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Q&A: Sandy Tolan, Author of Children of the Stone

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Photo by Nubar Alexanian

How did you develop your original interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Throughout my career, I have been drawn to international stories about the intersection of land, natural resources, indigenous and cultural identity. I had always been interested in covering such issues in Israel and Palestine. Like many Americans, Jew and Gentile alike, I was raised with the story of the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust but had come to understand that there was another people’s story in the Holy Land, too. After marrying a Palestinian journalist whom I met on a journalism fellowship at Harvard (we were married for eight years), I began traveling to the region extensively to explore the different narratives of history, identity, war, and peace, throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. This resulted first in a series of reports for National Public Radio (NPR) about water in the Holy Land, and then my 1996 book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.

What about Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan first caught your attention when you met him in 1998?
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I first saw Ramzi on a poster that was pasted up all over Ramallah as I was researching The Lemon Tree. One image showed eight-year-old Ramzi, in 1987, throwing a stone at an unseen Israeli soldier. Beside that, on the same poster, was another image, from 1997, of 18-year-old Ramzi playing the viola. The poster was a promotion for the Palestine National Conservatory of Music, but also in essence for the hope many people had at that time that a free and independent state of Palestine would coexist, side-by-side in peace, with Israel. I was inspired to find Ramzi at the refugee camp near Ramallah where he lived with his impoverished grandparents. Once there, as I began working on a piece that would air on NPR, what caught my attention was Ramzi’s spirit—his charisma, determination, will, and the light in his eyes, despite all the loss he had suffered, to not only play music but to create music schools for Palestinian children. This, from an 18-year-old with no financial resources who had just begun to play music.

Of all the individual stories that come together to form Children of the Stone (Bloomsbury USA), whose is the most moving for you?
I have so many favorites, but I will share two, if I may. One is the realization, at a chance meeting in 2009, some ten years after the NPR piece about Ramzi aired, that he had done exactly what he had dreamed of doing as an 18-year-old in a refugee camp: he created music schools for the children of Palestine. The other story comes from Alá Shalalda, the 17-year-old who graces the cover of Children of the Stone. When she was ten, three years after she began to play the violin at Ramzi’s music school (called Al Kamandjati, Arabic for “the violinist”), Alá and her fellow music students were stopped at a checkpoint. Alá was told by a soldier to take her violin out of its case and play a song for him. At first she hesitated, but then, determined and overcoming her fear, she began to play a beloved Arabic song, “El Helwadi,” or “The Beautiful Girl.” The “Oriental” sound surprised the soldiers, and after her song was finished, another soldier approached and asked to borrow her violin. Then another soldier borrowed one of the music student’s guitar. The two Israeli soldiers played, smiling at the Palestinian children, then returned their instruments to them. Soon the children were on their way back to Ramallah, leaving them to wonder who those soldiers were and what it would be like to meet them under different circumstances.

So many individuals were willing to give their time, experience, and knowledge to make this book possible. Why do you think there was so much generosity?
One of the things almost all travelers to Palestine quickly understand is the nearly universal concept of Palestinian hospitality. Rare is the time in which someone isn’t offering you a drink, a meal, a place to stay. Ask directions on the street and someone will reverse course, pointing the way until they are sure you’ll get to your destination. So, the short answer is Palestinian hospitality. In the case of my work on this book, I think people also understood that I was genuinely interested in their lives, be it in learning music or understanding what daily life under a 48-year-long military occupation is really like. They wanted their story told, truthfully and in full, and so they spent the time necessary with me, opening their lives.

How did the research for and the writing of Children of the Stone affect you?
I developed new respect for the resilience of Palestinian children in learning music under the exceptionally difficult circumstances of the occupation. Their spirit was an inspiration, and their dream of freedom helped me focus on telling their story in a compelling, detailed, and truthful way.

What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?
Two things: One is to connect with a universal story—written, I hope, like a page-turning novel—of a young man with a dream who never gives up and builds something beautiful that inspires thousands of others. The other is for readers to see how ordinary people—in this case, mostly Palestinian children—maintain their dignity and hope under the tremendously difficult restrictions on travel and often daily encounter with soldiers. I believe, as others who read the book have told me, that by understanding this daily reality, Americans will have a broader and deeper view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the power dynamics behind it. My goal with Children of the Stone is to help change the conversation about this issue in the United States.

LJ reviewer Brenna Smeall works for AtoZdatabases, Omaha, NE

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