Point and counterpoint
Norman Lebrecht questions claims of harmony. Geoffrey Alderman reflects on loss
ARamzi Aburedwan the young stone-thrower and (above, at right) playing violin in Nablus LONDON ORCHEST RAL v i ol i nist I know spends her s u mmer l e a v e working with cancer kids in Africa. A French bassoonist takes a 100-kilometre run in support of an educational mission. An Australian violinist volunteers for Médecin sans Frontières. Few occupations in my experience are as caring, as giving of time and effort in good causes, as that of the classical musician.
Over the years, I have seen dozens of European and American musicians backpack off to Ramallah with the aim of training Palestinian youngsters to play in orchestras. Although many return with a restricted view of the situation, I have always assumed that their civilising presence did some good. Reading Sandy Tolan’s one-eyed, unquestioning, hopelessly sentimental narrative of “the power of music in a hard land”, I am forced to reconsider every aspect of that assumption.
This should have been an uplifting human story. Ramzi Aburedwan is the child whose picture was splashed across the world’s front pages and the walls of Ramallah in 1988 when he was snapped during the first Intifada throwing stones at the mechanised forces of Israeli occupation. Not since David faced Goliath has an image acquired such power of metaphor.
Ten years later, the picture appeared again, this time on a poster showing the boy stone-thrower turned into 19-yearold Ramzi with a violin in his hand, studying at a musical conservatoire.
Fast forward another 15 years and Ramzi has his own music school, Al Kamandjati. He works with Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Diwan Orchestra and has recruited western musicians to teach at his school. If ever there was a story of swords into ploughshares, this could have been it.
TheflawisthatRamziisnopeace-seeker and Tolan, an American documentary maker, is inhibited by a constitutional inability to ask a critical question. We learn, by relentless repetition, that Ramzi lost his father and his brother during the two uprisings. It takes a close reading to discover that both men were murdered by Palestinians, and a search of the footnotes to confirm that for every 10 West Bankers killed by Israelis seven were executed by their fellow-Palestinians. The Middle East conflict is a minefield of half-truths and horrors.
Ramzi is in no doubt of his educational goals. “This is a musical intifada,” is how he describes his school. Working with Barenboim, he demanded that the West-Eastern Diwan agree “to boycott Israeli products as well as cultural and academic institutions until Israel… ends the occupation.” There are Israeli players in the orchestra. Ramzi is apparently unable to grasp that harmony cannot be expected when one half of an orchestra boycotts the other.
I can sympathise with Ramzi’s circumstances and respect him for what he is: a committed freedom fighter with a French passport who uses music education as propaganda. Tolan and visiting western musicians are recruited as useful fools to follow Ramzi’s flag without engaging their critical faculties.
This is a profoundly depressing book, a case history of the abuse of music as a political weapon. Norman Lebrecht is an author and cultural commentator