Children of the Stone: Exploring the power of music in Palestine

Children of the Stone
by Sandy Tolan
Bloomsbury (25)

A group of young Palestinian musicians gather on a West Bank hilltop to play Mozart's Sixth Symphony to a passing Israeli train. As they play, they imagine music filling its carriages, carrying part of them down to their lost villages – and onwards to new worlds they dream of seeing.

Sandy Tolan's first book, The Lemon Tree, gave balance to both sides of the Arab-Israeli narrative. His second is a much clearer indictment of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, told through the lives of aspiring musicians. But Children of the Stone is far more than a one-sided lament and is itself a symphony of international locations, big ideas and human dramas.

Tolan describes a remarkable journey: Ramzi Aburedwan, stone-throwing poster child for the first intifada, grows to become a classical viola player founding music schools across the West Bank and playing with star Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, right. Ramzi's story is woven into both the broader Palestinian struggle and the fraught effort by Barenboim and great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to find common ground through artistic co-operation.

Said and Barenboim believed music could build bridges while politics raised barriers. Tolan strips this concept of sentimentality through visceral, fly-on-the-wall storytelling. How does a child learn an instrument where sheet music and strings can't be found – where they must build their own music rooms stone by stone? At one point, Palestinian musicians desperate to reach their "co-existence" performance in Jerusalem pay a people-smuggler to help them scale the eight-metre Separation Barrier, throwing down timpani sticks and violin cases to waiting hands below.

Tolan is not blind to faults on both sides. In a dehumanising environment his young characters are defiantly human: they have hard-won triumphs and make self-defeating mistakes. They fall in love with the transformative power of music but they constantly question how to use that power: to build bridges or, as one of Ramzi's pupils says, for "assertion ... and vengeance".

There are no easy answers. Tolan shows a novelist's preoccupation with empathy in portraying two conflicting worlds: music's timeless idealism and occupation's brutal realities. What emerges is
a deeply moving parable of struggle and mastery – over an instrument, over painful injustice and ultimately over self.