By Annette Hinkle
It was an image that struck him immediately — two images, actually — appearing side by side.
“I saw these posters all over Ramallah,” explains author and journalist Sandy Tolan. “One had a picture of an 8-year-old boy throwing a stone at Israeli soldiers. You could see the fear and anger in his eyes. He was this little scruffy kid in a red jacket with a fake fur collar.”
“Next to it was a picture of the same guy as an 18-year-old with his viola and he was pulling the bow across the strings,” he continues. “Though I was there on another assignment, I couldn’t not imagine telling that story.”
The year was 1998 and Mr. Tolan was in Ramallah in the West Bank to research the story of what would become his 2006 book “The Lemon Tree,” the story of a friendship between two families — one Palestinian, one Israeli — and the tree that grew in the backyard of the home in Ramla, Israel where both had lived, first before the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and then afterwards.
“I was looking for human ways to tell the story of two people on one land,” explains Mr. Tolan who, nevertheless, found the images of the poster boy so intriguing that he took a slight detour from his research to track him down. He soon found the boy, Ramzi Aburedwan, living in Al Amari, a Palestinian refugee camp adjacent to Ramallah.
“I went there and spent a lot of time with him and did a long public radio story of what happened and how he put down the stone, both metaphorically and physically,” says Mr. Tolan. “I was really interested in finding out what motivated him and what he wanted to do now that he had found music.”
At the time of their meeting, Mr. Aburedwan, 18, had recently returned from a camp at The Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in New Hampshire where he had learned to play the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
“At the same time, he was inspired to replicate this model in the occupied territories,” notes Mr. Tolan. “He said ‘My dream is to open up music schools for the children of Palestine.’”
Mr. Tolan created a segment about Mr. Aburedwan’s story that ran on NPR. Then, as journalists tend to do, he moved onto other stories and over time, lost touch completely with Ramzi Aburedwan who went to live in France where he studied music.
But 10 years later, Mr. Tolan walked into Pronto, an Italian restaurant in Ramallah, and ran right into Mr. Aburedwan.
“I said, ‘What are you doing here?’” recalls Mr. Tolan. “He said, ‘I’m opening music schools for the children of Palestine.’ It’s exactly what he said he wanted to do as an 18-year-old with no financial resources. But he had charisma, heart and he’s a smart guy. He’s a Palestinian pied piper — completely inspired and musicians flocked to his side to help.”
Today, Mr. Aburedwan’s music school, Al Kamandjati, teaches instrumental music to children at centers in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Mr. Tolan notes that while Mr. Aburedwan is no longer pitching stones at soldiers, he’s still fighting in his own way.
“He didn’t renounce his former life, he just felt there were more ways than throwing stones to find freedom for his people,” explains Mr. Tolan. “The stone was a form of resistance when he was little. Now music is a way for him to fight for Palestinian freedom.”
Ramzi Aburedwan’s story, including the creation of the music school he founded, is detailed in Mr. Tolan’s 2015 book “Children of the Stone,” which was released in paperback that past spring.
This Saturday, September 17, Ramzi Aburedwan comes to the East End and Guild Hall for a 7 p.m. performance of his Dal’Ouna Ensemble. Dedicated to Palestinian music and causes, the Arabic-French ensemble was formed in 2000 by Mr. Aburedwan and fellow students from the National Regional Conservatory of Angers, France where he studied viola. Their repertoire features Palestinian folk, classical, jazz and world music. Like their music, ensemble members are truly world-focused and among them is an oud player from Tunisia, a Yugoslavian accordion player, and a Moroccan vocalist.
Mr. Tolan will also be on hand at Guild Hall on Saturday to share the story of “Children of the Stone.” While Mr. Aburedwan hopes his music school is preserving an important aspect of Palestinian culture, Mr. Tolan notes that his primary goal is to give Palestinian children a sense of identity and strength through music.
“Some people say, ‘What do you mean? How can music protect kids in a war zone,’” says Mr. Tolan. “But if you talk to these kids about their own sense of who they are and their self-perception in the middle of a war zone, they’ll say how music literally protects them.”
“Studies in other conflict zones such as Ireland, the Balkans and during South African apartheid show a relationship between music and its ability to form positive identity and pride,” he continues. “There are people I talked to who feel transformed by music. Ramzi’s goal is to create a sense of protection and positivity within the context of the military occupation of his people.”
To illustrate the affects the music has had on both sides of the conflict, Mr. Tolan describes the day 30 children from Mr. Aburedwan’s Al Kamandjati youth orchestra showed up to perform an impromptu concert near Israel’s Qalandia military checkpoint, where each day hundreds of Palestinians cross to Jerusalem.
“These kids were in a grim check point area playing Mozart for Israeli soldiers, and they were shocked,” he says. “But at the same time, I think Ramzi wants to send a message that Palestinian children deserve the same rights, freedom, dignity and respect that kids — and people — all over the world deserve.”
“The goal is to protect and preserve cultural and musical identity and give the kids a sense of empowerment,” he adds, “but also show that these are wonderful kids.”
On Saturday, September 17 at 7 p.m., Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton presents “Children of the Stone”/Dal’Ouna Ensemble featuring Palestinian composer, violist and buzouk player Ramzi Aburedwan, percussionist Tareq Rantisi, oud player Ziad Ben Youssef, Edwin Buger on accordion, and special guest vocalist Nidal Ibourk. Also appearing will be award-winning author and journalist Sandy Tolan. Tickets are $17 to $40 ($15 to $38 members), available at guildhall.org or by call (631) 324-4050. There will be a 6 p.m. pre-performance wine and food reception for all ticket holder. A book signing for “Children of the Stone” follows.