Tolan, Sandy. “Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land”, Bloomsbury, 2016.
Transforming Life Through Music
Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan is a “child from a Palestinian 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”. His dream was to have a school to transform the lives of thousands of children, just as his had been transformed, through music.
What he did not expect was that musicians from all over the world would come 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 had no idea of the power he had. He not only transformed his life and destiny but that of many other people. There are children from all over Palestine that have all been inspired and opened to life’s beauty.
This book is Ramzi’s story and his journey from being a stone thrower to a student of music to a founder of a school and we see how his love of music created something lasting and beautiful in a land torn by violence and war. This is also a story about determination and the power of music and about conflict and freedom and vision. We read of life amid checkpoints and military occupation and a growing movement of nonviolent resistance and the prospects of musical collaboration across the Israeli–Palestinian divide, and the power of music to help children everywhere see new possibilities for their lives.
Sandy Toban has done great research in order to write this lovely book. He spent time in Palestine interviewing people and documenting what he wrote. This is one of the most well researched books I’ve ever read. About 25% of the book is notes regarding source materials. Tolan (who’s actually a man despite the first name Sandy) goes to great lengths to document his research. He spent quite a lot of time in Palestine interviewing people and experiencing what he documents first hand. He truly immersed himself in the struggle in order to understand and then write about it.
Tolan successfully manages not to write about the Israeli perspective of the situation in Palestine and it is not within the scope of the book anyway. He does mention, however, that because every Israeli is required to serve for two years in the military, no one is truly innocent or oblivious.
Telling the personal story of Palestinian musicians mixed with the on-going tragic history of Israel and the Palestinians is certainly a difficult ordeal. We see Tolan’s objectivity and it is up to the reader to decide where to place his sympathies. We see that the musicians are never able to separate their nationalities enough to find complete common ground with each other. We indeed see the plight of Palestinians of whom most are innocent in terms of actions against Israel. Through Ramzi’s story we see that Israelis and Palestinians can cooperate in actions for the good of both people. Ramzi Aburedwan grew up under restrictive conditions in a Palestinian refugee camp. Like many Palestinian children, he witnessed other children being killed, and knew many adults who were also maimed or killed by Israeli weapons. Young Ramzi protested the occupation by throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. A famous photograph of him as a child throwing stones received considerable publicity worldwide.
However, when Ramzi was still a child he was given the rare opportunity to learn the viola. His love of music and dedication to developing his skill led him to eventually receive scholarships to study music in the U.S. and France, and later to perform with the West-Eastern Divan orchestra of Daniel Barenboim. Argentinean Israeli Barenboim was devoted to maintaining an orchestra that included Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims.
We also learn of Daniel Barenboim whose youth orchestra Ramzi eventually left because he viewed it as an unhelpful example of “normalization” by presenting a facade of Israeli/Palestinian cooperation that did not directly address or take a stand against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and expansion of Israeli settlements.
However nothing can dwarf Ramzi whose dedication to music and his increasing determination, as he grew older to develop and maintain music schools throughout Palestine. This difficult task involved winning considerable international financial support including donations of musical instruments and a volunteer staff music instructors from many countries. The obstacles were enormous, particularly in regard to mobility between Palestine and Israel – legal and dangerous illegal crossings, often involving passing through dozens of checkpoints with many hours – even days – of waiting in lines, sometimes in terrible heat.
This is a book about admirable and inspirational men, women and children who are dedicated to cooperation between two peoples who have been at war for decades. It is also a book about the joys of music – especially the fulfillment and meaning that learning a musical instrument and performing with others can provide disadvantaged children. If you are looking for politics, you are in the wrong place.