
in Easton, MD (on the Eastern Shore)
Trinity Cathedral
315 Goldsborough Street
5:30pm EDT
Click here for tickets.

Praise for ‘Children of the Stone’ in Huffington Post Books, the Seattle Times & St. Louis Dispatch


Sandy Tolan knows Palestinian life. His first book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East (2006) was followed up by his popular blog, Ramallah Café: Facts on the Ground in the Middle East. Now he gives us Children of the Stone where we hear more about some of the people we’ve met at his café,” writes Huffington Post Books’ Nancy Graham Holm.

“What we also get is an unexpected “symphony” in four movements with magical Interludes; a blend of biography and politics with a literate discussion of music. The book’s subtitle: The Power of Music in a Hard Land refers to the profound influence music can have on people who live in a perpetually punishing environment…” Read the full review here.

To hear what others are saying about Children of the Stone, check out the latest reviews from GoodReads, the Seattle Times and the St. Louis Dispatch.

Children of the Stone in the media, plus book tour dates

34.  flowersinviolincaseSandy Tolan is just one week into the book tour for Children of the Stone, and the response has been extraordinary. Not only did Children of the Stone appear in both The Daily Beast and Salon, but ‘Friday Was The Bomb‘ author Nathan Deuel referred to Tolan’s latest book as “a moving look at music’s power in Palestine.”  And the praise doesn’t end there:

“Teasing out all the details of this story, from the granular facts of Ramzi’s life to the complicated history of the region, Tolan is a scrupulous craftsman if not always a dazzling one. The end notes to the book run for nearly 100 pages, a workmanlike demonstration of rigor. But it isn’t poetic sentences or surprising metaphors that propel us forward; it’s the hard work of getting the story right — diligence required of any serious project about this, the most contentious of regions.”

You can read the rest of the review online at The Los Angeles Times. Future book tour dates are after the jump. Don’t forget to join Sandy Tolan’s Facebook page to stay current on all events.


Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Sausalito – San Francisco Ferry Bldg #42 in San Francisco, California
1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA
7:30pm in EDT

Want to read the latest excerpt from Children of the Stone before anyone else?


Want to read the next excerpt from Sandy Tolan’s new book? Share next week’s Grace Notes with your friends and you can read it right now! (more…)

Grace Notes: Week 2

11. AK Courtyard11.2005

Read all of the excerpts from the second week of Grace Notes. (more…)

Grace Notes: Week 1

9.  Ramzi&Sido

Read all of the excerpts from the first week of Grace Notes. (more…)

Grace Notes: Children of the Stone hits store shelves today

27.  BattirConcert

To promote the release of Sandy Tolan’s latest book, Children of the Stone, Ramallah Café presents Grace Notes, short excerpts curated by the author himself. The book, about one Palestinian’s dream to build a music school in the middle of a military occupation, is out today. Children of the Stone is already receiving wide praise from historians, early reviewers, and the famed musician Yo-Yo Ma. (more…)

Grace Notes: Read the first excerpt from Children of the Stone


Beginning today, Ramallah Café presents Grace Notes, short excerpts from Sandy Tolan’s forthcoming book, Children of the Stone. The book, about one Palestinian’s dream to build a music school in the middle of a military occupation, comes out this month. Children of the Stone is already receiving wide praise from historians, early reviewers, and the famed musician Yo-Yo Ma. (more…)

Israeli elections hit new low: Foreign Minister threatens to behead disloyal Palestinians

It was the kind of threat you’d expect to hear from the Islamic State – so extreme it made you want to rub your eyes in disbelief.  But there was Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on the campaign trail, calling for the beheading of disloyal Arab citizens of Israel.  “Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done – we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head,” said Israel’s foreign minister on March 8. “Otherwise we won’t survive here.”

Lieberman’s extremism is well known.  He frequently calls for loyalty oaths of “Israeli Arabs,” as Palestinians are known in Israel.  And in the face of the Arab “demographic threat,” he has repeatedly advocated “transfer” of those Palestinians out of Israel and into the West Bank – choosing the state’s Jewishness over democracy.  Yet Lieberman’s ISIS-like statement was extreme even for him.  It was covered in the Israeli press, and the Palestinian Authority called for Lieberman’s removal.  In the U.S., however, the news — the foreign minister of a close ally endorsing the execution of Arab citizens he deems disloyal — was met with a curious silence.

Sadly, there’s little reason for surprise here.  Israeli officials’ words and actions – the deadly 2014 assault on Gaza that killed 500 children and nearly 1000 other civilians; endlessly expanding West Bank settlements that force Palestinians into ever smaller pockets surrounded by military occupation; death threats from the foreign minister – take place without fear of consequence from Israel’s American benefactors.  (One can imagine, however, the justified outrage if a Palestinian official called for the beheading of Jews.)

The impunity now takes new form.  Last week, mostly Republican members of Congress rose like automatons, 29 times, to cheer the leader of a government under multiple international inquiries into war crimes in Gaza.  The deaths of 1400 civilians in Gaza, the 108,000 made homeless, the children who died of hypothermia, and the utter devastation which could take decades to repair, is framed as part of Israel’s “right to defend itself.”  (In this frame, Palestinians are not accorded such rights.)

Now, however, as Republican members of congress attempt to extend Israel’s impunity, allowing it to meddle in sensitive U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, questions of loyalty arise.  Analysis varies as to whether Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and his 46 Republican cadres crossed the line of treason with their condescending and ill-informed letter to Iran; it appears they did not.  But at the very least, in openly attempting to scuttle a U.S.-Iranian agreement, they were undermining American interests in favor of Israel’s, as narrowly defined by an influential group representing AIPAC, neocon architects of the Iraq war, and the hard-right American casino magnate, billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Senator Cotton, the newly-elected neocon darling, has received substantial campaign contributions from Adelson, a key promoter of Israeli settlements, close ally to Netanyahu, publisher of an influential right-wing newspaper in Israel, and bankroller of scores of other Republican hardliners.  Adelson, a fierce opponent of any agreement with Iran, instead promotes a U.S. nuclear first strike in the Iranian desert, to show their leaders that “we mean business.”

Another of Cotton’s benefactors is the Emergency Committee for Israel, whose founder, William Kristol, helped forge the bogus justification for the American invasion of Iraq.  Kristol promised a “two-month war” in Iraq; now he is part of the neocon-saber rattling campaign against Iran.  His Emergency Committee, according to Lobelog’s Eli Clifton, provided nearly one million dollars in advertising funds for Cotton’s successful Senate campaign.  Elliot Management, the hedge fund of billionaire and Republican Jewish Coalition board member Paul Singer, gave $165,000 to Cotton’s campaign.

And then there is AIPAC, which, according to Connie Bruck’s brilliantly-reported September 1, 2014 article in the New Yorker, provides “considerable input” in drafting legislation that is presented under the name of its sponsoring member of Congress.  It appears this was the also case with the letter from the 47 Senators.  “On all matters relating to Israel and the Middle East in general, AIPAC writes the legislation (or letters, resolutions, etc) which are then handed over to legislators to drop in the hopper, gather cosponsors, and get it passed or sent,” writes MJ Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer who is now sharply critical of the Israel lobby.  “Not only that, the ideas for these initiatives come out of AIPAC rather than (as is usually the case with lobbies) starting with the Member of Congress who then asks the lobby for help with drafting.  AIPAC does it all, from soup to nuts… I know this because back in my days working as a Congressional aide, I participated in that process. Mea culpa!”

Are the 47 Senators thus guilty of harboring greater loyalty to Israel and its lobby than to their own nation’s interests?  Perhaps Cotton and his Senate colleagues are acting on the sincere conviction that, in attempting to undermine sensitive nuclear negotiations with Iran, they are simply representing the American interest as they see it.  However, AIPAC, representing Israel and Netanyahu’s interests, has a history of using its congressional influence to try to destroy any such agreement by pushing for ever more crippling economic sanctions.  “We told them directly that a sanctions bill would blow up the negotiations – the Iranians would walk away from the table,” a senior administration official told the New Yorker’s Bruck.  “They said, ‘This bill is to strengthen your hand in diplomacy.’  We kept saying, ‘It doesn’t strengthen our hand in diplomacy.  Why do you know better than we do what strengthens our hand? Nobody involved in the diplomacy thinks that.’”  This year, with the DNA of AIPAC and pro-Israel hardliners apparently in the letter of the 47 Senators, the question of Congressional loyalties remain.

In recent months, however, there has been notable pushback from the Obama administration.  In late 2013, the White House sharply opposed AIPAC’s sanctions bill.  Sixteen months later, in the wake of John Boehner’s ill-advised Congressional invitation to Netanyahu, the White House isolated Israel, suggesting it could no longer be trusted with U.S. intelligence.  Coincidentally or not, one of the staunchest Democratic supporters of Israel, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who, adopting Netanyahu’s talking points, blasted the administration’s Iran negotiations as a “bad deal,” is suddenly facing corruption charges from the Justice Department. And shortly before Netanyahu’s address to the Congress, the White House announced that Robert Malley, vilified by segments of the Israel lobby as being too pro-Palestinian, would head the Middle East desk at the National Security Council.

Taken together, these developments are part of a steady deterioration in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, now at its lowest point in decades.  The time of impunity for Israel and its American lobby, of actions and words without repercussions, may be coming to an end.


Sandy Tolan’s new book Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land (Bloomsbury, April 7), tells the story of Palestinian children learning music against the odds, under Israel’s military occupation. Of the book, Yo-Yo Ma writes:

In a world where so much popular fiction depicts life in a dystopian world, it is refreshing to have this non-fiction account that reflects one individual’s belief in the power of music and culture to transform lives. Congratulations to Sandy Tolan for bringing us the story of Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, his philosophy and his personal mission to make a difference.  His story 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.” 

Praise from Yo-Yo Ma, advanced reviews, and other early buzz for Children of the Stone


CScoverMy new book, Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land, will launch in April, officially on April 21 with a talk at the downtown LA Public Library’s ALOUD series, hosted by NPR’s Kelly McEvers. A two-week national tour follows.  We’ve received wonderful initial feedback so far, including “blurbs” from Yo-Yo Ma and Reza Aslan, and glowing reviews from Booklist and others. We’ve set up a page to keep track of tour details as well as other news about the book itself and the conversations it hopefully inspires. We do want to help change the conversation in this country about Palestine/Israel. I would love you to take a look, like the Facebook author page, and stay in touch. https://www.facebook.com/SandyTolanAuthor

Thanks for taking the time to peruse the quotes and reviews that are coming in — we’re pretty honored and thrilled about it. And a special shout-out to my Bloomsbury editor, Kathy Belden, for her fantastic work on this book (and The Lemon Tree, too). Meantime, it would be great if you could like my author page. Hope to see you on the road!  More here, or click through for a book description and comments from Yo-Yo Ma and others.

Children of the Stone

Book description

It is an unlikely story.  Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, a child from a Palestinian refugee camp, confronts an occupying army, gets an education, masters an instrument, dreams of something much bigger than himself, and then, through his charisma and persistence, inspires scores of others to work with him to make that dream real. The dream: a school to transform the lives of thousands of children—as Ramzi’s life was transformed—through music.

Musicians from all over the world came to help. A violist left the London Symphony Orchestra, in part to work with Ramzi at his new school, Al Kamandjati. An aspiring British opera singer moved to the West Bank to teach voice lessons.  Daniel Barenboim, the eminent Israeli conductor, invited Ramzi to join his West Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he founded with the late Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said. Since then the two have played together frequently. “Ramzi has transformed not only his life, his destiny, but that of many other people,” Barenboim said.  “This is an extraordinary collection of children from all over Palestine that have all been inspired and opened to the beauty of life.”

Children of the Stone chronicles Ramzi’s journey—from stone thrower to music student to school founder—and shows how through his love of music he created something lasting and beautiful in a land torn by violence and war. This is a story about the power of music, first, but also about freedom and conflict, determination and vision. It’s a vivid portrait of life amid checkpoints and military occupation, a growing movement of nonviolent resistance, the prospects of musical collaboration across the Israeli–Palestinian divide, and the potential of music to help children everywhere see new possibilities for their lives.

Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land
Comments and review excerpts

In a world where so much popular fiction depicts life in a dystopian world, it is refreshing to have this non-fiction account that reflects one individual’s belief in the power of music and culture to transform lives. Congratulations to Sandy Tolan for bringing us the story of Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, his philosophy and his personal mission to make a difference.  His story 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.”

-Yo-Yo Ma

Somewhere amidst the separation barriers and the countless checkpoints, the refugee camps and the demolished homes, the fruitless negotiations and endless conflict, there is a people yearning for a life of dignity and normalcy. You won’t see them on TV or in many newspapers. But you will find them in Children of the Stone, Sandy Tolan’s moving account of the dispossessed children of Palestine, and the transformative power that music has had in giving them meaning and reason for hope.

- Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Children of the Stone is alive with compassion, hope and great inspiration. It is not necessary to believe in music’s power to defeat evil in order to be enchanted by this wonderful story.

- Tom Segev, Israeli historian and author of One Palestine, Complete and The Seventh Million

Sandy Tolan, author of the celebrated Lemon Tree, has produced another gem on what is happening under the surface in Palestine. This time the theme is the the liberating potential of music. The book contains enthralling  biographical trajectories of ordinary people fighting against the odds, like Ramzi the violist, Suhail the musical composer, Mariam the singer, Alá the aspiring violin student, Suraida the activist, who use music as an instrument of resistance and survival under military rule. Written in the style of investigative journalism, the book is riveting and uplifting, without skirting issues of contestation and controversy.

- Salim Tamari, Professor of Sociology, Bir Zeit University (West Bank) and author of Year of the Locust:  An Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past. 

Sandy Tolan’s narrative artistry fuses the coming of age of a talented, ambitious, and fiercely dedicated musician with the story of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967.  Ramzi Aburedwan’s music is powerful – even more so when we understand it as a form of resistance to occupation.  Humanizing Ramzi and other Palestinians by portraying them primarily as musicians working in a universal idiom is a major contribution to our understanding of who they are and essential to a political resolution of the conflict. 

- Joel Beinin, Professor of Middle East History, Stanford University

A resolute, heart-rending story of real change and possibility in the Palestinian-Israeli impasse.

- Kirkus Reviews

Eye-opening…Tolan’s exhaustive research and journalistic attention to detail shine through every page of this sweeping chronicle.

- Publisher’s Weekly

The one I can’t put down…

- Library Journal

A rare appeal: Help children under occupation learn music

An Al Kamandjati student learns the violin, Al Amari Palestinian refugee camp.  Photo by Margarida Mota.

An Al Kamandjati student learns the violin, Al Amari Palestinian refugee camp. Photo by Margarida Mota.


For the last five years, I’ve been reporting and writing Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land (Bloomsbury, April 2015), which chronicles the journey of musician Ramzi Aburedwan, a child of the first Palestinian Intifada, and his dream to build a broad musical presence in occupied Palestine.  Today Al Kamandjati (Arabic for The Violinist) has served thousands of Palestinian children through classes, workshops, annual music festivals, a instrument-building and repair center, and a summer music camp.

Now, amid great uncertainty in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Al Kamandjati faces significant financial challenges.  I have rarely if ever used this space to solicit funds on anyone’s behalf, but few causes are more worthy than that of Al Kamandjati, which uses the power of music to transform the lives of Palestinian children under occupation.  About Ramzi and Children of the Stone, the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma declares:

In a world where so much popular fiction depicts life in a dystopian world, it is refreshing to have this non-fiction account that reflects one individual’s belief in the power of music and culture to transform lives. Congratulations to Sandy Tolan for bringing us the story of Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, his philosophy and his personal mission to make a difference.  His story 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.”

Please consider Al Kamandjati in your year-end charitable contributions.  If you need any more convincing, take a couple of minutes to see Oh This World, a short, moving music video from the West Bank produced by Al Kamandjati, which demonstrates how music can be a source of both inspiration and protection for children living under occupation.  Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution in the U.S., here in France, and here in other parts of Europe and elsewhere.

For more about Al Kamandjati’s fundraising efforts, and additional details on how to contribute, see this fundraising appeal.  I’m sending it on behalf of Ramzi and his wife and Al Kamandjati partner, Celine Dagher.


Blown chances for peace in Gaza

Alongside the toll of death and broken lives, perhaps the saddest reality of the latest Gaza war, like the Gaza wars before it, is how easy it would have been to avoid. For the last eight years, Israel and the U.S. had repeated opportunities to opt for a diplomatic solution in Gaza. Each time, they have chosen war, with devastating consequences for the families of Gaza.  Read more, at TomDispatch.com…

Palestinian relatives at the funerals for the Bakr boys, four cousins aged 9, 10, and 11, killed in an Israeli shelling on a Gaza beach as they played hide and seek on July 15.  Photo by Mahmud Hams, AFP/ Getty

Palestinian relatives at the funerals for the Bakr boys, four cousins aged 9, 10, and 11, killed in an Israeli shelling on a Gaza beach as they played hide and seek on July 15. Photo by Mahmud Hams, AFP/ Getty


Children of the Stones book excerpt, from Granta

Child of the stones: Ramzi Aburedwan, in 1987 and 1997

An excerpt, published in Granta,  from Children of the Stones (working title), my forthcoming book (Bloomsbury, 2014) about making music under occupation in Palestine.  Much of the book focuses on Ramzi Aburedwan, a child of the first Palestinian intifada, whose Al Kamandjati music center serves hundreds of Palestinian children in the West Bank and refugee camps in Lebanon.  From the Granta piece:

Fadi’s Italian arias represented another form of freedom. Anyone who heard him sing for the first time was astonished by the power and tone of the boy’s clear soprano. His pitch, and his resonance, seemed to reach inside listeners. In the practice room with Julia, Fadi’s voice would soar above the piano, cutting through the ambient din of Jenin: clear and resonant. In recitals, he had a natural dramatic presence, his eyes widening at emotional turns in the piece, as if he understood the original Italian. He memorized his first song, ‘Sebben, Crudele’ written by the Italian baroque composer Antonio Caldara for his 1710 opera, La costanza in amor vince l’inganno (Faithfulness in love conquers treachery), in a single lesson. The next evening he performed it at a recital for other students, accompanied by Jason on the piano. Julia was stunned. Teachers found themselves on the verge of tears. ‘A star! A new star at the Kamandjâti!’ Fadi declared that evening, giddy with his own gifts and laughing in celebration. Read more, in Granta…

Over the Wall, to Play Beethoven in Jerusalem

Jamming at Qalandia: Musicians bound for Jerusalem to play Beethoven's 4th Symphony played a waiting game, hoping the rest of the Palestinians in the orchestra would make it through the checkpoint. Photo by Eric Culver

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony has inspired countless thousands of musicians since it was first performed more than two centuries ago.  Yet few, I’m sure, have risked arrest and prison time just to play this magnificent piece of music.

Enter the Ramallah Orchestra, made up largely of Palestinian musicians in their teens and twenties, accompanied by 15 or so visiting teachers and performers from Europe and the U.S.  The orchestra is a project of Al Kamandjati, the Ramallah-based music school at the center of my next book.  For the Palestinians in the orchestra, Beethoven’s music, inspiring at it is, makes up only part of the story.

The concert venue was in the Old City of Jerusalem, a holy place embedded deep inside the collective dreams and history of the Palestinians, yet denied them by a combination of bureaucracy and concrete.  For the Jerusalem concert, some of the musicians had managed to obtain the permits Israel allows for special occasions.  But on this hot summer day in Palestine, five members of the orchestra were not so lucky.  To play with their orchestra in the Holy City, the musicians would resort to the otherwise unthinkable:  climbing over the separation wall.

Their journey had started in the early afternoon, in the lovely stone and copper courtyard of Al Kamandjati’s headquarters in Old Ramallah, where a jasmine vine in bloom crawled up the wall to the rooftop.  Three dozen young Palestinian musicians and visiting accompanists carried their timpanis, double basses, cellos and music stands into the luggage hold of the tour bus.  They climbed aboard, instrument cases slung over their shoulders, renewing an annual Jerusalem ritual which, for many of these musicians, is reason enough to learn music.

For Palestinians, Jerusalem is becoming an imaginary city.  Though barely ten miles separate Ramallah from the walls of the Old City, reaching Jerusalem is increasingly less a physical journey than an exercise of the mind and spirit.  The city has been effectively sealed off by massive physical and bureaucratic barriers, while ironically being declared “united” by Israel, the authority in control during this period of the city’s five-thousand-year history.  To prove that, Israel’s Minister of Public Security recently shut down a children’s theatre festival and puppet show at the Hakawati, East Jerusalem’s Palestine National Theatre, because the festival had allegedly received funds from the Palestinian Authority.  The PA is confined to the West Bank, but its position, backed, in word if not in deed, by the most of the world’s nations, remains that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a sovereign nation called Palestine.

Now the lucky permit holders of the Ramallah Orchestra would be reconnected, if only for a few hours, with their holy city. (Al Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem, means “The Holy.”)  But the five musicians – one of the orchestra’s four violists, both of its timpani players, one of the double bass players, and a gifted violinist – had been told they would need the magnetic “biometric” cards Israel is implementing for its permit regime.  When Al Kamandjati went to apply, director Ramzi Aburedwan told me, “they said, ‘We don’t have the magnetic cards until July 10’” – days after the concert.  “It’s fucking crazy,” Ramzi added.  In an orchestra of only 37 people, the contributions of these five musicians was vital, Ramzi said; if the Ramallah Five couldn’t participate, he told me, he would cancel the concert.

We arrived at Qalandia military checkpoint, a exhaust-choked border crossing where hot, fuming drivers jockeyed for position, funneling into a single line before submitting for inspection.  Vendors selling kebab, tissue packets, pillows, bottles of water and verses from the Quran weaved through the knots of vehicles and the plastic litter and chunks of broken concrete.  Our bus inched forward.  Here, where the massive wall separates Ramallah from Jerusalem, the Ramallah Five would try Plan B:  Sit in the back of the bus, hoping that the soldiers would somehow get lazy and check only the foreign passports and approved permits.  As part of this plan, musicians holding the proper documents were strategically placed toward the front of the bus.

Three Israeli soldiers came on board, their American-made M-16s slung around their shoulders, and began their inspection.  One of them, baby-faced, with a round, pretty face and honey-blond hair, appeared to still be in high school.

They checked our papers, then conferred, apparently discussing whether to check the whole bus.  After some barked orders from a radio clipped to one of the soldier’s uniforms, they moved past us, toward the back. Plan B, it appeared, was not going to work.

Within minutes nearly all of the Palestinians, even the ones holding the proper papers, had been ordered out of the bus.  Permits or not, they would not be allowed to cross the checkpoint in relative dignity, like us foreigners who remained on the air conditioned bus.  As we rode to a parking lot on the other side, I pictured the Palestinian musicians, in the scrum of the pedestrian crossing where I have stood many times on my way to Jerusalem.  They would walk past the red metal benches of the “passenger lounge,” surrounded on three sides by blue vertical bars, then pass down a long corridor of silver bars, akin to a cattle chute on a western ranch, except for at the end they would be required to move through multiple eight-foot-high turnstiles, before ending up jammed with dozens of other Palestinians in front of yet another turnstile.


Our bus was waiting on the other side.  Montasser Jebrini, a Palestinian clarinetist now studying on France, was riffing on the hot pavement, playing a solo performance of “Helwadi” (Beautiful Girl), the song made famous by the Lebanese singer, Fairouz.  Montasser believed he had been allowed to stay on the bus because he passed for European or Anglo American.  “I am glad to be here,” he told me, “but I feel bad it’s just because my skin is lighter, while my friends have to walk through the checkpoint.”

In the parking lot, Simon Hewitt Jones, the visiting British soloist scheduled to perform the Mendelssohn that evening, stepped out of the bus with his violin.  Other musicians broke out their instruments, and they began jamming:  Violins, viola, cello, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, performed by an American, three Brits, a Frenchman, an Irishman, and a Palestinian.  Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” gave way to the Mendelssohn (“opus baking in the sun,” someone quipped), then morphed into Morrison’s Irish Jig, led by Johnny McBride, a fiddler from Northern Ireland.  The whole tableau was set against the backdrop of gun turrets, spindly red-and-white surveillance towers, and the supposedly impenetrable wall.  “It’s pretty threatening,” said the fiddler, “but not altogether unfamiliar.  For the first half of my life, this is what Northern Ireland looked like.”


Steps away, on the Ramallah side, separated by more walls of bars, the Palestinian teenagers waited in the scrum.  Every so often, above the turnstile, a red light turned green, a click sounded, and three or four more people passed through to place their possessions on a conveyor belt, hold up their permits to a dull green bullet-proof window, and wait as bored-looking soldiers on the other side inspected the documents and waived the permit holders through.

But there were only nine permits for fourteen musicians, and the musicians without them couldn’t talk their way through.  And so the Ramallah Five were turned away.  They clicked their way backward through the turnstiles and cattle chute to the Ramallah side, denied Jerusalem and uncertain what to do next.  They had to come up with a Plan C.


One or two at a time, Palestinian string players joined us at the bus.  Soon all of them had arrived, except for the Ramallah Five.  “They couldn’t get through,” someone told us.  “They said to go on to Jerusalem.  They will try to join us somehow.”

We rode south in silence for a time, wondering if the concert, in the Old City on the grounds of the French church, St. Anne’s, would have to be canceled.


“Hey,” someone said to the musicians on the other side, “you want to go to Jerusalem?”  He sat with a group of men smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and nodded toward a van.  Yes, the musicians said, they did.  “You are five?  It will be 250 shekels”  – about 70 dollars, or 14 per musician.

The man turned to his partner.  “Get these guys to Jerusalem.”  The Ramallah Five piled into a van.  The door slid shut and the driver began working two phones, making arrangements.  “Give me the money,” he said.  They haggled over the price, agreeing on 40 shekels (about 11 dollars) each. “But you have to pay now,” the driver said.  The man gave them his phone number, and told them to call when they reached Jerusalem.  Apparently he wanted satisfied customers.

A short time later the driver pulled over, stepped into a building, and emerged with a very long ladder, which, when extended to its full length, reached the top of the wall.  “Come,” he said.  The five musicians approached the towering slab of concrete, which reached at least 25 feet high.


The mood on our bus was subdued; as we rode south, it was still unclear whether the five musicians would somehow make it through to Jerusalem.


A string player went up the ladder first, gazing up to the top of the wall, where nasty-looking loops of curling concertina wire appeared to present a sharp and dangerous obstacle.  But the Palestinian trafficker, who had scrambled to the top of the wall, had already cut the wire; now, he sat beside the ladder at the top of the wall, and, with the back of his forearm, simply swept the loops of wire aside, like a curtain.  This was all completely organized beforehand, the musicians realized.  They must do this all the time for illegal Palestinian workers.  Then the Palestinian coyote pulled a long knotted rope from a plastic bag, looped it around a metal post at the top of the wall, and dropped it down to the other side.

One by one, the young musicians mounted the ladder, sat atop the wall, grabbed the rope, and slowly slithered down, trying to use the knots as footholds.  It wasn’t easy; the knots were small.  Halfway down, one of the string players saw a vehicle approaching on the narrow access road.  He froze; was this a soldier coming to arrest him?  “Don’t worry,” the coyote called down, “it’s a local Palestinian.” Still, the violist began to imagine what would happen if he were arrested.  From the midpoint, perhaps 15 feet above the ground, he fantasized about being taken to jail, and telling his fellow Palestinian inmates, to boisterous laughter, that he’d been arrested for intending to play music.  Then, still sliding down the rope, he imagined the speech he would give to the judge in Israel:  Why am I guilty?  The only thing that I am doing is trying to make my music for people in Jerusalem; I just want to play Beethoven and Mendelssohn. For your information, his imagined speech continued, I have learned about your suffering. I was shocked by this history.  What I don’t understand is why you’re treating us this way…

The hard ground at the end of the rope snapped the musician from his reverie, and he looked up to see the timpanist toss the bag of his sticks down toward him from the top of the wall.  Now the violinist was coming down.  But something was wrong; he was having trouble telling how far he was from the ground.  He jumped too early, landing on his feet and falling hard onto his back.  Everyone laughed, and at the time, it seemed he was okay.  From the top of the wall, the bass player tossed him his violin, in its soft blue case.

Now all five musicians were together, on the Jerusalem side of the wall.  The entire operation had taken five minutes.  They brushed themselves off and entered a restaurant for kanafe, the pizza-shaped Palestinian dessert made of sweet cheese and pistachios.  “That kanafe was very good,” recalled the viola player.  “Then we called to see where the bus was.”


The Ramallah Five appeared in the road beside our bus, smiling broadly and bounding up the steps to cheers from the orchestra.  One of them showed me a video of the ladder, and the wall, and two of the musicians climbing toward the sky:  proof of their deed.

Twenty minutes later, we arrived on the tranquil grounds of St. Anne’s, a French church built during Crusader times.  An old French priest welcomed us with a soft smile and a heavy accent; tourists wandered quietly through the garden, or rested on shaded benches.  A French flag flapped from the steeple.  It was as if Qalandia and the wall had never existed.

The musicians disappeared the cavernous, echoey church to rehearse Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.  I sat on a rock wall outside the church.  The sound of a violin solo drifted out, joined now by the entire orchestra; trombone, oboe, flute, and the pounding of the timpani.

Soon we learned that the violinist who had climbed the wall fell ill, vomiting repeatedly.  It was shock, a doctor told him, from the hard landing at the wall.  He would not play the Old City that night.

But the other 36 members of the Ramallah Orchestra would.  A little after 8 in the evening, strings whispered the haunting first notes Beethoven’s 4th, in a minor key, as 200 visitors filled the chairs of the old church.  They had no idea what it had taken to get to Jerusalem to play Beethoven.  But perhaps they sensed something. Moments after Diego Masson, the visiting French conductor, made his last thrust, and the final notes of the 4th echoed off the walls, the audience rose in a sustained, joyful ovation.

A small tale of healing in Palestine

The profound amid the quotidian: Al Kamandjati's Ramallah Orchestra, rehearsing Beethoven and Mendelssohn in Old Ramallah, for a series of concerts beginning June 29 in Jerusalem

I arrived in Ramallah a week ago, limping heavily, and right into another story of Palestinian hospitality. I had torn a calf muscle doing exercise in my Jerusalem hotel room, and, after managing to get on the #18 minibus to Ramallah, then hop a cab to the flat I’m renting here for two weeks, I met my landlords – three generations of an old Ramallah family who live in the flats above and below the one they were renting me.  This is my sixth trip to Palestine since 2009, all for reporting and research for my new book, about making music under occupation in Palestine.  Every time I come, I encounter small, profound kindnesses: surprise in the quotidian life.

When he saw me limp up the stairs, Ziad, a young doctor, provided a quick assessment of my ailment; then with a look of concern, he asked me if I needed any groceries, since I wouldn’t be able to walk to get any. Well, yes, thanks, I said. Make a list, he said. Then he told me he knew an orthopedist at the end of the block; would I like him to try to get an appointment? Well, yes, thanks, I said again.

Ziad went off to see the doctor and came back a short time later: the doctor was about to leave his office but could see me now. Take my arm, Ziad said, as I hobbled down the block. In moments the orthopedist had diagnosed the muscle tear, given me a shot in the rear, prescribed two medicines and a support sleeve, and told me I’d be better tomorrow. Then he and Ziad discussed, in Arabic, whether it was right to charge me, since I was a visitor. Finally the doctor accepted 100 shekels, or about $30.

Ziad helped me walk back hom home and then set off for provisions.  A short time later he arrived with my coffee, milk, fruit, bread, and medicines.

I had scarcely moved a muscle, but now was supplied and cared for by people who, moments earlier, had been complete strangers. They put me on the mend. And today my limp is gone.

The whole experience was awesome, of course, but after 19 years of traveling to Palestine, not surprising.