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Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury USA, 2015, 480 pp.

Children of the StoneI was thrilled to discover Sandy Tolan was writing another book about life in Palestine. His first, The Lemon Tree, was so compelling, and the story so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to read Children of the Stone. While it was a good story, it was a less compelling read than I had hoped, and I found it somewhat disappointing.

The center of the story is Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, one of the young Palestinian boys whose picture was made famous for throwing stones at Israeli troops during the Intifada. Ramzi grows up to become a musician, and to found a music school for children in Gaza, the most improbably location. Children of the Stone tells the story of his growing up in Gaza, the (gross) violence he witnessed and the (minor) violence he engaged. It unfolds the incredible effort of his musical training, entering the realm of music at a much later age than many of his peers, and the way music freed him from Gaza and opened up the world for him. It shares his passion to open up that world for other Palestinian children through his music school.

Where the book disappoints is in the story of the building of the music school. Tolan tries to weave together Ramzi’s story with the stories of Palestinian academic Edward Said and Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. Ramzi did come to play in the Divan orchestra founded by Said and Barenboim, but the connection between them did not seem worthy of the ink Tolan devoted to it. The Divan Orchestra was a greater source of frustration than inspiration for Ramzi. The many pages devoted to Said and Barenboim did not seem to advance the story, and Ramzi never even met Said. The same is true of the time Tolan spends developing the life portraits of several volunteers (mostly European) who travel to Palestine to help teach in the school.

Ramzi is somehow able to raise money for the school, convince musicians and volunteers to travel to Palestine to teach and play, continue touring Europe as a musician, oversee every detail of construction, handle publicity and politics, and gently encourage students that music is worthwhile. In order to do that, he must be an incredible force of passion and charisma, with an energy and magnetism that radiates. However, Tolan’s portrait does not capture and captivate us with that force. Like the journalist that he is, Tolan’s Children of the Stone reads too much like a laundry list of events and not enough like the captivating story of Ramzi’s amazing life. Ramzi feels diminished by the telling, which simply recounts “this happened, then this happened, and this witness said this, and this witness said that…” It’s too much like a newspaper account of an event, and not enough like an author crafting a narrative. Those who speak to Ramzi’s temperament and dedication come across as witnesses giving a deposition rather than those inspired (or angered) by Ramzi’s passion. At one point, about midway through, I almost put it down for good, bored by the side narratives and dry recounting.

The book is at its best when it is recounting the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and telling the story of Ramzi’s family. With Ramzi’s life as the uniting thread, Tolan is able to open an important window into the untold stories of life in Palestine. His approach is less careful to justify the actions of the Israeli government than in The Lemon Tree, which I appreciate as a brave and important act of truth-telling. For that reason, I want to support this book, to have people read it and come to know the important story that it tells about Ramzi, his family and the people of Palestine. I only wish I could recommend it with more enthusiasm for the storytelling.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury, 2006, 364 pp.

Many, many thanks to my friend Caela for recommending this book. It was great preparation for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in just a few short weeks, and the story was so compelling that I couldn’t put it down.

The Lemon Tree is the true story of two individuals, their families and their personal, intertwining history with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over the last century. Bashir Khairi is a Palestinian Muslim who was six years old in 1948, when his family was forced to leave the house his father had built and the land that had been their heritage for centuries. Dalia Eshkenazi is the daughter of two Bulgarian Jews who survived the Holocaust. She and her parents were among the first Jews relocated from Europe to the newly-formed nation of Israel. Dalia was eleven months old when she came to Israel, and she and her parents took up residence in the vacated family home of Bashir Khairi.

The story begins in 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, when Bashir has the opportunity to visit his hometown for the first time in 19 years. With his two cousins, he makes his way back to the town of al-Ramla. They ring the bell of Bashir’s family home, and Dalia answers and agrees to let them in. What unfolds, across the next 40 years, is a friendship and compassionate conversation through the ugliness of war and violence. Bashir remains active in the Palestinian resistance, refusing to let go of his just claim to return to his family home. He spends a quarter of his life in prison as a result. Dalia is unrelenting in her commitment to Israel, her claim to the house, and the need for a Jewish homeland. Yet the two develop a personal respect and admiration for each other that survives their differences and gives cause for hope in the terribly painful conflict in this small patch of land.

Sandy Tolan is a journalist who writes their story with an informality that makes it feel like reading a novel, but a depth of historical information that teaches as the story unfolds. He traces each family’s history back several generations, and then unfolds the story of Dalia’s and Bashir’s lives with care and detail. He lays out the history of the land, the violence and insecurity on both sides, failed attempts at peacemaking, and the realities of occupation with a matter-of-fact approach that honors the sincerity and depth of the conflict on both sides. The story creates in the reader a desire for both Dalia and Bashir to have their way, to meet the just demands of both, but that is impossible. The needs of one conflict with the needs of the other, so the path of forward seems unfair and unclear. In his telling of the personal and political history, Tolan honors the just claims of both sides and both perspectives, and does not try to mediate or take sides.

The central symbol of the book is a lemon tree, planted by Bashir’s father in the back yard of their family home. It is a symbol of the future (turned past) that has been taken away from them, of the home that they long for, and of all that one kindhearted citizen can offer—the gift of lemons from the tree, not the tree itself or the ability to return to the home where it sits.

The Lemon Tree is a fascinating, compelling read, and a great way to gain familiarity with the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There is no resolution, but in this book there is always hope.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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