A shipping container bound for Palestine holds cargo worth half a million dollars — not military hardware or food aid but musical instruments. This is the gripping material of Sandy Tolan's moving and diligently told new book, "Children of the Stone." Whereas his 2006 book, "The Lemon Tree," told the story of Israel and Palestine through a single fruit tree and the way it brought together two families, in this new book, Tolan methodically retraces a Palestinian boy's journey from a refugee camp to Europe and finally back to Palestine, where he becomes head of a network of musical conservatories in areas bordered by Israel.
The book's star is Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, who gained international fame at age 8 when a photographer snapped a picture of him in a Palestine refugee camp, preparing to throw a rock at Israeli soldiers. This was during the so-called First Intifada, when Palestinians rose up against what they perceived as Israeli aggression and various betrayals of international agreements. Talks and bloodshed followed: the Oslo accords, with Yasser Arafat and Camp David and President Bill Clinton and more than 20 years of dashed hopes and rockets and bulldozers and recrimination and despair. But also that container of musical instruments.
It starts during a childhood visit to a U.N. elementary school, when Ramzi sees a violin for the first time. His life until then has been sweeping the streets with his grandfather, attending classes and throwing rocks.
Later, when Ramzi is interviewed at 16, a reporter asks about his dreams. The tension between anger and protest, beauty and passion becomes crushing and gorgeous in this moment. "I d-d-dream that when I die, and go to heaven, I can meet P-P-Pinocchio," he stutters. This is the same boy who has just recently seen his father's decapitated corpse and who will in a few years return from a trip to France to find that his brother has been murdered.
What of these dreams? Eventually, Ramzi is selected for a summer fellowship to study music in America, then accepted into a conservatory in France, where his political and managerial spirit grows in tandem with his musicmaking ability. When he is contacted by maestro Daniel Barenboim to join his new orchestra, the Divan, it as much because of Ramzi's talent as his Palestinian heritage; co-founded with critic Edward Said, the Divan was conceived as a cultural space for Israelis and Arabs to make music together.
Ramzi comes to serve as one of its most famous, if reluctant, players. Because Ramzi doesn't just want to be part of a symbolic gesture of friendship with Israelis — he wants to help bring about real change for his stateless people. So he establishes first one and then a network of schools to train students like himself: children of the camps, who would otherwise know only anger or hopelessness.
Teasing out all the details of this story, from the granular facts of Ramzi's life to the complicated history of the region, Tolan is a scrupulous craftsman if not always a dazzling one. The end notes to the book run for nearly 100 pages, a workmanlike demonstration of rigor. But it isn't poetic sentences or surprising metaphors that propel us forward; it's the hard work of getting the story right — diligence required of any serious project about this, the most contentious of regions.
Perhaps most helpfully, Tolan is careful enough to let us make up our own minds, never making the case for or against either "side"; even Ramzi can see moments when cooperation with Israel seems better than isolation. Take the moment when Yuval, an Israeli musician in the Divan, realizes he has been playing beside one of those "stone-throwing kids." Yuval was raised to think boys like Ramzi were "stupid" — it was unimaginable to him that a stone-thrower could be a commanding musician.
Wherever you fall with regard to questions about this region, you too might feel off-kilter, following the boy's difficult journey, his complicated and sometimes contradictory truths. Like reading a true-crime book in which we all know what's coming, it's hard to have much hope for a happy ending, which is why we cling to details: In one moment, children who before were drawing images of death and destruction are, because of Ramzi, drawing a stringed instrument called an oud. "We always think about the occupation," our hero says. "Why not think of something beautiful?"
Tolan's book isn't some kind of blueprint or solution. Nor does it exist to make us feel better. Readers who want a real story can't be as choosy as an old woman in Palestine: "Sing happy songs," she begs of Ramzi. "Our life is sad enough."
Deuel is the author of "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East."
Children of the Stone
The Power of Music in a Hard Land