Ramzi's Story: Laying Down Stones, Picking Up Instruments In 1988, a photographer in the West Bank snapped a photo of Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, a scrawny 8-year-old with tears in his eyes, hurling a rock at an Israeli tank. The photo symbolized the rage and frustration of the intifada. Now, more than 20 years later, Aburedwan has grown up to become a respected violist and founder of music schools.
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Ramzi's Story: Laying Down Stones, Picking Up Instruments

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Ramzi's Story: Laying Down Stones, Picking Up Instruments

Ramzi's Story: Laying Down Stones, Picking Up Instruments

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In 1988, a photographer in the West Bank snapped a photo of an eight-year-old boy with tears in his eyes hurling a rock at an Israeli tank. For many, that picture symbolized all the rage of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising. More than 20 years later, that boy has grown up. And now, Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan is seen as a different kind of symbol of what's possible in the midst of seemingly endless conflict.

Sandy Tolan has our story.

SANDY TOLAN: It was a chance encounter a few months ago at an Italian restaurant in the West Bank. I was in Ramallah working on a story on the bleak state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinians. And there at dinner I hear my name being called from across the restaurant: Sandy, Sandy. I look across at a bearded young man. He's smiling at me but I don't recognize him. He points to himself: Ramzi, he exclaims. Ramzi? He joins us at the table.

Mr. RAMZI HUSSEIN ABUREDWAN (Violinist): For how long are you staying here?

TOLAN: I'm here for a few more days.

I had met Ramzi 12 years earlier. Back then, he was a skinny teenager living in a refugee camp near the outskirts of Ramallah. The intifada was long over and Ramzi had laid down the stone and picked up a viola.

(Soundbite of viola)

TOLAN: A Palestinian musician noticed his innate talent and plucked him off the street. In a very short time, Ramzi became a prodigy and a symbol. Posters around Ramallah showed little Ramzi with a stone, alongside a larger image of a young man pulling a bow across his viola.

(Soundbite of music)

TOLAN: Even back then, Ramzi seemed to know he had a destiny. He wanted one day to open up music schools all over Palestine, he told me. Soon enough, he got a scholarship to study the viola at a conservatory in France. Eventually, we lost touch, until that night at the Ramallah restaurant.

We reminisce about his early days playing the viola, how the music took hold of him.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: If I could tell you what I feel when I play, I would not need to play, you know?

TOLAN: I ask him what he's doing now and he says he's been opening up music schools - just like he told me.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: That was my dream. And to have, like, many schools everywhere in all Palestine. And I started and everything go well. And now after I say, wow. I am crazy what I did.

TOLAN: What he did is capture people's imagination with something transcendent. He's opened up music schools in 10 Palestinian towns and refugee camps, including one in Lebanon. A children's summer camp brings in musicians from across Europe.

Ramzi's message is in demand. In a few days, he says, he'll play for the queen of Holland.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: 30 days and they're coming back on the 17th. To Europe.

Unidentified Man: Jet set, world traveler.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: Exactly.

TOLAN: Ramzi's smiling, looking relaxed, almost serene. I keep telling him, you did it, Ramzi, you did it. A friend would tell me he's very resourceful - he could have had a nice apartment, car, girlfriend in Paris. He didn't have to return but he did.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: Because now, I mean, you have to follow.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABUREDWAN: Here we have 220 students.

TOLAN: Next day, Ramzi takes me through a renovated stone building in the heart of old Ramallah. It's the headquarters for his schools, which are called al-Kamanjati, Arabic for "the violinist." The schools teach European and Arabic classical music.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: In all, we have 500 students.

(Soundbite of piano, child singing scales)

TOLAN: It's one to have a dream, another to act on it. For Ramzi, the spark from dream to action was something he had noticed on visits to schools in France. How the children would draw musical instruments, trees, blue sky.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: And when I came here in 2002, I saw the children drawing tanks and guns.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABUREDWAN: And here I just say, wow. And I say, okay. I will try to do some music for these kids. After that, I did, like, small concerts for them in the workshop. And some of them drew, tried to draw an instrument, you know, in half an hour, you know. And I say, it is really very strong, the music.

(Soundbite of child singing)

Mr. ABUREDWAN: Through music, you can make from the negative energy, positive energy. And that's what I do, you know. Okay, I see settlement. It's a negative energy. Then I see another one, another one, another one, and it's become like lot of negative energy.

I arrived in Jenin and I see all of these kids, then I see this is the positive energy, you know.

Again, from the beginning, one, two, three, one, two, three...

(Soundbite of music)

TOLAN: This is the kind of musical energy that the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said dreamed of creating with his Israeli friend, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim now directs the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an international collaboration that Ramzi took part in. Barenboim was taken with the young violist.

Maestro DANIEL BARENBOIM (Director, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra): The world of sound is the physical expression of the human soul. This is exactly what touched Ramzi. He has transformed not only his life, his destiny, but that of many, many, many other people. This is extraordinary collection of children all over Palestine that have all been inspired and opened to music, and therefore to the beauty of life.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of music)

TOLAN: As he began to build his dream, Ramzi convinced 15 French musicians to come with him to the West Bank. Most were fellow students at the conservatory. Many were scared. It was an especially tense and dangerous time. But the next year, more came.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: More and more musicians and it became like the thing in France, you know. All the friends of my friends wanted to come and to join.

TOLAN: Five years ago, after countless calls, stacks of paperwork and arrangements with Palestinian officials, Ramzi went to France and collected a shipping container full of musical instruments.

Mr. ABU-REDWAN: Many violins, harpsichord, pianos, two double bass, all kinds of percussion.

TOLAN: They came through the Israeli Port of Ashdod. After two days and about $3,000 in import fees, Israeli authorities released the shipment. The container was hitched to a truck. In the West Bank, Ramzi was waiting.

Mr. ABUREDWAN: And this was really amazing moment. You know, to see the container in Angers and to come and then to see it in Ramallah. I was just feeling like I am in the sky, you know, flying, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

TOLAN: At a church Bir Zeit, a Palestinian Christian village, Ramzi performs a baroque concert with musicians who've come from Germany, France and England. They're dressed formally in black, standing on the altar of the church.

(Soundbite of music)

TOLAN: Ramzi is absorbed in his sheet music. He taps his foot in time.

(Soundbite of music)

TOLAN: It's a cold night in the church. Families huddle together in their warm coats. And then without warning, a power outage - the church is plunged into darkness.

(Soundbite of conversations)

TOLAN: So now, people are coming up to the altar to improvise, bringing candles.

(Soundbite of music)

TOLAN: On the altar, Palestinian children hold candles beside the music stands. Ramzi and his fellow musicians squint at their sheet music and play on into the evening.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABUREDWAN: As I told before, I cannot tell you the feeling of playing music. But that's what I was dreaming about: to give this to other children as much as I can, the music and the feeling.

TOLAN: For NPR News, I'm Sandy Tolan.

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