In “Children of the Stone,” journalist Sandy Tolan tells the story of a group of Palestinian musicians who used their collective talents to bring the healing power of music to a beleaguered community. Tolan speaks Friday, April 24, at Town Hall Seattle.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plays local and global hardball over Palestine — publicly renouncing a two-state solution before his recent re-election, then backing off his renunciation after his victory — journalist Sandy Tolan explains in his new book just how this realpolitik contributes to the hell that can be actual daily life for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. And how one Palestinian group responds with music.
In “Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land” (Bloomsbury, April, 480 pp., $28), Tolan focuses on Ramzi Aburedwan, who was born in 1979 and raised in the Al Amari refugee camp, and whose face became iconic worldwide in 1988 when he was photographed angrily hurling rocks at Israeli soldiers during the first Palestinian intifada.
Around that time, Ramzi helped his family’s meager income by delivering newspapers in nearby Ramallah, which set off a remarkable series of encounters: with subscriber Soraida Hussein, who connected him with musical therapist and violinist Mohammad Fadel, whose work with Ramzi would enable the boy to study music in New Hampshire, which would lead to further study in France, ultimately leading to the creation of one of the world’s more unique music organizations.
The author of “Children of the Stone” will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 24, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. Information: 206-652-4255. He will read at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or eagleharborbooks.com).
Ramzi, though, seems to have started as very raw material. One day, the boy was outside awaiting his viola lesson with Fadel when he saw a van transporting Israeli settlers: “He stepped into the street, picked up a stone, and hurled it at the approaching car,” Tolan writes. “Ramzi heard the windshield crack. He turned and ran. A moment later, he could hear shouting in Hebrew, then the sound of rapid machine-gun fire. Mini Uzi, Ramzi thought, without looking back. Shot into the air. From the acoustics, and the percussion, he determined the make and direction of fire.”
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Still, Ramzi intimately understood the positive energy he could create by bringing music into Palestinian refugee camps like Al Amari, and so, in 2002, the Al Kamandjati Association was born.
It was a huge project in which Ramzi reached out to many musicians he’d met abroad, and to the local Palestinian community, to bring in music teachers, amass hundreds of musical instruments, and renovate a space in Ramallah where the budding musicians could practice and perform.
Parallel to his efforts in Ramallah, Ramzi met renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim, an Argentinian Jew and longtime champion of Palestinian rights, who invited Ramzi to his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, comprising young Israeli, Arab and European musicians.
Tolan reconstructs the extraordinary obstacles Al Kamandjati has faced, from the maddening but routine array of Israeli checkpoints that make travel unpredictable, if not humiliating or even perilous, to the Israeli-built wall that divides the West Bank and separates it from Israel, to the ongoing battles, many of them ferocious, in the occupied territories. Not to mention the members’ personal tragedies, such as the violent deaths of Ramzi’s father and younger brother.
Ramzi would leave his position in Barenboim’s orchestra, saying the maestro’s evenhandedness was unsustainable in such a power imbalance between Palestinians and the Israeli government.
Tolan never purports to show the parallel narratives of Palestinians and Israelis, nor does he detail the Palestinian provocations that have inflamed the Israeli military. He simply attempts, and succeeds, at humanizing these musicians.
So the book leaves a bus carrying Ramzi and fellow musicians making their own “musical intifada” — an impromptu performance of Mozart and Bizet at one Israeli military checkpoint — to resounding applause.