Stone thrower-turned-violinist gives Palestinians music, and hope

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 19, 2008 

This 1997 poster shows Ramzi Aburedwan as a young Palestinian stone-throwing icon, and as an older violin protégé.

DION NISSENBAUM / MCT

NABLUS, West Bank — If no one had handed Ramzi Aburedwan a violin when he was a stone-throwing teenager in a refugee camp, he might've ended up languishing in an Israeli prison cell. He might've become little more than an obscure fatality lost amid the thousands of young Palestinians killed in the seemingly intractable conflict.

However, music teachers from Ramallah to Boston saw something else in Aburedwan's arm: A natural, if unrefined, ability to play classical music.

With some doing, these mentors convinced the skinny Muslim teenager to put down his stones and pick up a violin.

That's how a Palestinian refugee with an ear for music grew up to found a classical music school that's become a cornerstone for a West Bank cultural revival.

There's no sign of an imminent diplomatic breakthrough that will pave the way for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but this year's relative calm in the West Bank has created psychological space for budding artistic vibrancy in Palestinian society.

It's been "incredible," said Peter Sulski, a former member of the London Symphony Orchestra who now serves each Christmas season as artistic director for Aburedwan's annual Baroque Music Festival.

One of the fixtures in this artistic revival is Aburedwan, the bashful, bearded 29-year-old founder of Al Kamandjati, a classical music school that runs on a simple credo: "He who works for the advancement of culture is also working against war."

"Culture is the face of a society," Aburedwan said before a recent concert in Nablus. "To build a state, you need a strong culture. No one is going to defend the resistance as (the embodiment of) the culture."

In five, short years, Al Kamandjati — which means "the violinist" in Arabic — has evolved from a small group of international musicians playing Bach for Palestinians waiting at Israeli checkpoints into a respected nonprofit organization that teaches classical music to 400 students in refugee camps from Beirut to Ramallah.

There's a growing waiting list.

Al Kamandjati, however, is part of a larger cultural evolution in the West Bank.

For those kids who aren't interested in learning to play classical music, there are hip-hop workshops run by popular Danish and Palestinian rappers.

Beyond music, there's also the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, where kids can study theater with Zakaria Zubeidi, a wily Palestinian militant who recently ended his years on Israel's most-wanted list by turning in his guns and accepting Israeli amnesty.

There's a young Palestinian circus school that teaches kids to become clowns and acrobats. There's an annual international film festival that includes well-received movies made by a growing number of Palestinian filmmakers.

It's all emerging in a year that will almost certainly end as the least deadly of the decade in the West Bank.

This year, according to the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, Israeli soldiers have killed 41 Palestinians in the West Bank. By comparison, the Israeli military has killed more than 400 Palestinians this year by the in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

That makes 2008 the least deadly of the decade in the West Bank. It marks a dramatic drop from 2002, when the Israeli military killed more than 600 West Bank Palestinians at the height of the uprising.

The relative West Bank calm this past year has given Aburedwan time to cultivate his music conservatory in a renovated stone house on a narrow Ramallah street.

It wasn't far from there, in the al Amari refugee camp, that Aburedwan gained fame in 1987 as a powerful symbol of the first Palestinian uprising.

As Aburedwan tells it, he was a curly-haired 9-year-old refugee caught up in the pent-up outrage that exploded in the early days of the intifada. During one Israeli military operation, Aburedwan said he saw a schoolmate shot in the head by an Israeli sniper as she walked back from a bakery.

Overcome with anger, Aburedwan said he became the first kid in his refugee camp to pick up a stone and throw it at Israeli soldiers.

In a photograph carried around the world, the scrawny Aburedwan prepares to lob a stone at unseen soldiers with one hand while he can barely grip a larger chunk of rock with the other.

The image made Aburedwan an icon of Palestinian resistance.

Predictably, he grew up to become a seasoned street fighter who seemed destined for an Israeli prison or the immortality of a Palestinian martyr poster.

That's when Mohammed Fadel, a Palestinian music teacher on the lookout for promising students, heard about Aburedwan, by then 17.

"He never played before," Fadel said. "He never knew the violin; he just knew violence."

It took some doing, but Fadel convinced Aburedwan in 1997 to put down the stones and pick up the violin. That year, Sulski came on a tour and was so impressed with Aburedwan's potential that he brought him to the U.S. for a summer workshop at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in New Hampshire. The following year, Aburedwan was offered a scholarship to study in France, at the conservatory in Angers, where he played classical music during the worst years of the second Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000.

Instead of building a new life in Europe, Aburedwan decided to return to the West Bank and establish his music school that draws funding from the U.S. Consulate General, European charities and other backers.

The students are wrapping up this year with a Baroque Music Festival that's bringing the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and other European composers to cities and towns across the West Bank.

Aburedwan's newest teacher, British-born Julia Katarina, has started a unique youth choir, including a few Muslim girls in headscarves, singing Christian chorals by Bach in German at Anglican churches across the West Bank.

Soon after the early evening Muslim call to prayer had faded away in Jericho on a recent night, dozens of friends, parents and siblings settled into the pews of the Good Shepherd Church for what would, for some, be an inspiring introduction to Baroque music.

With a fake Christmas tree, a crucifix and a sprawling nativity scene as their backdrop, Aburedwan and Sulski joined visiting performers from around the world in a Bach concerto. Al Kamandjati students joined their mentors for a symphony by another Baroque composer.

Katarina and her young choir, with its mix of Muslim and Christian students, performed Bach's Christmas chorals.

After the concert wrapped up, the musicians gathered outside the church for an impromptu round of Christmas carols.

The student performances might not rival those of the world's leading music schools, but the festival has served to unveil the potential — both of the kids, and Palestinian society.

"Palestinians put culture aside for a long time because they thought this problem would be solved soon," Aburedwan said. "People who came in 1948 said it was going to be solved in one or two months, one or two years, now it's 60 years and the people say: No more time for waiting. Waiting is just losing time."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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