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USC Annenberg professor is inspired by the power of music

Sandy Tolan and a Palestinian performer combine music and the written word on a book tour bridging cultural divisions

In 1998, USC Professor Sandy Tolan was in Ramallah, Palestine, doing research for what would become his 2006 book, “The Lemon Tree.”

While there, he saw a poster featuring two pictures of a young man. One picture showed him as an 8-year-old, throwing a rock at an unseen Israeli soldier, while the other showed him as an 18-year-old, playing the viola. It was an advertisement for the Palestine National Conservatory of Music.

But Tolan also saw it as “an advertisement for this idea of putting down the stone and picking up a musical instrument and creating a peaceful nation, a sovereign nation at peace with Israel, which was the hope at the time.”

Tolan found the boy, Ramzi Aburedwan, in a refugee camp, where he lived with his grandparents.

“I asked him what his dream was and [Aburedwan] said, ‘Well, I want to open music schools for Palestinian children so that they know there’s something besides a stone. They can have hope through music,’” Tolan recalled of their conversation, which he turned into a piece for National Public Radio.

Nearly 10 years later, the two ran into each other by chance in Ramallah. Since their last conversation, Aburedwan had received a scholarship to study music in France. He had returned to Palestine to build music schools, to do exactly what he told Tolan he’d do.

The impact of music

Tolan, professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, was inspired by Aburedwan’s persistence and spent the next few years documenting Aburedwan’s story and the impact his music has had on Palestinian people. Because of Aburedwan, hundreds of Palestinians are able to take music lessons every year.

The book, “Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land,” was published — and discussed at USC Annenberg — on April 7.

Tolan calls the book “a non-fiction novel.” He uses the story of Aburedwan — and his fellow Palestinian musicians — doing “something beautiful under grim and challenging circumstances” to engage readers, but also to get them to understand what life is truly like for Palestinian children under military occupation.

Most recently, however, Tolan and Aburedwan have been engaging readers in a much more intimate way. After the book’s release in April, they set off on a promotional tour that integrated Tolan’s text and Aburedwan’s music, accompanied by the ensemble Aburedwan founded, Dal’ouna.

Cross-cultural sharing

“The Children of the Stone/Dal’Ouna Tour is a musical and literary tour de force, bridging cultural divides by promoting cross-cultural sharing through the fusion of unique musical and literary works, including Palestinian folk, world and classical music, jazz, combined with biographical narrative non-fiction,” according to the tour website.

“I would explain the book and tell the story, and then I would read a passage about how a kid was playing a particular song and [Aburedwan] would come on stage and play the song as I was doing the reading,” Tolan said.

They also often showed parts of a documentary called “Just Play,” which told Aburedwan’s story and featured an interview with Tolan.

The events took place in cities across the country, but Tolan said their visit to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., was a highlight for him. The event was held in a small auditorium that was soon filled to capacity with people standing in the back and sitting in the aisles.

“They were just so receptive to the message of the book and the beauty of the music and the whole mélange of the East and West,” Tolan said.

Changing the conversation

The tour concluded on July 12 with a stop in Maryland — and an interview with Tolan and Aburedwan on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” — but Tolan said they hope to do additional tours in the future and continue to convey the message of the book and the power of Aburedwan’s story.

“I hope that the book is received as an opportunity to broaden and deepen and change the conversation in the U.S. about Israel and Palestine,” Tolan said. “I think we’ve been focused so much on the very legitimate question of how to keep Israel safe, but very infrequently does anyone say, ‘we need to keep Palestinians safe.’”

Even the simple act of learning music has proven difficult for Palestinian children under occupation. Tolan cited instances where children carrying an instrument case have been stopped at military checkpoints and forced to play music for soldiers.

“If people could see what day-to-day life is like for Palestinian kids, I think they would find that the story needs to be told more, the story of the occupation,” Tolan said. “And then we might begin to see some change.”

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USC Annenberg professor is inspired by the power of music

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