Palestinian violist Ramzi Aburedwan used to throw stones at Israeli soldiers. Now he fights with music. He's built a music school for young Palestinians and he's finally realized a dream of playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Jerusalem.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in Jerusalem, but those outside the city can't get there without hard-to-get permits, restrictions Israel says are necessary for security. One group found a way in for a unique purpose an orchestra that went to play one of the world's most famous symphonies. Sandy Tolan reports on the musicians' journey.
On the wooded grounds of an East Jerusalem guesthouse run by French nuns, musicians from all over the world are getting ready bassists, cellists, the trombones, the woodwinds … and the whole orchestra and chorus 200 people under a giant tent The Ramallah Orchestra's last rehearsal before their Jerusalem performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
On the roof of the guesthouse under a flapping French flag sits the man who envisioned all this, Palestinian violist Ramzi Aburedwan.
"This idea came from my own story," says Aburedwan.
Aburedwan was raised by his grandparents in a refugee camp near Ramallah. At age eight, he hurled stones at Israeli soldiers to expel them from occupied lands. 10 years later, he laid down his stone and picked up a viola.
"I thought that it was an amazing way of expressing myself," he says. "Music had helped me develop this frustration in a positive energy."
Aburedwan was so taken by music he had a dream at age 18 to study in France, come home, and build a music school for young Palestinians still living under occupation. Now he's brought all of Beethoven's symphonies to his music school, Al Kamandjati, culminating with the ninth and its message of universal brotherhood.
"The ninth symphony it's one of the most beautiful piece that have been written, and its message to the world is joy and how much we need joy in Palestine."
Palestinians need permits to enter Jerusalem, and they're hard to get. Aburedwan says when he applied for permits for his Ramallah Orchestra to perform the ninth, he was denied because you need a special reason.
"Beethoven and the orchestra is not a reason, you know?"
For past Beethoven concerts in Jerusalem, members of Aburedwan's Ramallah Orchestra risked prison, climbing the separation wall by ladder and slithering down by rope. This time, Aburedwan traveled in disguise.
"Other Palestinian musicians had to be in the trunk of a car, you know?"
"So I came in a dangerous way," says a member of Aburedwan's orchestra. "I had to cover myself with a blanket."
This 18-year-old violinist is using his first name only, Tayeb. As he lay under that blanket listening at the military checkpoint, he asked himself if he'd made the right decision. Was it really worth it to risk arrest just to play Beethoven?
"I said, 'Yeah.' I must go, 'cause it's important," Tayeb concluded.
Now the teenager's here with those 200 others playing in that big tent.
Three American musicians were refused entry by Israel and sent home, they say, when they admitted why they'd come, but the rest made it through from more than a dozen countries. Aburedwan and his friends spent two years arranging the details.
"I'm Helene Lecouer," says one of Aburedwan's musicians. "I'm from France. We're all conscious that it's an incredible dream Ramzi had, and we want to help him to do that."
The musicians rehearse while an Israeli helicopter thunders over one movement, and the call to prayer echoes into another.
Finally, it's the day of the first performance. The orchestra gathers for the short bus ride to Augusta Victoria Chapel in East Jerusalem. Majd Qadi is a Palestinian trombone player studying in Germany.
"I have mixed feelings to be honest," Qadi admits, "'cause I'm in my favorite city on Earth doing the thing I love the most and yet, you know, just asking myself when am I going to be permitted here again if ever?"
When asked how he got into Jerusalem this time, he says, "I'd rather not talk about it, to be honest."
And so it begins. Aburedwan sits in the viola section in the middle of the orchestra on the right. For him, the ninth symphony in Jerusalem seemed always meant to happen.
"It's an amazing connection that brings me back to very, very old time," Aburedwan says, "I mean, when I was very young, you know?"
Ramzi was five, living in the refugee camp with his grandparents who were forced to flee their village during the creation of Israel in 1948.
"And, you know, my grandfather worked in the municipality to clean the street. And sometimes he would find good things, you know, in the garbages. He found me a small teddy bear, yeah."
On the back of the bear, there was a little plastic ring attached to a string.
"And I pulled it once, and I would hear … And today, we're doing the whole symphony. And every time when I listen to this in rehearsals, I just go back to this moment."
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