Children of the Stone

Sandy Tolan

June 2, 2015 
The following is from Sandy Tolan’s Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land. It follows Ramzi Aburedwan and his dream to build music schools in the occupied West Bank and in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Tolan is a reporter, documentary radio producer, and professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC. His book, The Lemon Tree was shortlisted for the NBCC award in nonfiction.

In this excerpt, set in 2004, Ramzi returns to Ramallah after six years of training as a violist in a French conservatory, accompanied by a small entourage of French and Palestinian supporters. They include an architect, a funder, and several French organizers, who had come to prepare for an international musical tour across Palestine later in the summer, and to inspect the future Ramallah site for the headquarters of the music school, which they will call Al Kamandjati (Arabic for The Violinist).  –Sandy Tolan


Ramzi led his entourage down a narrow street in the old city, past once-stately courtyards of jasmine and twisted grape vines. Neighbors watched in silence, a few of them fingering their prayer beads, others puffing out white clouds from gurgling water pipes. A minaret from the local mosque towered above them. Fifty meters south stood the steeple of the Orthodox church; just below that, a fruit stand displayed precarious pyramids of mangos, cactus pears, and pomegranates. In recent years, the neighborhood had become neglected. Starting in the early twentieth century, local Christians began migrating—some to the United States, others to work in Jerusalem under the British Mandate in the years after the fall of the Ottoman empire—thus emptying the historic core of the city. Muslim peasant farmers from Hebron moved into the vacant homes, initially as caretakers, working in nearby fields.

* * * *

In the street, neighborhood kids were playing a game they called Arabs and Jews. In this game boys fashioned foot-long pieces of wood shaped like guns, and played the role of Israelis; girls picked up pebbles or small stones, and played the Palestinians. They divided their identities in this way, they would explain, because boys are stronger than girls.

Ramzi and the others walked past the children laughing and chasing each other with the stones and the toy guns, and moved into a broad, sun-bleached courtyard. The place was a shambles, deserted for years, strewn with rubble and trash. It had been used as an informal dump for the neighborhood. Rats, mice, and stray cats appeared from various layers of trash and scurried back behind the giant pile. “It smelled like shit,” remembered Khaldun, the architect. Transforming it would take sweat, shovels, and signed papers from more than a dozen members of the extended family of Ziad Khalaf, the funder who had taken a personal interest in Ramzi’s pursuit.

In a far corner of the abandoned building, two girls were playing in the cool shade of a darkened room, far from the mounds of refuse. They had swept the rubble clean and laid out the household items of an ordinary, imagined life. The girls looked up warily as Ramzi walked toward them. He introduced himself. They were sisters: Alá, six years old, and Rasha, twelve. They lived with their parents and three other siblings in a modest house barely twenty meters away. Much of the sisters’ childhood had been spent indoors, when Old Ramallah was under strict military curfew and it was often too dangerous even to leave for a few minutes to buy food. Their older brother, Shehada, had learned that two years earlier, in 2002, when at age twelve he and a neighborhood friend, Ali, fourteen, had broken a curfew and snuck out of the house to buy bread. An Israeli soldier’s bullet landed in Ali’s forehead, killing him instantly. Shehada watched Ali fall.

* * * *

By the summer of 2004, nearly four thousand people had been killed in the Second Intifada, three quarters of them Palestinian, including about six hundred children; of the Israeli civilian casualties, which numbered close to four hundred, most from suicide attacks, one in every five was a child. In recent months the heaviest killing had been in and around Gaza, where, in March, Israel had assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the quadriplegic founder of Hamas, with a helicopter missile attack, as he was being wheeled from a mosque after morning prayers. Nine bystanders and his two bodyguards were killed. Yassin, who Israel said had personally authorized numerous suicide attacks, was from the Palestinian village of al-Jura, depopulated during the 1948 war; later, the Israeli city of Ashkelon was built in part on its ruins. A few weeks after Yassin’s death, Israel assassinated his deputy, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, from the destroyed Palestinian village of Yibna. His car was blown apart by an American-made Hellfire missile fired from an Apache helicopter. Hamas retaliated in the summer, killing sixteen in a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Beersheba.

Israel, meanwhile, stepped up its construction of the separation barrier, which was found to be a violation of international humanitarian law by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Israel, supported by both American presidential candidates, George W. Bush and John Kerry, denounced the decision, declaring Israel’s right to protect itself. Israelis cited security as the sole reason for the barrier’s existence. Yet the plan for it had been discussed since 1992, at a time of relative peace. Israeli planners had identified another motivation for building the wall: to separate from the Palestinian population in order to preserve the “Jewishness” of Israel. Separation, Israeli planners argued, was necessary to address the perceived “demographic threat” to Israel. The route swerved well over the green line and inside Palestinian territory to incorporate an estimated eighty-five percent of West Bank settlers and, in some cases, to exclude Palestinian populations, or “transfer” their communities to the Palestinian side of the barrier. The separation barrier, Israeli planners argued, could one day define Israel’s final border and preserve the state’s Jewish majority.

In Ramallah, in the summer of 2004, the military siege had eased somewhat. Israel’s army had withdrawn again to the barricades at the edge of town, and in their wake, Alá and Rasha had begun venturing out beyond their front door. The sisters considered this site their own turf, virtually an extension of their house, and were not eager to see more change.

Are you a businessman?” Alá asked Ramzi, frowning deeply during one of his visits to the future site of the music school.

“No,” he replied. “I am a musician.”

They gazed up at him.

“What would you think,” Ramzi asked the sisters, “if you learned to play music?”

“Here?” Alá asked. She was still frowning.

“Yes, here, in this place.”

“Like the musicians who play with Fairouz?” Rasha responded skeptically. “There is no way we will be able to play like them.”

“You don’t believe me?” Ramzi replied. “Soon you will see the building, and you’ll be able play music.”

* * * *

For Al Kamandjati to succeed, Ramzi needed to win over children like Alá and Rasha, their parents, and their neighbors in Old Ramallah. But a bigger test was to establish a musical presence in the refugee camps, where swirling militant and religious politics made the relatively calm Ramallah feel more like France. Acceptance from the camps was central to Ramzi’s mission for Al Kamandjati. No place would provide a bigger challenge than Jenin. Militants of Jenin had fought back against an occupying army only two years earlier, and it remained a tense and dangerous place, especially for outsiders. Nevertheless, the entourage of French musicians was soon to arrive in Palestine. None of them had ever been to Jenin. The recent battle zone would be one of the first and most important stops on their tour.

Ramzi and his grandparents, Al Amari refugee camp: Georges Bartoli. Ramzi and his grandparents, Al Amari refugee camp: Georges Bartoli.

* * * *

On a scorching day in July 2004, Ramzi set off with the French musicians for their workshops at the Jenin camp. They rode in four yellow vans. Many wore matching white T-shirts with the Al Kamandjati logo: a Palestinian keffiyeh in the shape of the treble clef. As they entered the camp, they looked out at the graffiti scrawled on the walls of houses, interspersed with posters of young men staring into the camera, brandishing AK-47s: martyrs of the Second Intifada.

A rock bounced off one of the taxis. Hélèna Cotinier, from a French crew producing a documentary about the building of the music school, flinched as the sharp sound echoed in the cab. “Do not be afraid,” Ramzi assured her. “They are not used to seeing strangers. For them, a stranger is an Israeli. There are no other strangers.”

Teaching Amari 2005: Margarida Mota Teaching Amari 2005: Margarida Mota

The first workshop took place at an elementary school. The musicians had to explain that they were from a country called France. “We are French,” they explained. “Not Israeli.”

“We’re not used to seeing visitors here,” a girl told them. “This is the first time I held an instrument in my hands. Usually the music and the instruments are only on TV.”

The musicians from Europe were trying to make sense of the total lack of order and discipline at the schools; the lives of these children seemed completely out of control. “I recognize that I am totally overwhelmed and powerless,” Jessie Nguenang, the singer from Angers, told Thierry Trebouet, a clarinetist. “You get the impression that there’s no discipline here. You feel that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want.”

“They are stressed,” Thierry agreed. “It’s a total chaos. It’s all we can see. The landscape, the houses, all their environment.”

The people of Jenin camp had been under extreme stress since the beginning of the Second Intifada. Across Palestine the camp enjoyed a reputation of resistance in the face of the Israeli siege: Alongside the fifty-two Palestinians killed during the invasion of the camp, militants had claimed the lives of thirteen Israeli soldiers. But the lives and living spaces of the camp residents had also been transformed during the uprising. Four hundred buildings had been crushed by giant Caterpillar armored bulldozers, burying dozens of civilians alive.

Just as shocking to some residents, the Israeli army had begun “walking through walls” in pursuit of the enemy. Military commanders, wary of booby-trapped doorways or militants hiding in narrow alleys, ordered troops to enter homes by smashing down walls with giant hammers, or blowing them apart with explosives, and taking the fight directly into camp residences. For Palestinians living in Jenin and other refugee camps, “walking through walls” further undermined the notion that home was a place of safety, and further heightened the level of paranoia from traumatized residents.

* * * *

The musicians from France got back into the yellow taxi vans to conduct a workshop at a rehabilitation center for injured and disabled children. Ramzi was tense, with good reason: The camp was now filled with battle-hardened militants, many wanted by Israel, who would not risk their own safety if they saw an approaching stranger whose motives were unclear.

One of those militants, Zakaria Zubeidi, had been living underground, in a three-by-five-foot hole, for much of the previous four years. He had lived deprived of light; his oxygen came via a hose that snaked upward from the hole to the Jenin camp above ground. Zakaria’s mother had been shot dead during Israel’s 2002 siege of Jenin; she had been looking out the window when a bullet struck her down. A month later his brother had been killed. Zakaria became Jenin chief of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which during the Second Intifada carried out numerous deadly attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets. In 2003, he mishandled a homemade bomb; it exploded, embedding a cloud of tiny black specks into his cheeks and forehead.

Zakaria, twenty-seven years old, was being hunted by the Israeli army, which had already assassinated several of his comrades. In recent months he had begun emerging, warily, to breath air normally, to treat his rashes suffered from so much time in the dank hole, and to do research on the Internet: about his enemy’s intelligence capabilities, and about the human capacity for handling stress. He walked the alleys of the camp carefully, lean and unsmiling, in a T-shirt and jeans, with a sidearm strapped in a leather holster. When you’re stressed,” Zakaria said, “that will affect how you will make decisions, and most of them, they’re going to be wrong.”

In his forays above ground, Zakaria would try to sense where the danger zones were, so that he could avoid them and make the proper judgment. But on that hot day in July, when the French musicians came to perform their workshops in the heart of Jenin camp, Zakaria sensed that he was on the wrong street at the wrong time, and that he hadn’t taken the proper precautions. Why, he asked himself, was he walking on Al Awda (The Return) Street, in full view of four yellow taxi vans snaking up the dirt road toward him? He looked closely, and saw that everyone inside looked foreign.

Zakaria feared they were special forces sent by the enemy. Oh, I’m dead, he thought. I’m going to die. He reached inside his belt, and pulled out his nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson, ready to fight to the end.

The first two taxis approached a bend in the road, where Zakaria watched them turn left, in the direction of the children’s rehab center.

From the backseat of the fourth taxi, Karim, Jessie, Hélèna Cotinier, and the other passengers could see a man pointing something at the third taxi—the one just in front of them. “What’s the guy doing there?” Jessie asked. “He has a gun!” she said. Then she laughed. “It’s a toy gun!”

“It’s not a toy gun,” Karim shouted.

Through the open windows Karim, Hélèna and Jessie could hear the man shouting at the driver in the van just ahead of them. “What are you doing in the camp?” the man demanded. Karim could hear no response. The driver kept going, turning toward the rehab center.

Now the man turned his weapon on the fourth taxi, where Karim and the others sat. Karim could see him through the back window. The man was sweating, and his arm was shaking. “We are your friends, I am a Palestinian, there is nothing to worry about!” shouted the driver.

Zakaria was panicking. Palestinian collaborators with the Israeli army said that sort of thing all the time.

Karim put his right hand over his heart. “Get down, get down, get down!” he shouted.

Zakaria fired.

The bullet ricocheted off the metal band on the driver’s side, between the front and back windows. The driver hit the gas, hurtling around the turn as two more shots rang out behind them.

Fifty meters on their taxi screeched to a stop at their destination in the Jenin refugee camp. “Sortez, sortez, get out, get out!” someone shouted. Jessie and Hélèna could not move. “Trembling,” Hélèna recalled. “My legs were like chewing gum.” She didn’t know who had been shooting at them, and if other snipers awaited. “I was thinking of my sister, my mother, my father. And I was like, oh my God, what am I doing here? I never thought something like that could happen. I was like, okay, I’m going to die. And I’m a stupid girl.”

As the musicians came racing inside, Ramzi tore out of the community center, panicked. Fragments of prayer raced through his mind. Please, God, please protect us, protect the musicians. I hope that the bullet hasn’t touched anybody. If it hasn’t, I swear that I will stop this crazy project. He ran in the direction of the shots and saw Zakaria, the gun now down at his side. “Stop, stop, we are Palestinians! And these are French people, they are here to help us!”

A moment later, he returned, having just seen the bullet hole on the doorjamb of the van. “We are not in Ramallah here!” he shouted in French. “We are in Jenin! You have to be careful! You have to listen to me! You have to do what I say! You are not in your country! It’s really, really dangerous here.

Fuck! That was a great show, wasn’t it? Now you understand!”

“That was the very first time the musicians understood they were in Palestine,” Karim recounted. “They were in a country which is in war. That’s not Paris or Angers or even Marrakech. It’s Palestine.”

Now the group had to decide: Would they stay and do the workshop, or go back to Ramallah? It was a close vote, but they decided to cancel the workshop and leave.

As they rolled back out of the camp, Zakaria reappeared. This time, his arms were full of plastic cups and bottles of orange soda. “He gave us glasses and said ‘please, please, come back.’” Hélèna remembered. “And I remember feeling, we have to stay! We are not afraid of him now. We understand. But we just had the juice in the cab and then gave it back.”

“We are sorry,” Karim explained, “but some of the musicians just arrived today from France and they are very surprised to be shot at. So they want to go, because it’s safe in Ramallah.”

“I’ll never forget what I’ve seen on his face and how he was sad to have made a mistake and how he was so sorry, so sorry,” Hélèna recounted seven years later, sipping an espresso in a Paris sidewalk café. “Really. I felt it’s awful because they were waiting for us, but we didn’t give any music, we left, just because we are French people, international people and we think that our lives are important. And we leave them with their everyday life.”

On the drive back, Ramzi was quiet. He preferred not to talk about it. Ramzi did not like to linger on his failures, and he never wanted to appear vulnerable. On the long drive home, he replayed the events in his mind, trying to determine their meaning.

Was this some kind of warning to stop, Ramzi asked himself, or a test to continue?

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