LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Now, the story of an incredible journey that begins in the late 1980s when the first Palestinian uprising began.
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NEARY: The images from the intifada include exploding tear gas canisters launched by Israelis answered by Palestinian youngsters shooting slingshots and hurling rocks. A photographer snapped a photo of a boy with tears in his eyes. The image of 8-year-old Ramzi Aburedwan came to represent the rage and frustration of life in the refugee camps. But Ramzi's life changed dramatically when he was 16, when he was introduced to music.
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NEARY: He began playing viola, received a scholarship to study at a conservatory in France, became a teacher. In 2005, he started Al Kamandjati, schools to bring music to Palestinian children. Today, Ramzi is touring America, playing an Arabic instrument called the bouzouk, along with other Middle Eastern players from the Dal'Ouna Ensemble. They're finishing up a tour, including several performances in Washington, D.C.
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NEARY: Ramzi Aburedwan joins us now. Welcome to the program.
RAMZI ABUREDWAN: Good morning.
NEARY: And Sandy Tolan, radio producer and author, has been following Ramzi's story, told in a new book, "Children Of The Stone." He's in the studio with us as well. Hi, Sandy, so good to have you here.
SANDY TOLAN: Great to see you, Lynn. Great to be here.
NEARY: And let's start with you, Sandy, how did you first hear about Ramzi?
TOLAN: I saw Ramzi's image as a young 8-year-old stone thrower in a famous iconic image on a poster for the National Conservatory of Music. But alongside that image was another image of 18-year-old Ramzi playing the viola. And these twin images of throwing a stone and playing the viola - same guy, 10 years apart - fascinated me so much, and I just wanted to know who this guy was and what his story was and managed to find him at the Al'Amari refugee camp where he had been raised with his grandparents and did a piece actually for public radio - for NPR back in '98 - during which time, he told me, you know, my dream is to open up music schools for the children of Palestine.
NEARY: And, Ramzi, can you give us a sense of what that was like for you to have that introduction to music and how it did begin to transform your own life?
ABUREDWAN: Actually, when I started, I was very surprised by the sound of the instrument. I just - when I went to the room for the first time, the teacher asked me which instrument do I like to play. I said I would like to play the violin. Take - this is a bigger violin and that was the viola, actually. And, for me, I didn't know the difference, and I was very happy. And first six months, when I started these lessons and workshops, actually I was still between playing music and throwing stones at the same time. Sometimes I had a break of 20 minutes waiting for my lessons. I would just go down, throw stones on these cars and slowly, slowly, you know, I mean, the expressions from the music side started to be bigger and higher in myself.
NEARY: Yeah, there's a young girl on the cover of your book. Her name is Ala, I think, is that right?
NEARY: Ala. And she's holding a violin. And in a film that's been made about the school, she says that the violin has become her weapon. Tell me a little bit about her, and what does she mean when she says the violin is now her weapon?
ABUREDWAN: In Palestine, giving to a child or a youth a tool of fighting, like music or art or even sport, that's very important things to do. And that's - Ala want - she meant because the music can be part of the fighting and art can be a part of the fighting.
NEARY: You put on - you have put on some concerts in places where you are directly challenging Israeli authorities. One was at a checkpoint. Can you explain to me why you did that and how it came about?
ABUREDWAN: Yes, fighting through stones in the first intifada now continue through sound, through the instrument. And that was, like, a way to say no to all soldier who was there and also a way to play for all Palestinian who are waiting in big lines just waiting to go to their houses or to their work every day, and to get our message to the world that we love to have our freedom and we're - we will do it with even the most pacifist way that exists.
NEARY: Sandy, I - you said that that's a very joyless place, that checkpoint.
TOLAN: Yes, yes.
NEARY: But that that day, they brought joy to that checkpoint. Tell me what it was like.
TOLAN: This is a massive checkpoint full of steel barriers and 25-foot-high walls and and gun turrets. And it's basically a barrier between Ramallah and Jerusalem which - East Jerusalem being the hoped-for capital of the Palestinians. So people who have these precious permits that they're able to get were crossing this checkpoint to go to Jerusalem. And then suddenly Ramzi and Al Kamandjati musicians pull up in this bus, right at the edge of the checkpoint and all of a sudden, you see them marching out right to the checkpoint itself, right on the other side of these steel bars where the soldiers were. They set up their music stands and let me tell you, you know, I've been a journalist for 30-some years. I don't remember a more amazing experience.
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TOLAN: To see this space transformed and see the joy on the face of these kids - Ala, who's on the cover of the book, you know, we - they were going back in jubilation after the concert. I said, you know - at the time she was 13 - I said, so, Ala, how do you feel? She goes, oh, this was - the veteran violinist said - this was the best concert of my life.
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NEARY: You know, the news out of the Mideast, forever and a day it seems, has been nothing but bad, and the situation seems so intractable, and it's very hard to see that it's ever going to get better. So you really want to believe your message that music can transform people's lives and then perhaps transform even a political situation. But do you really believe that?
ABUREDWAN: I have no choice to not believe. I believe that through this message, you see that we are alive and we are seeking our freedom through music, through all these young and all these people in Palestine who are trying to fight in the best ways that they see, and the more beautiful and unique ways just to tell everybody that we are there and we are alive. And we would like just to raise our kids in a free Palestine and in a peaceful situation and in a normal situation like how we grow kids everywhere in the world.
TOLAN: Just to add to that, I think that music cannot in and of itself change a political structure. But what I've seen it do with the kids of Al Kamandjati - it makes them agents of their own sense of self-worth, and it makes them agents toward their own freedom and to send an example out that we are here and we are human, too, and we deserve the rights that children all over the world also have.
NEARY: Sandy Tolan, author of "Children Of The Stone," and Ramzi Aburedwan, musician and founder of the Al Kamandjati Association. They joined us in our studio here in Washington. It was great talking to you both.
TOLAN: Thanks for having us. It was great being here.
ABUREDWAN: Thank you.
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