A Musical Intifada

Palestinian violist Ramzi Aburedwan

A Musical Intifada

In 'Children of the Stone', a new book by Sandy Tolan, two drastically different visions of music’s potential collide, writes Raymond Deane.

US author Sandy Tolan’s 2006 best-seller The Lemon Tree documented the encounter between a Jewish Israeli woman and the dispossessed Palestinian in whose home she now lives. Tolan’s new book, Children of the Stone, also traces two parallel histories: those of Ramzi Aburedwan, a boy from a Palestinian refugee camp, and the superstar Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim – or, more precisely, the Israeli/Arab orchestra he founded in 1999 with his friend, the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said.

Born in 1979, Aburedwan was raised in the West Bank refugee camp Al Amari. Aged four, he repeatedly defended his mother against the assaults of his alcoholic father. When his parents divorced in 1985, Ramzi was looked after by his paternal grandfather, Sido. At a UN school in Ramallah, he encountered musical instruments for the first time – percussion and a violin (al kamandja in Arabic). When the first Palestinian uprising erupted in 1987, a journalist photographed Ramzi about to fling a rock at Israeli soldiers; widely reproduced, the image became ‘perhaps the single most recognized image of the Palestinian intifada.’

In the wake of the 1993 Oslo ‘peace’ accords, the Palestinian National Conservatory is founded in Ramallah. Ramzi, wishing to learn violin, is entrusted with a viola instead. His first teacher, Mohammad Fadel, is a music therapist who believes that music is ‘not only a way to move beyond victimhood’ but ‘a path to healing and… to a complete personal transformation.’ Thanks to visiting teacher Peter Sulski, an American on leave from the London Symphony Orchestra, he is awarded a scholarship to Apple Hill in New Hampshire, USA, in 1997. After a months intensive tuition Ramzi participates in a successful public performance of Mozarts G-Minor Piano Quartet. Euphoric, he speculates whether one day, he could start something like Apple Hill in Palestine?

The following year he receives a scholarship to the Conservatoire dAngers in France. Here he forms an Arabic-French band called Dalouna that will soon be performing across Europe. Here too, in October 2002, he founds the Al Kamandjati [The Violinist] Association which will give music workshops in the West Bank over the next few summers, before establishing a school in Ramallah in 2005 that will cater primarily to children from refugee camps.

In 2006 Daniel Barenboim visits Ramallah to conduct the Palestine Youth Orchestra (linked to what is now called the Edward Said National Conservatory) in which Ramzi plays viola. He attracts Barenboims attention, auditions for him, and is invited to join the fabled West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

From the start, Aburedwan seeks to persuade the orchestra to take a strong position against the occupation. Not alone is this opposed by the Israelis (who make up some 40% of the orchestras members), but also by the non-Palestinian Arab musicians who simply dont wish to rock the boat. Aburedwan realises that Barenboim wants me for a certain reason, and thats sad. He is the token Palestinian member, giving the orchestra spurious authenticity.

Meanwhile, Palestinian civil society has endorsed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as its preferred non-violent tactic against the occupation. In 2010 the Al Kamandjati Association, to Barenboims disapproval, ask[s] all people who believe in human rights and in freedom, to boycott Israeli products as well as cultural and academic institutions, until Israel… respects the international laws, and ends the occupation.’ Unable to persuade the Divan to endorse the inalienable Palestinian right of return, Aburedwan packs his bags in the middle of the orchestras rehearsals, skipping its tour of South America and the Caribbean…’.

Its clear that two drastically different visions of musics potential role in an unjust world have collided here, and it is ironic that one of them stems from Edward Said, a revered icon of Palestinian resistance. In 1982 Said wrote that texts… are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place and society – in short, they are in the world and hence worldly. Twenty years later, accepting the Prince of Asturias Award but facing imminent death from leukaemia, he seemingly comes to believe that music at least can be unworldly, embodying a humanism that is apolitical. For Barenboim, a brave man who has challenged Israeli orthodoxy without fully endorsing Palestinian rights, [i]n the orchestra there are no checkpoints. There is no occupier and occupied. For both men it seems that the utopian space of musical performance evokes a potentially reconciled world, overlooking that this space, as I have written elsewhere, is itself at the mercy of political exploitation. The Divan allows Western liberals who reject the agency of the oppressed to suggest that BDS advocates will take note of this example of the power of art freely expressed and available to all and reconsider their position. Why they should do so is never clarified: the vague, narcissistic sense of liberal approval is sufficient endorsement of the Divan, while leaving oppressive power structures unchallenged – although the Divan reflects them too.

But when Ramzi Aburedwan brings music to the refugee camps and villages of the Occupied Territories it is to to form… a new core, to rewire… a new generation, in accordance with the lessons imparted by his first teacher, Mohammad Fadel. The music they absorbed was their protection, Ramzi kept telling anyone who would listen. Now… they would use that music as shield and sword, toward the freedom of their people. Music devoid of politics, Ramzi believes, was impossible under occupation. Now, too, politics was impossible for Ramzi without music.

Intransigent and consistent, Ramzi rejects all funding from the US state that is Israels most unconditional sponsor, and ends Al Kamandjatis links to Apple Hill where he had first begun to dream of building a music school in Palestine.’ In June 2011 he declares a musical intifada and brings the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra to play Mozart and Bizet at the bleak and terrifying Qalandia military checkpoint. Sixteen-year-old violinist Georgina Mukarker from Bethlehem reflects: I am in front of the soldiers. They see me and can do nothing about it. They cannot shoot me. Im strong. I have music. Thats my weapon.

One cannot imagine the patrician Barenboim and his élite orchestra taking such a stand. It is impossible not to speculate whether, if Edward Said had lived to see the ever-increasing lawlessness of the Israeli occupation and the impunity granted it by the West, he would have come to acknowledge Al Khamandjati as a far more heroic enterprise than the Divan. Readers of this magisterial book can make up their own minds, as Tolan presents every side of the argument sympathetically. Children of the Stone is both novelistic and scholarly, including five pages of maps, ten pages of bibliography, and no fewer than one hundred pages of notes, some quite lengthy. Those seeking a human interest story will find the book inspiring; simultaneously and effortlessly they will absorb a crash course in Israeli/Palestinian history, a history that involves all of us because of our governments failure to act decisively in the interests of peace and justice.

Children of the Stone – The Power of Music in a Hard Land by Sandy Tolan is published by Bloomsbury

Published on 10 August 2015

Raymond Deane is a composer, pianist, author and activist. Together with the violinist Nigel Kennedy, he is a cultural ambassador of Music Harvest, an organisation seeking to create 'a platform for cultural events and dialogue between internationals and Palestinians...'.

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