Power of mu­sic in a strife-rid­den land

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Nathan Deuel Deuel is the au­thor of “Fri­day Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Mid­dle East.”

Chil­dren of the Stone The Power of Mu­sic in a Hard Land

Sandy Tolan

Blooms­bury: 480 pp., $28

A ship­ping con­tainer bound for Pales­tine holds cargo worth half a mil­lion dol­lars — not mil­i­tary hard­ware or food aid but mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. This is the grip­ping ma­te­rial of Sandy Tolan’s mov­ing and dili­gently told new book, “Chil­dren of the Stone.” Whereas his 2006 book, “The Lemon Tree,” told the story of Is­rael and Pales­tine through a sin­gle fruit tree and the way it brought to­gether two fam­i­lies, in this new book, Tolan me­thod­i­cally re­traces a Pales­tinian boy’s jour­ney from a refugee camp to Europe and fi­nally back to Pales­tine, where he be­comes head of a net­work of mu­si­cal con­ser­va­to­ries in ar­eas bor­dered by Is­rael.

The book’s star is Ramzi Hus­sein Abu­red­wan, who gained in­ter­na­tional fame at age 8 when a pho­tog­ra­pher snapped a pic­ture of him in a Pales­tine refugee camp, pre­par­ing to throw a rock at Is­raeli sol­diers. This was dur­ing the so-called First In­tifada, when Pales­tini­ans rose up against what they per­ceived as Is­raeli ag­gres­sion and var­i­ous be­tray­als of in­ter­na­tional agree­ments. Talks and blood­shed fol­lowed: the Oslo ac­cords, with Yasser Arafat and Camp David and Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton and more than 20 years of dashed hopes and rock­ets and bull­doz­ers and re­crim­i­na­tion and de­spair. But also that con­tainer of mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

It starts dur­ing a child­hood visit to a U.N. el­e­men­tary school, when Ramzi sees a vi­o­lin for the first time. His life un­til then has been sweep­ing the streets with his grand­fa­ther, at­tend­ing classes and throw­ing rocks.

Later, when Ramzi is in­ter­viewed at 16, a re­porter asks about his dreams. The ten­sion be­tween anger and protest, beauty and pas­sion be­comes crush­ing and gor­geous in this mo­ment. “I d-ddream that when I die, and go to heaven, I can meet P-PPinoc­chio,” he stut­ters. This is the same boy who has just re­cently seen his fa­ther’s de­cap­i­tated corpse and who will in a few years re­turn from a trip to France to find that his brother has been mur­dered.

What of th­ese dreams? Even­tu­ally, Ramzi is se­lected for a sum­mer fel­low­ship to study mu­sic in Amer­ica, then ac­cepted into a con­ser­va­tory in France, where his po­lit­i­cal and man­age­rial spirit grows in tan­dem with his mu­sic­mak­ing abil­ity. When he is con­tacted by mae­stro Daniel Baren­boim to join his new orches­tra, the Di­van, it as much be­cause of Ramzi’s tal­ent as his Pales­tinian her­itage; co­founded with critic Ed­ward Said, the Di­van was con­ceived as a cul­tural space for Is­raelis and Arabs to make mu­sic to­gether.

Ramzi comes to serve as one of its most fa­mous, if re­luc­tant, play­ers. Be­cause he doesn’t just want to be part of a sym­bolic ges­ture of friend­ship with Is­raelis, he wants to help bring about real change for his state­less peo­ple. So he es­tab­lishes first one and then a net­work of schools to train stu­dents like him­self: chil­dren of the camps, who would oth­er­wise know only anger or hope­less­ness.

Teas­ing out all the de­tails, from the gran­u­lar facts of Ramzi’s life to the com­pli­cated his­tory of the re­gion, Tolan is a scrupu­lous crafts­man if not al­ways a daz­zling one. The end notes run for nearly 100 pages, a work­man­like demon­stra­tion of rigor. But it isn’t po­etic sen­tences or sur­pris­ing metaphors that pro­pel us for­ward; it’s the hard work of get­ting the story right — dili­gence re­quired of any se­ri­ous project about this, the most con­tentious of re­gions.

Per­haps most help­fully, Tolan is care­ful enough to let us make up our own minds, never mak­ing the case for or against ei­ther “side”; even Ramzi can see mo­ments when co­op­er­a­tion with Is­rael seems bet­ter than iso­la­tion. Take the mo­ment when Yu­val, an Is­raeli mu­si­cian in the Di­van, re­al­izes he has been play­ing be­side one of those “stone-throw­ing kids.” Yu­val was raised to think boys like Ramzi were “stupid” — it was unimag­in­able to him a stone-thrower could be a com­mand­ing mu­si­cian.

Wher­ever you fall with re­gard to ques­tions about this re­gion, you too might feel of­fk­il­ter, fol­low­ing the boy’s dif­fi­cult jour­ney, his com­pli­cated and some­times con­tra­dic­tory truths. Like read­ing a true-crime book in which we all know what’s com­ing, it’s hard to have much hope for a happy end­ing, which is why we cling to de­tails: In one mo­ment, chil­dren who be­fore were drawing images of death and de­struc­tion are, be­cause of Ramzi, drawing a stringed in­stru­ment called an oud. “We al­ways think about the oc­cu­pa­tion,” our hero says. “Why not think of some­thing beau­ti­ful?”

Tolan’s book isn’t some kind of blue­print or so­lu­tion. Nor does it ex­ist to make us feel bet­ter. Read­ers who want a real story can’t be as choosy as an old woman in Pales­tine: “Sing happy songs,” she begs of Ramzi. “Our life is sad enough.”

Ramzi Hus­sein Abu­red­wan’s life changes when he sees a vi­o­lin. Un­til then, life had been sweep­ing streets with his grand­fa­ther, at­tend­ing classes, throw­ing rocks.


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