You have to hand it to journalist Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree. In his new book Children of the Stone, he doesn’t pussy-foot around. There’s no attempt at false “balance,” no endeavor to spend equal time on the Israeli side or make their situation seem as bad as—or worse than—the Palestinian reality in order to get the “non-biased” stamp of approval. In today’s language, poisoned by politics, “non-biased” means distorting facts to fit a mainstream narrative that amounts to a near-total inversion of reality. Tolan has none of it.
Instead he dares to tell a sweeping Palestinian story, from a predominantly Palestinian perspective, of passion and loss, hard work and violence, perseverance and corruption, focusing on the life of Ramzi Aburedwan, a boy from a Palestinian refugee camp who grows up to found Al Kamandjati, a gorgeous music school and a pride of Ramallah.
As the story opens, five-year-old Ramzi’s dysfunctional family has just dissolved. His father is in prison, and his young mother not only divorces her husband but also abandons her four small children. The kids are left to grow up with extended family in Al Amari refugee camp. Ramzi’s mornings are spent following his grandfather as he sweeps the deserted streets of Al Bireh, the town adjacent to Ramallah.
The first Intifada soon begins, and Ramzi and his brother spend their days throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and running for their lives. A snapshot of the tiny scamp hurling a fist-sized rock at an unseen Goliath is plastered on posters all over Palestine and beyond. Meanwhile tragedy stalks the family, with both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian criminals (unrestrained by effective law and order in the territories occupied by Israel) striking devastating blows.
The Oslo process follows, and I’ve rarely seen such a skilled and damning take-down of it.
Things begin to change, at least on a personal level, when a local music teacher places a viola in Ramzi’s hands. A spark is lit, and his life becomes focused on the idea of creating a Palestinian music school in Ramallah. He studies in New Hampshire and then France, forms bands and plays gigs (most of them featuring Arabic music), and meets people who will help make his dream a reality.
One is Daniel Barenboim, the famed Argentinian-Israeli conductor and co-founder (along with Edward Said) of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra. Ramzi joins the orchestra only to distance himself from it some years later, accusing them of normalizing the occupation by refusing to take a firm enough political stand against it. The rift is handled with exquisite sensitivity, so that both sides’ views are comprehensible, leaving the reader to decide who is right.
In any case, the justification and need for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) certainly shine through.
Given everything Ramzi has endured, it’s not surprising that he grows up to become a rather moody and mercurial but still principled and passionate man. The founding of the school is neither simple nor straightforward, with plenty of jockeying, predictable attempts by funders to water things down, and all the other pitfalls of trying to create a functional NGO that maintains its integrity under occupation.
Tolan does a tremendous job of not painting this world in angels and devils. Everyone is human, from vicious criminals to idealistic European volunteers. So much of it is familiar to me as someone who lived in Palestine for nearly three years and worked with various NGOs. Unsettling class divisions and petty jealousies are frankly discussed, and so are the warmth and love of unorthodox Palestinian family units. He neither pulls punches nor exaggerates, and he includes dozens of pages of source notes for the curious or skeptical.
The book is clearly a labor of love, and it provides a priceless chronicle of a fascinating slice of Palestinian life through the unique lens of a boy with an uncomplicated love of music—and how such a love can become complicated by politics, personal relationships, and the violent, choking restrictions of occupation.
There are no illusions in this book that one music school can truly threaten the vast behemoth of global politics that keeps Palestinians caged. There’s no feel-good ending that says everything will be OK any time soon. And yet one is left astonished that such sparks of creativity and beauty continually pop up like wildflowers against enormous odds. And that in itself feels like cause for some hope.
Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine.