In 2005 in Ramallah, with the help of volunteers from Europe, America and Palestine, Ramzi opened ‘Al Kamandjâti’, (Arabic for the Violinist). Today the school, which Ramzi runs with his French-Lebanese wife Celine Dagher, whose parents had left Lebanon for France during the civil war in 1989, serves hundreds of Palestinian children across the West Bank and in refugee camps in Lebanon.
They came from Europe, Palestine and America, drawn by the story of Ramzi and Al Kamandjâti, by the young traveller’s spirit of adventure, and by the desire to use their musical talents for work that could make a difference in the world.
Benjamin Payen, a French violinist who played in a Spanish orchestra, had originally come to Jerusalem to study with a master Jewish violinist. He’d lived on the Israeli side of the wall. ‘Don’t go there,’ Ben was told repeatedly about the Arab side. ‘You could get killed.’ Eventually he crossed over and met ordinary people. He travelled through the Occupied Territories, immersing himself in Palestinian culture and history before returning to Europe and re-joining his orchestra. But he missed Palestine, so took his leave from the orchestra and returned. Before long he was teaching at Al Kamandjâti, and playing music to accompany his collection of old Harold Lloyd and Three Musketeers films, which he’d screen on summer evenings in the refugee camps. He was trying to find something to make the children laugh.
Alice Howick, a British violinist with a freshly minted music degree from Cambridge, was looking for challenging work. Alice had first heard about Al Kamandjâti from a friend who’d founded the Choir of London, which performed occasional concerts in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories with a combination of European and Palestinian vocalists. Later, she came as a visiting violinist to play in Al Kamandjâti’s winter baroque festival, where she learned of openings at Al Kamandjâti. After returning home, she wrote to Celine, who hired her immediately.
Maddalena Pastorelli had been studying the flute in Sienna, Italy and Lugano, Switzerland, working toward her master’s degree, but found the programmes too focused on creating standout soloists. She was put off by what she considered cut-throat competition. One night, Maddalena had heard Ramzi and his French-Arabic band, Dalouna, at a concert in Sienna. Soon after, she sent her CV to Al Kamandjâti. She, too, was quickly hired.
Iyad Staiti, an oud player born in Jordan, had grown up dreaming of Palestine, the land of his parents and grandparents. After the opening created by the Oslo peace process, he moved to Jenin – crying and kissing the ground when he crossed the River Jordan, as so many Palestinians did – and began to give oud lessons. A few years later he met Ramzi in a rambling French mansion used as a safe house during the Nazi occupation. It was now a gathering place for various international solidarity organizations. It was here that Ramzi and Iyad had first discussed a new branch of Al Kamandjâti, in the Jenin refugee camp. Now Al Kamandjâti’s Jenin centre was real, and Iyad its coordinator.
Julia Katarina learned about Al Kamandjâti the day she went to hear an acquaintance, Peter Sulski, play Brahms and Mozart in an English country mansion. Julia, thirty-one, was making a go as an opera singer. She had grown up in Forest Row, Sussex, where in late summer purple heather lined country paths, wisteria crawled up brick walls, and weeping willows bent over English country gardens of echinacea and white roses. As a youth Julia worked as a bouncer at clubs, organized paintball games, played guitar in an all-girl punk rock band, picked up flamenco guitar, got inspired by Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, began to play the cello, and eventually became interested in opera, which, her family and friends believed, was her truest calling. After the chamber music concert, Peter, Ramzi’s former viola teacher, showed the French documentary, ‘It’s Not a Gun’, about the building of Al Kamandjâti. Julia was so impressed that within weeks she had put her opera career on hold and moved to Palestine to be the school’s vocal teacher.
Jason Crompton’s introduction to Palestine had come in a hotel lobby in Jordan. His sister, who was teaching English in Palestine in a programme sponsored by the American Consulate in Jerusalem, had come to Amman to pick him up and bring him to the Holy City. But as Jason – a pianist with degrees in music from Michigan and NYU – rolled his bag into the hotel, he could see a group of men crowded around a television in the cafeteria, just off the lobby, staring at the screen in shock. ‘Holy shit! Holy shit!’ his sister exclaimed as they came closer. ‘They’re bombing Gaza!’
Two days later, Jason and his sister crossed over to Jerusalem from Jordan by land. They sat in the tourist bus at the border crossing. Jason saw Israeli soldiers everywhere; he had never been around so many people with guns. Soldiers with mirrors on long poles searched for bombs under the bus. Eventually, this would come to feel normal, but at the moment, Jason thought, ‘This is crazy.’ Soon Jason would learn about Ramzi, and the opening at Al Kamandjâti for a piano teacher. Soon, what started as a brief visit to his sister had evolved to a full-time job teaching music in the Occupied Territories.
As Al Kamandjâti entered its fourth year as a full-time music school, the energy no longer came primarily from international musicians using their vacation time and personal funds to come to Palestine for a few weeks. Those friends still came, for the summer camps, the annual Music Days and Baroque festivals, and for special workshops, but the heart of the day-to-day work was now being done by the young musicians who’d come to Palestine from abroad, by Palestinian musicians hired to teach Arabic music, and by Celine and her fellow administrators. Celine and Ramzi were now living together in a flat that was a two-minute walk from Al Kamandjâti. Ramzi was traveling constantly, performing with different groups in Europe, Beirut and Dubai, using the international stage to tell the story of Al Kamandjâti and capture the imagination of Europeans and Arabs and compel them to collaborate, teach, or make a donation. Ramzi’s encounter with a Norwegian rock star, for example, led to a donation for a large white van to ferry the children across Palestine. A British heiress would leave 45,000 euros to Al Kamandjâti in her will. And the Queen of Holland would soon invite Ramzi to perform in her palace in Amsterdam.
For the Europeans and Americans, many barely out of college, low salaries and modest living conditions were acceptable tradeoffs for a deeper sense of purpose at Al Kamandjâti, and in Palestine, where they believed their work would be needed and appreciated. They settled in and around Old Ramallah, pairing up as roommates in the spacious, high-ceilinged flats with reddish stone walls and cream-tiled floors. They sipped Arak and smoked hookah pipes (known locally as arguileh) in the evenings, looking out over bustling streets jammed with high-end and discount clothing stores, electronics shops, ice cream parlors, bakeries, pharmacies, snack vendors and posh cafes with free wireless connections. With East Jerusalem sealed off from most Palestinians, the once-sleepy Christian village was becoming the defacto capital of Palestine. Its sidewalks were jammed with people from all over the would-be nation. The energy in Ramallah was intense and vibrant.
By the late winter of 2009, in the early weeks after the Gaza War, most of the new teachers had settled into their work. Al Kamandjâti’s Ramallah centre provided the base for daily music lessons, but most days teachers also piled into the new white van to reach the children in the villages and refugee camps. Jenin was the most frequent destination, about two hours away depending on the number of military checkpoints and the mood of the soldiers. Abu Ayman, Al Kamandjâti’s gruff, chain-smoking driver, would barrel down the Ramallah-Jenin highway, taking corners and straight shots alike as if he were in an international Grand Prix. It was as if he couldn’t stand the sight of the red-roofed Israeli settlements, the military jeeps and personnel carriers ferrying soldiers from one West Bank base to another, the long rows of flagpoles bearing the national colours of Israel, and the signs in three languages warning Palestinians against entering the ‘special security zones’ and ‘closed military areas’. Abu Ayman streaked past these reminders of his own occupation, and of the incarceration of his oldest son, who had been taken away, in the middle of the night, a few months earlier. He held his hands in a death grip on the wheel, eyes fixed in front of him, weaving past cars and trucks with inches to spare on the two-lane highway. Jason, Maddalena, Alice, Ben, and Julia clutched the arms of their seats, looking up from their course notes or musical scores at each near miss. ‘Abu Ayman!’ Julia pleaded with their driver. ‘Please slow down!’ Which he eventually would, as Hawara or one of the other Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks came into view, and Abu Ayman was once again forced to submit himself and his passengers for inspection.
It was a different story once the van pulled up at Al Kamandjâti’s Jenin centre.
‘Juuuulia!’ shouted Fadi Basha, a skinny nine-year-old, racing across the room toward his teacher.
‘Marhaba ya Fadi,’ Julia smiled back at the boy, taking his hand. ‘Keefak inta? How are you?’
Fadi was on his way to becoming Julia’s star student. He had started out on a baby violin, but his voice was so pure and strong and, as it turned out, he sang eighteenth-century arias so beautifully, in nearly unaccented Italian, that voice lessons with Julia would become the priority.
Fadi was born in Japan, to Palestinian Christian parents from Bethlehem. His father, Walid, was earning his PhD in microbiology, and after his studies the family returned home, settling in a comfortable house at the edge of Jenin when Fadi was six. Walid took a job as professor of immunology and microbiology at An Najah National University, which the Israeli army frequently surrounded with tanks and subjected to curfews and closures. Walid and his wife, Jamileh, were often confined by the network of checkpoints and roadblocks so that, made it impossible to travel unimpeded across the West Bank. Walid had begun photographing thousands of creatures who lived under no such restrictions: Palestine’s migratory birds, which every year passed overhead – six hundred million of them – from Africa to Europe in one of nature’s greatest migrations. Jamileh believed her husband lived vicariously through these images of flight that he stored on his hard drive.
Fadi’s Italian arias represented another form of freedom. Anyone who heard him sing for the first time was astonished by the power and tone of the boy’s clear soprano. His pitch, and his resonance, seemed to reach inside listeners. In the practice room with Julia, Fadi’s voice would soar above the piano, cutting through the ambient din of Jenin: clear and resonant. In recitals, he had a natural dramatic presence, his eyes widening at emotional turns in the piece, as if he understood the original Italian. He memorized his first song, ‘Sebben, Crudele’ written by the Italian baroque composer Antonio Caldara for his 1710 opera, La costanza in amor vince l’inganno (Faithfulness in love conquers treachery), in a single lesson. The next evening he performed it at a recital for other students, accompanied by Jason on the piano. Julia was stunned. Teachers found themselves on the verge of tears. ‘A star! A new star at the Kamandjâti!’ Fadi declared that evening, giddy with his own gifts and laughing in celebration.
Later, sitting in a chair, kicking his feet above the floor, listening on headphones to his performance, Fadi exclaimed, in English: ‘Really I have a beautiful voice! I don’t believe it myself! It’s a beautiful sound!’ Adults found this ebullient self-appraisal endearing, and agreed with it.
Fadi and Julia dreamed that one day he would tour the world as an opera star. His parents were more skeptical; Fadi’s voice, Walid pointed out, was still years from dropping. ‘This is an impossible question,’ Fadi agreed. ‘After all, I’m a kid!’ Then, laughing hysterically, he launched into a description of ‘Tom and Jerry at the Hollywood Bowl’, the cartoon in which Jerry conducts Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus (The Bat), and a frazzled Tom plays all of the orchestra’s instruments.
Jason had begun working with Rasha Doulani, a fifteen-year-old whose family had recently returned from Russia. Her father Tariq, a dentist, and his Russian wife Maryna, an ophthalmologist, had left Jenin in 2002 to do postgraduate work, and to get their three children away from the tanks, night raids and random violence of the second Intifada. The family had been living a short distance from the Jenin camp, where ear-splitting explosions regularly woke the children from their sleep.
Once they were safely in Russia, Maryna insisted that Tariq find Rasha a piano, to help her forget. Rasha was the oldest of the three children and the least likely to forget. There, in the town of Penza, Tariq found a piano. It weighed 650 pounds, and wouldn’t fit in the elevator. With seven other Russian dentists, Tariq carried Rasha’s piano up ten flights of stairs.
Rasha, on her return to Jenin two years later, had no memory of the second uprising. She was learning Debussy and Chopin, and said of Jason: ‘He wants to make me the best, he wants to give me everything to play well. He is kareem – generous.’
Iyad Staiti, the oud teacher and Jenin coordinator, grew up in Zarqa, outside of Amman. His first instrument was a guitar, which his father bought from a local librarian, after Iyad kept pointing at it, quiet and alone in its display case, in their repeated visits to the library. At six years old he sang verses from the surat al fil from the Koran. The next year he was playing nationalist songs about return to a land his family could see only in the distance: a home inside the mountains across the Jordan Valley. Eventually Iyad migrated to the oud, the round, five-string predecessor to the guitar with origins in the region.
The mixing of Arabic and Western musical and social cultures was inspiring for teachers and students alike. But as more English, German, French and American volunteers began helping set up film programmes, theatre workshops, music camps, and solidarity groups in support of the Palestinian olive harvest, which faced regular attacks from settlers, signs of strain became visible. Reports circulated of Western women dating local men, sometimes indiscreetly, with open displays of affection. Others dressed immodestly by local standards, which in some cases meant showing bare arms, or skin below the neck. Al Kamandjâti’s teachers did not have this reputation, but they were affected by those who did.
‘When we were going to Jenin, Iyad was always nervous,’ Alice remembered. ‘Especially with me and Maddalena working there. If we wanted to get a sandwich he would send one of the boys with us. We had been told to watch how we dress all the time, but particularly in Jenin, in refugee camps. Something covering my elbows, that was the general rule. Cover your legs and elbows.’ Once Alice wore something Iyad considered too low-cut, and told her she shouldn’t leave the centre. For Julia this was less of an issue: raised Christian, she had begun to embrace Islam, and often covered her long red hair in a headscarf. But for the other Western women, Iyad had reason to worry. Nearby was Jenin camp, where militants killed thirteen Israeli soldiers at the height of the second Intifada, and where French musicians and filmakers documenting the story of Al Kamandjâti were shot at only four years earlier. Jenin was a tense and conservative place, especially in the wake of the Gaza war.
In Ramallah, Alice and Maddalena shared a hillside flat about a ten minute walk from Al Kamandjâti, below an overcrowded nursery called ‘Baby World’, which supplied them with a steady stream of plastic toys, teddy bears, refuse, and soccer balls, thrown into their garden by screaming toddlers from the balcony above. Ramzi and Celine had recently paid a visit to Baby World. Celine was pregnant, and they would need a nursery. Not this one, they decided. It was too chaotic.
On the morning of 16 March, 2009, Alice was sitting alone with her coffee. At 7.30 each morning – like clockwork, she remembered – came the ‘excruciating sound’ of the Palestinian police marching band, ‘really terrible trumpet play’ drifting across the valley. Often the police band was getting ready to honour a visiting foreign dignitary. Once the band was practising for the visit of the Italian president. Many of their notes were wrong. When the band leader learned that real Italians were living amongst them – musicians to boot – they asked Maddalena and her countryman, Carlo, to come to police headquarters to help them properly learn her country’s national anthem. This they agreed to do.
It was sometime after 7.30 on the morning of March 16 when Alice’s mobile phone rang. It was Ben, Alice’s fellow violin teacher, and now boyfriend, calling from Al Kamandjâti. ‘Did you hear what happened?’ Ben asked. ‘There’s been a fire in the school in Jenin.’
Alice closed the phone and ran up the hill to get a taxi to Al Kamandjâti in the old city.
Hours later Alice and Maddalena arrived at the burnt husk that had been Al Kamandjâti Jenin. Children were gazing in shock at charred ouds, whose thin bands of wood from the concave back had sprung out in the heat; singed and curled-up bass and cello strings; and pianos whose white keys had turned black. Music stands were covered with ash; the smell of burnt wood hung in the air. Windows had been blown out by the intense heat. The walls were black. Outside the doorway, the police had found matches and an empty gasoline can. The arson had taken place in the middle of the night.
Some of the children were in tears. Iyad had been crying too. ‘I would have liked to die before seeing this,’ he said. ‘All my life, this place has been my dream.’
Rasha Doulani, the young pianist, was trying to grasp why someone would do this. ‘A music centre is a new idea. They maybe didn’t understand that. What music we play, and why. Because it was a new idea for them.’
Maddalena looked at the soot-covered walls. For a moment, she admitted, she lost her motivation. ‘I was like come on, if people don’t like this school, why are we here? What am I doing? People don’t like me; why should I stay? Should I just go home?’
Then she noticed the boys scrawling slogans with their fingers in the soot. ‘Kamandjâti, We Stay!’ read one.
A few teenagers had come down from the nearby Freedom Theatre in Jenin, which had the reputation for putting on bold dramas in the camp, many of which managed to offend all sides in the conflict. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Freedom Theatre’s founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis. ‘This kind of stuff happens. I’ve been threatened a lot of times. This is normal.’
Soon Ramzi arrived. He surveyed the damage and gathered everyone, looking carefully at the faces of the children. He noticed something beyond sadness – a guilt, almost, an embarrassment that something like this could happen in their home. ‘This is like the forest,’ Ramzi said slowly. ‘When you burn the forest, it becomes more fertile. There are many seeds. And that’s going to be the case for us.’
A new Al Kamandjâti would rise in Jenin, Ramzi promised. In fact, another building was already in the planning stage. In the meantime, Ramzi and Celine would send out a press release; they would call out every volunteer possible to begin a massive cleanup. Teachers and volunteers would bring instruments from Ramallah, and the Jenin school would not close, not even for a day.
‘We wanted to carry on our lessons as normal as possible that day,’ Alice remembered. ‘That was the best way to keep the kids feeling calm about what had happened.’ And they wanted ‘to send a message to anyone who might be wondering how we were going to react.’
They led the kids outside to a garden courtyard. Iyad was nervous, but had reluctantly agreed. Carlo, an Italian trombone teacher, brought out his computer, and began syncopated beats: reggae beats, Arabic beats, marching bands, slowing it down, speeding it up, adding chords, as the twenty young musicians, mostly beginners, began to follow. ‘We didn’t really know what to do,’ Alice remembered. They didn’t have a lot of material, many of the instruments had been destroyed, and much of the sheet music was incinerated. But the kids with the smaller instruments – violins, flutes, trumpets – mostly took them home, so they hadn’t been lost.
Alice picked up her violin. Using her bow as a baton and smiling broadly, she began to play.
‘Without violence!’ Carlo shouted. To some it may have appeared he was making a political statement, in case the arsonists were listening nearby. Alice, familiar with Carlo’s rough, accented English, understood that he wanted the musicians to play more softly, but the string section thought he’d said ‘without violins!’, so they stopped.
‘What are you doing?’ Carlo yelled. ‘Continue!’
‘We made a concert outside to show the people that, we are here, we are playing,’ Rasha Doulani said. ‘And we didn’t do anything wrong. And we are just kids and we are just playing. So what’s wrong with that? And we just played for them and showed them that we are really sad about what happened and that they did the wrong thing and we will continue. We won’t stop.’
Alice would remember this day as ‘one of the most positive days of our teaching. You can really feel this sense of being together. Everyone felt like a little soldier defending the castle. That was – that was Al Kamandjâti.’
That evening, and for many evenings to come, Iyad tuned the centre’s radio to the Koran radio station, and turned it up loud, before he locked the building.
A few days later, Ramzi turned the key at Al Kamandjâti’s Ramallah centre, and swung open the wide copper door. He liked the time alone in the mornings, before children started showing up and classes began. It was a good time to think, and to wander the courtyard with his watering can, dousing the jasmine and creeper vines.
Off to the left, on the courtyard stones, Ramzi saw an unmarked white envelope. He bent down to pick it up. Inside there was a scrap of paper. Ramzi looked over his shoulder to the gap below the door. Someone must have slid the envelope underneath the door, overnight.
He turned over the sheet of paper to read the hand-written scrawl, in Arabic: I hope you learned from Jenin.
Ramzi stuffed the note in his pocket.
After the fire, the teachers of Al Kamandjâti intensified their work in the refugee camps. But in many places where teaching took place, the situation was out of control. ‘Every child has a story,’ remembered Alice. ‘Especially the ones in the camps who have been visited in the night by soldiers banging on their doors: “The soldiers came last night.” Or: “My brother’s in prison, I’m going to visit him next Tuesday. It takes four hours to get there, and I have to wait for three hours.” Or the two kids in Qalandia who had to stop coming to lessons because the wall was built alongside their house, and now they are on the wrong side of the wall.’
The teachers believed that nearly every problem in this troubled place – humiliation, rage, depression, a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, religious intolerance and an inability to concentrate – stemmed from a basic lack of freedom.
Music, Ben knew, could only do so much to solve this problem. ‘You don’t exchange music for the presence of human rights, for just sitting quietly under your olive trees. You can’t learn music when you have this situation in your head. Almost all of the families have had someone die. All of the families have someone in jail.’ But he had seen music make a profound difference, by providing things children rarely experienced in the camp: ‘You need a silence, you need a space, you need a breath.’
Alice agreed. ‘If you can get that kind of engagement and get them to really focus on something, I think it can change their whole concept of the world around them,’ she said. ‘If we can bring a degree of normality into these kids’ lives, it would make an immeasurable difference. It’s about giving a kid a childhood.’
On June 10 2009, just after midnight, Celine woke up and told Ramzi: ‘I think it’s time.’ They walked down from their fifth-floor apartment and got into their car. Ramzi drove through the empty Manara, the main traffic circle, and to Ramallah hospital. There Celine gave birth to Hussein Ramzi Mohammad Hassan Hussein Aburedwan. Celine’s Lebanese-French mother was with them; she had travelled from France to Palestine, journeying back to the region from which she had rescued her three daughters, twenty years earlier. ‘After that,’ Celine said, ‘it was much easier for her, and for my parents, to imagine me here.’
Six months later, Ramzi flew to Amsterdam to play for the queen of Holland. Celine stayed home with Hussein.
On 16 December, just after two in the morning, Celine awoke in the flat in Ramallah to a strange sound coming from the front door. She emerged to find the door – a heavy steel multi-lock security door – jammed partway open and kept that way by a small security bar.
Celine thought burglars were trying to break in and so yelled at them in Arabic to go away. Then she peered through the six-inch opening and spotted ten Israeli soldiers in the hallway. They told her to stand back. They were attaching a special machine to the door, one made specifically, it seemed, to allow soldiers to enter homes at will. Celine retreated to the bedroom and called a co-worker. ‘There are soldiers entering my flat,’ she whispered urgently.
‘Don’t worry, there is no problem,’ her colleague replied. ‘It’s normal.’
The soldiers stepped through the door, pointing their automatic rifles at Celine. A local Palestinian informant stood near them silently, a black woolen mask pulled over his face to ensure his anonymity.
The commander began to interrogate her. ‘My name, with whom I live, asking me about the neighbours.’ Celine flashed her French passport and pleaded with the soldiers to keep their voices down, so as not to wake up Hussein, sleeping in the next room. ‘I was praying that he would just stay asleep.’ She told the commander, ‘I just go from my house to my work, from work to my house.’ She didn’t really know her neighbours, she said.
As it happened, the soldiers had blown off the door to the wrong flat. They would remove at least three more doors in the building that night, Celine said, before finding their suspect: her seventeen-year-old next-door neighbour. ‘They stood questioning him for maybe twenty minutes, and then they took him.’
Celine stared through the blinds at the street below, where some fifteen jeeps and other military vehicles were parked. Finally, they left with their lights out and so quietly that she couldn’t even hear their engines. When the flat was silent again, she couldn’t sleep. ‘I was very afraid.’ A neighbour came upstairs to sit with her until the morning.
Ramzi arrived the next day and put his key in the lock. The door wouldn’t open. He looked around the hallway, wondering if he was on the right floor. He tried the key again, then noticed the door was a different colour.
Celine came out and told him what had happened.
Ramzi imagined what might have happened if Hussein were a bit older, had wandered out to the front room to see ten soldiers pointing guns at his mother. As a child under occupation, Ramzi recalled seeing this kind of thing a lot in Al Amari refugee camp. But he didn’t think he would ever see it here in Ramallah, which was in the middle of a supposedly autonomous Palestinian territory.
‘Now you know,’ Ramzi told Celine with a wry smile, ‘how we feel.’
This is an extract from a forthcoming book, working title Children of the Stones, to be published by Bloomsbury.
Photograph by Leander Arkenau