If You Play It, They Will Come

A new music school in Ramallah's Old City is the fulfillment of Ramzi Abu Redwan's dream to make music available for Palestinian children, particularly those residing in refugee camps.

How to plan the door, fence and roof was solved in a dream: literally. Architect Khaldun Bshara from the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation had been working for a month on a plan to renovate a stone building in Ramallah's Old City for the new Al Kamandjati (The Violinist) music school. He still had several things to work out. The school's motto is "Music for all in Palestine." If so, then should the building and its yard be bounded by a fence, or worse, a wall, with a separating door in it? And shouldn't the roof, under which there are plans to hold concerts and show films about music and musicians to children, be exposed for everyone to see? Yet, it is also necessary to respect the musicians' and students' need for quiet, as well as the neighbors' privacy.

The dream and its subsequent practical adaptation ended all the uncertainties: a wall of bronze surrounds the yard, its two sides meeting the stone walls as angles. The door, also bronze, which has been set into the front wall as though leaning on its side has a slanted outline and is not at right angles or parallel to the ground. There are also bronze screens on the roof, between which it is still possible to see the neighbors and wave to them, and another large sheet of bronze is spread like a canopy over the place where the stage for the musicians will be set up. In Bshara's dream, the screens looked like "something that flies." In reality, the rectangle created here is reminiscent of some sort of musical instrument.

The sounds of a string bass filled the yard Saturday morning. Brahms. One of the teachers was practicing. For a moment, the clucking of a hen mingled with the notes of the string bass. The clucking was like another natural sound in the environment and did not disturb. When the invisible hen clucked again, Ramzi Abu Redwan noticed and pulled the sound's source out of his pocket, his mobile phone, and answered the call. Redwan is the school's director. One minute he's answering the phone, the next minute he's consulting about what to plant in the garden, and the next minute he's pausing to hear from his colleagues what they'll be playing at next week's concert and setting rehearsal times. In between, he finds the time to invite a curious boy from the neighborhood inside and answer his questions, exchange a few words with a mother who has come to register her children for the school, and tell us how it all started. "It's all by chance," is his prefatory definition.

The only musical instruments Abu Redwan saw in his childhood were those wedding musicians played. At the Al Am'ari refugee camp where he was born, as is the case in all refugee camps, weddings were held in the middle of the alley and everyone was invited to listen, watch and dance. This was before the first intifada broke out at the end of 1987, during which time such weddings were not held. Abu Redwan, who was born in 1979, was under the age of nine then. "I watched the musicians, and I was envious. I imagined myself playing music like them, and then I said to myself: `Wake up, it's a dream'."

From the age of five to 16, when he was living in the home of his grandfather, a refugee from Yibneh, he would wake up every morning at 4:00 and sell newspapers in Ramallah to help support the family. This was his own initiative. Initially he received three agorot for every newspaper he sold and later four. Sometimes, he remembers to this day with mischievous satisfaction, he earned more from the change of customers in a hurry. He stopped when he turned 16, he says, because "I began to be ashamed of selling newspapers."

When he was selling newspapers, he discovered there was a different world than the alleys of the camp where he was born. He asked his grandfather how this was possible, and his grandfather explained. He told him about refugees and camps, war and expulsion, houses with gardens, and sewage that flows in the alleys. After that lesson, it is not surprising to hear him say, "It was I who started the intifada in Al Am'ari." With a smile, he testifies that he was the "commander," and led the camp's children in throwing stones at military jeeps that rumbled along Jerusalem Street at the edge of Al Am'ari. He was wounded three times by live Israel Defense Forces fire. A photograph of him - a boy who looks younger than his age, nine - throwing stones on a wintry day became famous in Ramallah. "Ramzi from the refugee camp," who fights the occupation after he has sold the morning paper, became known to Ramallah's citizens, many of whom had never set foot in Al Am'ari. Meanwhile, the first intifada ended, the Oslo process began, and the Palestinian Authority was established. But the gaps between the refugees and the city's inhabitants remained as deep and painful as they had been.

"Came in first"

When he was nearly 17, a woman from Ramallah who had known him as a little boy selling newspapers and then "a soldier of stones," and knew of his attraction to music, invited him to meet Palestinian violinist Mohammed Fadel at her home. Fadel is a native of the village of Budrus, but lives in Amman. He had come to Ramallah to introduce children and adolescents to music, and he taught music at the Bir Zeit Conservatory for three months. On that occasion, Ramzi was given the opportunity to hold a violin, for the first time in his life, to hold. He also asked Fadel to play for him "something by Umm Kulthum," to whom he would listen with his grandfather. "Why not learn," Fadel encouraged him. "Within two months you'll know how to play like me." Abu Redwan chose the viola: he felt that the violin was too small between his hands. He returned to the camp with a viola he had borrowed from the conservatory, and began to practice. "You know how it is in a refugee camp. The house goes out into the street, the street comes into the house. I practiced, and the children gathered under the window and laughed at me, at the strange sounds I was producing," he says. He quickly realized that within two months, he would not know how to play like his teacher, which only encouraged him to practice more and take music lessons at the conservatory.

His first teacher was violist Peter Sulski, who came to Ramallah in 1997 to teach and test musicians who would participate in a summer music workshop in the United States. "I will come in first," he said to one of the conservatory teachers. "In a dream," answered the teacher. But Abu Redwan did "come in first," and in 1997 was sent to a chamber music workshop in New Hampshire. Less than a year had passed since he had started to study music, and now he found himself among thousands of other musicians while becoming acquainted with dozens of musical instruments. "Before I went, I thought there were 30 or 40 musicians in the whole world, and maybe five or six kinds of musical instruments, and suddenly I discovered how wrong I had been." He was asked to perform a Mozart piano quartet there. When he recalls this, a cloud of panic returns and hovers on his face, immediately receding into a smile: How can I, he said then to Sulski. It's so hard. Practice and you will succeed, was the answer. For weeks he not only played his instrument hour after hour, but also enlisted other musicians at the workshop to help him, play together with him, listen and correct him. He performed, everything went well, and secretly he and his fellows wiped away the perspiration of trepidation.

Brotherhood of refugees

Abu Redwan sold a television set he had bought (and liked very much) to pay for the viola Sulski had brought from Britain in 1998. That same year another musician came to test the students and offer scholarships, this time for a year of study in Angers, France. The students thought they had been asked to give a concert, not take an exam. How surprised he and another son of a refugee family, Ramadan `Ata, were when they discovered they had won the scholarship.

J is a doctoral student in mathematics and a native of the Al Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza. Now he is accompanying his son to music lessons at "Ramzi's" conservatory. The chemistry among people born in refugee camps is created instantly. And J's pleasure in hearing how "it was in fact two sons of refugees who won the scholarships" in what every refugee considers one of the bastions of the Ramallah "aristocracy" was written on his face. Today, Abu Redwan is teaching viola at the Bir Zeit Conservatory.

Abu Redwan did not believe this was happening to him. It was far more than he had dreamed. In September 1998, he went to Angers without knowing French, with little more than a year of experience in music, and with basic English that he had learned at two summer workshops. He quickly realized that "a year was nothing," and when he was offered a scholarship for an additional year, he accepted it, and the year turned into seven. In the third and fourth years, the scholarship did not pan out, and he had to work (tarring roofs and playing the bouzouki, an instrument he had learned to play in 1997) while studying. During the last three years he received a scholarship from other sources, and studied everything the school offered: theory, piano, harmony, solfege, orchestration, choir, reasonable English and fluent French.

Meanwhile, the second intifada broke out. When he came home for a vacation and went to his camp, Abu Redwan was saddened to find that what the children were drawing were tanks, bombs and martyrs. He started to organize concerts for them. He became quite happy one day when he walked through an alley and made out a first, somewhat awkward attempt by a child to depict a violin among the paintings of tanks and martyrs. He no longer needed to initiate the concerts. "You know how it is, in a camp," he relates. "A child knocks on the door, comes in before we even open it, runs straight to my room, takes the bouzouki and says: `Yallah, let's play some music'."

Abu Redwan returned to France in 2002, and prepared a three-page paper detailing his new dream: to infect others with his enthusiasm. That same year, he founded, together with French musician friends, the non-profit Al Kamandjati Association, whose mission statement is: "To establish music schools for Palestinian children, especially the most vulnerable: those who live in the refugee camps." The idea was spread, and the first contributions were obtained through concerts Abu Redwan and his friends gave in France. "The music schools will afford them the chance to discover their own cultural heritage, and open themselves to the outside world," they wrote.

Since then, Abu Redwan has brought musicians and music teachers - foreign and Palestinian - to several West Bank refugee camps, offering workshops to residents. Through these workshops and his journeys, he became acquainted with Riwaq, and discovered the existence of a plan to renovate an old house, a real ruin, in the middle of Ramallah's Old City. The house's owners, members of the Khalef family, one of Ramallah's "founding tribes," had proposed the renovation. However, they had made no progress, because they were still looking for the right partner to turn the refurbished building into a center that would serve the community. The match with Kamandjati seemed ideal.

"Are you crazy?" the neighbors asked when they saw the renovators. Just removing the garbage, which had reached a height of two meters in the yard and in the building took about a month. The renovation took three months. For at least 20 years, the place had been unused. The walls were sodden with damp, and it is estimated that it will take two years before they dry completely. The entire renovation cost $77,000. Most of the sum was donated by the Swedish development fund Sida, aside from $10,000 paid by the Kamandjati Association.

Registration opened in September. In the small, yet impressive building, 50 children study theory, solfege, recorder playing, string bass, percussion instruments, oud and violin. Four of the teachers are Palestinian and six are foreign. Every day new children sign up, and after meeting with staff, are directed to the instruments most suitable for them. The staff goes to Bethlehem several times a week to teach violin to children at the area's refugee camps. At the end of October, a piano teacher is scheduled come.

For two years, intensive study workshops during school vacations have been given at the Jelazoun, Al Am'ari and Qalandiyah refugee camps in the Ramallah area, at Balata and `Askar in Nablus, and in Shuafat in Jerusalem. A teacher soon is to start working on behalf of Kamandjati at the Jenin refugee camp, and a group of teachers, mostly from abroad, will also teach at refugee camps in Lebanon. The foreign teachers hold the workshops in return for a plane ticket, living expenses and lodging. And nearly every day they give a concert in one of the camps or at a cultural center. The Barenboim-Said Foundation for Music is funding the salaries of some of the permanent teachers.

The bronze door of Kamandjati is open to the children of Ramallah's Old City, who have also begun to enroll. "We've asked them not to enroll more than two children from any one family, to ensure that we will reach as many families as possible," Abu Redwan says. The tuition fees are NIS 100 a year. When members of more established families in Ramallah ask Abu Redwan to accept their children to the school, he is perplexed: the donations funding teachers' salaries and operational expenses were intended for those who could not afford it. The parents have offered to pay more. "See this as our contribution." So the association has set a tuition fee of $250 a year, and there are those who contribute more.

Parents pay NIS 50 insurance for the instruments their children receive on loan. In fund-raising trips, Kamandjati has received instruments as donations as well. For many, it appears, it is hard to resist Abu Redwan's argument: "Instead of the violin lying in your basement, it's better that a refugee child learn to play it."