A Palestinian Violist Plays the Sound of Hope

Can a church’s musical presentation speak into the world’s most pressing conflicts?

In a few days, a man is going to pick up his viola and play. And for a couple of hours, the world will sound more hopeful.

On Saturday, December 6, at 7 pm, Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda, Maryland, will present a concert that will include the premiere of a piece of music entitled “The Imaginary City.” This is a 35-minute, five-movement cantata, inspired by the life and music of Ramzi Aburedwan.

Ramzi is a Palestinian violist. He will be here to play in the concert. In addition to “The Imaginary City,” the concert will feature two pieces Ramzi wrote.

The iconic photograph of Aburedewan, via Ramallah Cafe.
The iconic photograph of Aburedwan, via Ramallah Cafe.

Ramzi first caught the world’s attention as an eight-year-old child — he was photographed hurling rocks at a tank during the intifada. He was born in the Al Amari refugee camp, where his family has lived since they were forced from their home in 1948. By his own admission, he became a street tough, lost in the spiral of violence that surrounded him.

A few years later, some hopeful music teachers found him, taught him to play the viola, and set him on a new path. Ramzi is now a classical violist who performs in Europe and the Middle East. He also founded Al Kamandjati, a series of music schools in refugee camps in Palestine and Lebanon. His life is devoted to making beautiful music and helping others make music as a creative way to resist oppression and foster cultural transformation.

“The Imaginary City” takes the outline of Ramzi’s life — birth, conflict, violence, grief, desire for transformation — and re-tells that in a universal way. The music — written by composer, conductor, and pianist Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez — is based on creative re-settings of global lullabies. The libretto draws from sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as the poems of Li-Po and Wilfred Owen and speeches from the Camp David Accords.

I’m not writing this column as an independent bystander. I’m the senior minister at Westmoreland Church, and I’m the librettist for this work. (Librettist is a fancy word meaning I put the words to the music.) Composing this work of music has taken almost two years. It has required parts of my brain that I didn’t know I have.

Alejandro and I have learned that what our Western ears may hear as balanced, hopeful inclusivity (putting Jewish and Arabic lullabies side-by-side) may be seen by Ramzi as the unbalanced and unnecessary comparison of oppressor and oppressed. I have learned a great deal. We have written grant proposals, begged for money from church members, and sent out dozens of press releases. We’ve had to make sure Ramzi’s travel documents meet the strict standards needed for travel out of Palestine.

And all the while, we’ve watched as Gaza and now Jerusalem simmer to near boiling. Alejandro and I hammered out the words to the final movement as pictures of bombs filled our TV screens. A couple of times, I thought we should toss the whole project in the trash. After all, who am I to write some sort of singable verse to a choral work that bounces from 7/8 to 6/8 time? Moreover, who am I to try to add my voice to the woes of the Middle East?

But that’s what I do. I write. I write sermons that I hope will encourage the souls of folks in the pews Sunday after Sunday. I write occasional pieces at OnFaith to add to the public discourse around religion and spirituality. I write a jillion emails a day to make sure Sunday School teachers have their curriculum and meetings start on time and the building manager knows the basement door is stuck closed. I write. So, that’s the gift I can bring to the world — the words to a new song about a rock-throwing boy who put down his stones and picked up a bow.

On Saturday, December 6, that violist will pick up his bow. I think the music will sound like hope.

Timothy Tutt
Written by