Daily Life in a Land of Conflict

Beethoven in Shatila

Abdallah Qazwah, 11, looks over sheet music to Beethoven's "Romance" in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. His brother, Khalil, a tabla player, stands at the ready with Abdallah's violin

“Romance!” exclaims 11-year-old Abdallah, standing astride his violin case in a narrow alley of Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. His eyes are alive, his smile wide. The exclamation comes in response to a question: What is your favorite music? The interviewer (that would be me) is not exactly a classical music aficionado, and so I had to wait for Abdallah’s violin teacher, the classically-trained Cambridge (UK) grad, Alice Howick, to tell me that the boy was not talking about a type of music, but rather an actual piece called Romance, by Beethoven.

Abdallah Qazwah is a student at Al Kamandjati, the Ramallah-based Palestinian classical and Arabic music school founded by Ramzi Aburedwan, who grew up in the Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah.

During the first intifada (1987-93), Ramzi was one of the “children of the stones” who fought to end the Israeli occupation. At age eight, he was hurling stones at Israeli soldiers. Later, he picked up a viola, got a scholarship, trained at a French conservatory, and built a vision to share the power of music to transform the lives of Palestinian children, especially in the refugee camps. Today dozens of musicians from across Europe, the U.S. and Palestine work with hundreds of Palestinian children in the West Bank and Lebanon.

Over the weekend I went with Ramzi from Ramallah to Beirut to check out Al Kamandjati’s work here. Like Ramzi, Abdallah was born decades after the first refugees arrived in 1948, having fled or been driven out of their homes during the creation of Israel. At Shatila, a few hundred refugees took what they thought would be temporary shelter in tent camps in Lebanon. Sixty-three years after their Nakba (Catastrophe), some 12 thousand refugees crowd into haphazard and ever-expanding concrete and rebar dwellings on a single kilometer of land in Beirut. They’re still waiting to go home.

Of course neither Abdallah nor his parents have any memory of the Nakba; neither does the child recall the unspeakable things that happened at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, or during the War of the Camps a few years later. And he has never laid eyes on Acca, once a Palestinian Mediterranean town and now part of Israel (known there as Akko, or Acre), halfway between Haifa and Shatila. But like so many children from the camps, he yearns to know the place he calls his home.

A few weeks ago, during a violin lesson, Alice, who directs the Al Kamandjati program in Lebanon, mentioned to Abdallah that she’d been to Acca. The boy calmly put his violin in its case, pulled up a couple of chairs, and, Alice recalled, “sat me down and said, ‘tell me everything about this place. I want to know it, I want to imagine it.’ So I tried to describe for him a little about this beautiful city. And he stopped me and said, ‘Fi hamam?’ And hammam is the word for a bathroom so I thought he was talking about a Turkish bath. And I told him, ‘Yes there are, I’ve never been but I’m sure it’s great.’ I thought it was a weird question. And he said, ‘No, not hammam, hamam.’ Which means doves. He wants to know if there’s doves in the city. I told him, ‘It’s two hours that way. Everything you have here…’ I mean, they feel so far away from this country somehow.”

The story of the Palestinian refugee camp is the story of the past – treasured memories of a village long gone, mixed with the trauma of expulsion – and the future: dreams of a moment when, somehow, the U.N. resolution promising the right of return will finally be implemented, and the refugees will be allowed to go home. Of course those old homes, in many cases, no longer exist. But the memory of them does. And for the refugees in Lebanon, living in the past and the future seems to make the present a little more tolerable.

Abdallah’s present now includes Romance. And so it is for all the children of Al Kamandjati, in Lebanon and the occupied West Bank. Music is the present; it lives in the moment at hand. In front of a music stand, before a wall of brightly painted sea creatures, Alice crouches beside her pupil, pointing to a measure and giving him some final tips. Abdallah nods. His bright eyes dance over a page of notes first written down by Ludwig van Beethoven two centuries ago. And he begins to play.

Ramzi’s Story: Laying Down Stones, Picking Up Instruments

In 1988, a photographer in the West Bank snapped a photo of a scrawny 8-year-old with tears in his eyes, hurling a rock at an Israeli soldier. The photograph symbolized the rage and frustration of the intifada. More than 20 years later, that boy, Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, has grown up to become a visionary musician.

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Shopping in Ramallah, I

I arrived in Ramallah a week or so ago, from America via Europe. This time, perhaps my 15th visit, it feels different – and not just politically, with stirrings around a possible Palestine statehood declaration in September. Personally, too.

Upon landing here in the West Bank, and taking up residency for the next few months in a flat in Ramallah, I found the familiar comfort of Arab hospitality – but now as someone who lives here, and is not just dropping in. This stay is fundamentally different from the many past trips when I parachuted into Jerusalem for two or three weeks, and lived out of a suitcase. There is something grounding about completely unpacking, finding the iron in the cupboard, counting the plates, thinking about putting things on the wall, and – most of all – shopping for provisions.

On my first night, my neighbor Sa’ad offered to walk me around the commercial center of Ramallah, in the 200-meter radius of the Manara, the Ramallah traffic circle guarded by a quartet of dignified, if sooty, stone lions. We set out in the cool evening, Sa’ad pushing his 20-month-old daughter in her stroller. He navigated from street to sidewalk, and around mounds of dirt and rubble: Ramallah’s streets are being torn up, one by one, to install new sewer and electrical lines. “Salma,” said Sa’ad, pointing at me as he paused in front of a pharmacy. “Say hello to Uncle.”

Sa’ad showed me where to catch the bus to Jerusalem, and the terminal where the vans go to Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and other West Bank destinations. He pointed out the best places to get fresh-squeezed juice, buy hummus, or linger over a glass of Arabic coffee. We walked around the hessbeh, the crowded, cacophonous Palestinian vegetable market where mounds of apples, tomatoes, eggplants, oranges, garlic and spices are trucked in every day from across Palestine and Israel. (Despite international calls for boycotting Israeli goods, Hebrew lettering on boxes of fruits is ubiquitous in nearly every cramped produce stall.) Sa’ad said he preferred to buy from the “ladies from the villages,” when possible. These old women sit on the sidewalk selling olives, grape leafs, cucumber, cheese and za’atar, the staple spice that is blended with olive oil and served at every Palestinian table. “It’s better because it’s organic,” Sa’ad said.

By now my black plastic bags were bulging with provisions, but Sa’ad wanted to take me on one last stop – to his favorite chicken butcher. He introduced me, said I had moved here for a while, and that the guys at the butcher shop should take good care of me when I come in for my chicken. Ala rasi, said the butcher with a big smile, touching the top of his head with the palm of his hand. The burden is on me. In other words, he’s happy to help make a new guy in town feel welcome.