by SRB

Sandy Tolan, Children of the Stone (Bloomsbury £20)

September 18, 2015 | by SRB


Even those who have never heard of Ramzi Aburedwan, may have seen him. When Ramzi was eight years of age, he was photographed in the Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah throwing a stone at Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada.

The image went viral, before the term was invented. And there are two more photographs in Sandy Tolan’s book about him which contextualise the original. One is a black and white triptych which shows Ramzi’s stone-throwing action in three phases – run, pivot and release. Together they resemble the action of a javelin thrower transferring momentum into power. However, a colour photograph on the following page shows him at a makeshift barricade with other children and it is clear how small he was and how tiny the stone. No wonder he became a symbol of Palestinian resistance.

Tolan first met Ramzi in 1998 during the relative optimism of the post-Oslo Accords period. By then Ramzi was eighteen and had swapped his stone for a viola. Tolan recorded his music and his memories of the intifada and subsequently broadcast the story on National Public Radio. The two met again in a restaurant on the West Bank in 2009 and the second encounter prompted this book. It tells the remarkable story of Ramzi’s life from clearing rubbish from the streets of Ramallah with his grandfather to his founding Al Kamandjati (‘The Violinist’ in Arabic) which established music schools for Palestinian children.

The title ‘Children of the Stone’ derives from ‘Children of the Stones’ as the Palestinian youth of Ramzi’s generation were known. The use of the singular ‘stone’ is deliberate and is intended ‘to invoke the stone of terra sancta [or Holy Land]’. The book is divided into four ‘Movements’ – ‘Stone’, ‘Instrument’ ‘Practice’ and ‘Resistance’ – and these in turn are separated by three short interludes. The interludes consist of a running black comedy involving a group of musicians who were refused entry to Jerusalem to play a Beethoven concert and are forced to employ smugglers to help them cross the Israeli West Bank separation barrier.

Ironically, Ramzi’s story is an extended exercise in the theory of six degrees of separation. A music therapist called Mohammed Fadel heard about him and suggested the viola rather than the violin because he had large hands. Another teacher was connected with the Apple Hill Chamber Players in the United States and Ramzi was awarded a scholarship to play in its annual festival in New Hampshire. From there, he caught the attention of Argentine-Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said who had founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; named after a poetry anthology by Goethe and set up to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

All this played out against personal and political circumstances that could hardly have been more challenging. Eleven year old Ramzi was part of a family group that discovered the decapitated body of his father who was accused of collaborating with Israel and his brother Rami was murdered by criminals while attempting to buy a car. Ramzi’s Al Kamandjati dream also had to contend with the daily reality of violence, travel restrictions and dashed Palestinian hopes stretching from Oslo to Obama.

And yet Al Kamandjati came to be; based initially in Ramallah and reaching out from there to villages and refugee camps elsewhere in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon. One marvellous sequence in the book describes Ramzi taking delivery of a truck load of musical instruments, ‘perhaps a half million dollars’ worth’, collected across Europe and shipped from France to support the newly established music school.

It would be easy to descend into hagiography and it is to Tolan’s credit that he avoids that despite the fact that the book is underpinned by ‘hundreds of hours’ spent with his subject. Ramzi is occasionally portrayed as difficult and demanding and some teachers fled back to their home countries when they were unable, or unwilling, to deal with him. More broadly, he was uncompromising in his dedication to the Palestinian cause and eventually became estranged from both Apple Hill and Divan when he decided that that they were passively supporting ‘normalisation’ – i.e. acceptance of the status quo, including Israeli settlements. Both organisations refused to join Al Kamandjati in endorsing the Palestinian ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ strategy which was intended to increase economic and political pressure on Israel.

Away from the adult politicking, however there are the children and music as their path to healing or pride or as an expression of longing for a home which some in the refugee camps are now three generations removed from.  Under the circumstances, Scottish comparisons can’t help but seem reductive, but there is one lurking here. Eric Culver, a sixty year old violinist from New York, is quoted as saying that Al Kamandjati reminds him of El Sistema which was formed to introduce impoverished Venezuelan children to music. As Culver puts it, El Sistema ‘is not about “making musicians”. It’s about improving people’s lives through music.’ Scotland doesn’t have checkpoints, military patrols, night raids, surveillance towers or occupation to contend with, but it does have its own version of El Sistema. Those of us who watched and listened in 2012 when the children of Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise Orchestra played an outdoor concert in the Raploch below Stirling Castle left with a good idea of how it is all works.

[This review first appeared in The Herald]
















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