Children of the Stones (working title – book introduction follows below) will tell a universal story about what a small group of people can do to create something beautiful and sustaining. It will be about music, freedom, and strife; about never giving up; and about a singular vision rooted in the love of children. Along the way there are lessons about hope, persistence, education, occupation, life in the refugee camps, prospects for a just reconciliation, the practice and politics of nonviolent resistance, the challenge of confronting uncompromising expressions of faith, the importance of music in childhood development, the Arab-Jewish history of music in Palestine, the conversations inherent in musical collaboration, and the struggle to master an instrument. Woven throughout will be the spirit of fellowship created by music, and the transformational role music plays in the lives of children.
The story will be told as a “nonfiction novel.” The book’s central characters will include Palestinian musician Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, once a child of the refugee camps and the first intifada, and the musicians who have come to help him transform the lives of many hundreds of children – and therefore, to shape the future. At the heart of the book is a story of young people struggling to express their freedom, and make something beautiful, amid exceptionally difficult circumstances. But the book will also explore, through music schools operating in the West Bank and Lebanon, the prospects for a genuine, just, and durable peace. Toward that end the book will document a broader vision rooted in the history of music in the Holy Land, and other efforts, including those of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, where Ramzi received much of his initial training, and which has developed the first Palestine National Orchestra since the days of the British Mandate in the 1930s. The book will also explore the friendship between Edward Said and renowned musician Daniel Barenboim, which led to the formation of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, based in Spain and performing around the world.
Children of the Stones will be published by Bloomsbury, publisher of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (also by Sandy Tolan), which has sold more than 200,000 copies in English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Turkish.
I. (Introduction, Children of the Stones)
(C) 2012 by Sandy Tolan
It was a chance encounter, or so it seemed, in December 2009, in an Italian restaurant in Ramallah. I was in the West Bank, working on a story on the grim prospects for Middle East peace, when I heard my name being called from across the restaurant.
I looked across at a young bearded man. He was smiling at me. But I didn’t recognize him. He pointed to himself: “Ramzi!” Ramzi?
I hadn’t seen him in years. Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan had been a child of war, one of the thousands of Palestinian children who threw stones at Israeli forces during the six years of the intifada (1987-93), the Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At age 8, Ramzi had been immortalized in one of the most iconic images of the era: A shaggy-haired boy with tears in his eyes, hurling a stone at an unseen Israeli soldier.
By the time I met Ramzi, the intifada was over. It was 1998. He was a skinny, clean-shaven 18-year-old, living with his grandparents in the Al-Amari refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah. No longer was he sneaking through the camp, throwing stones at soldiers and dashing from rooftop to rooftop to escape. Now, in the early days of the Oslo peace process, Palestinians who had long been in exile were returning to the West Bank, bringing new possibilities as they dreamed of finally having a state of their own. New cultural institutions were springing up, and Ramzi suddenly had a chance to study his lifelong passion: music. He had laid down his stone, and picked up a viola.
A Palestinian musician had learned of his innate talent and thirst for learning, and plucked him out of the camp. In a very short time, Ramzi became a prodigy, and a symbol. Posters around Ramallah showed little Ramzi, with the stone, alongside a larger image of a young man pulling a bow across his viola.
I spent several weeks with Ramzi back then, meeting his family in their modest home in Al-Amari, recording his music and his memories of the intifada. He remained proud of his stone-throwing days, echoing the sentiments of most Palestinians, who believed, then, that the stone would lead to their liberation. “I wish I could collect all of the stones that 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.” And yet now, he could afford to think of something else: “When I was growing up I thought that I would spend all of my life throwing stones, But what kind of achievement is that? The stone is not an international achievement. Music is an international achievement.”
What struck me back then was not Ramzi’s playing, or even his experience as one of the “children of the stones,” as the late Palestinian leader, Abu Jihad, called Ramzi’s generation. Rather, it was his vision of how he wanted to help transform the lives of children, and bring a message of hope and possibility from Palestinians to the world: “I want to see many conservatories opening up in all of Palestine, so that people who would want to learn to play music would be able to,” he told me one cold gray afternoon, looking out his window at the narrow alley in the camp. “And I want for children to understand that there’s something called a viola, and a violin. I want people to see that that we are people who 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.”
A rare vision indeed for an 18-year-old. But even at the time, I didn’t put it past him. Just as the piece aired, Ramzi got a scholarship to study the viola at a prestigious conservatory in Angers, France.
We kept in touch for a few years. I followed his progress at Angers. I’d heard he’d started a traveling band, playing mostly Arabic music, while continuing to learn classical viola at the conservatory in Angers.
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 conservatories all over Palestine.” Just like he told me, as a teenager, 12 years earlier.
With the help of musicians and supporters from the U.S., England, Germany, France, and the West Bank, Ramzi had, in fact, opened 10 music schools, including three in refugee camps in Lebanon. He called them Al Kamandjati – Arabic for “The Violinist.” In just five years, his vision of musical freedom – of showing children the beauty of music, and changing the course of their lives in the process – 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 unlikely story of a kid from the refugee camp who 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. Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli musician, pianist, conductor and music director of the Berlin State Opera, is among them. He has worked with Ramzi frequently – at chamber music concerts in 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 says. “This is an extrordinary collection of children all over Palestine that have all been inspired and opened to the beauty of life.”
The transformation is not limited to the lives of children. An American violist quit the London Symphony, partly in order to help Ramzi build his dream. A French violinist took leave from his orchestra Barcelona to create music programs in the refugee camps. A gifted soprano who trained at the National English Opera abandoned her career in the UK to live in Ramallah and give voice lessons to Palestinian children. A score of Palestinian, European and American philanthropists, teachers and professionals signed over deeds to properties, raised hundreds of thousands of foundation dollars, donated thousands hours of labor, and cajoled local and religious leaders to make room for a new form of musical education in the villages and camps.
As I learned these details of the creation of Al-Kamandjati – first, over dinner that night; the next night, at a Baroque concert in a church north of Ramallah; in the coming months, on the road in the West Bank and at a Bethlehem summer music camp with dozens of international musicians – I began to see first hand what a small group of people can do to create profound change. Theirs is a story about music, freedom, and conflict; about never giving up; about a singular vision rooted in the love of children. It’s also about life amid checkpoints and military occupation, a growing movement of nonviolent resistence, the past and future of musical collaboration across the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the challenge of confronting religious extremism, the potential of music to help children see new possibilities for their lives, and the struggle of one young musician to master a musical instrument. Above all, this is a story about the transformative power of a vision, a strategy, an awesome work ethic, and a little luck.
At the dinner in Pronto, the Italian restaurant, as Ramzi was telling 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!”
He smiled. “Come tomorrow,” he told me. “You must visit, and learn how we made this happen.”