Over the wall to play Beethoven in Jerusalem

The Ramallah Orchestra’s journey through – and over – Israeli barriers to star in the Holy City

Palestinian students from al-Kamandjâti Association play their instruments during a performance with guest musicians at the Qalandia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2011.
Mohamad Torokman/Landov/Reuters

JERUSALEM — Beethoven's Fourth Symphony has inspired countless musicians since it was first performed more than two centuries ago. Yet only a few have risked arrest and prison time just to play it.

Enter the Ramallah Orchestra, made up largely of Palestinian musicians in their teens and 20s, accompanied by 15 or so visiting teachers and performers from Europe and the United States. The orchestra is a project of the Ramallah-based music school Al Kamandjâti. The 37-member orchestra had been invited to perform at a concert on the grounds of the French church of St. Anne’s in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 29. Most of the musicians were able to get travel permits that Israel issues Palestinians for special occasions, but five of them — one of the orchestra’s four violists, both of its timpani players, one of the double bass players and a violinist — were not so lucky. The orchestra director, Ramzi Aburedwan, threatened to cancel if the orchestra was down to 32 musicians.

Their determination to perform with their orchestra eventually led the five musicians to do the unthinkable: climb over the Separation Wall to make it to the concert. 

The imaginary city

The Old City of Jerusalem is a holy place embedded deep inside the collective dreams and history of the Palestinians, yet denied them by a combination of bureaucracy and concrete. In Jerusalem, the physical barrier runs for some 56 miles (of a planned total of 88 miles).

For many in Palestine, Jerusalem is becoming an imaginary city. Although only 15 miles separate Ramallah from the walls of the Old City, reaching Jerusalem is increasingly less a physical journey than an exercise of the mind and spirit.

The massive physical and bureaucratic barriers that effectively seal off the city were on display in June, when Israel's minister of public security shut down a children's theater festival and puppet show at the Hakawati, East Jerusalem’s Palestine National Theatre, because the festival had allegedly received funds from the Palestinian Authority. The PA is confined to the West Bank, but its position remains that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a sovereign nation called Palestine.

In fact, the previous year also, the Ramallah Orchestra had been invited to perform at St. Anne’s church; none of the Palestinian members were granted permits.

Now the lucky permit holders of the Ramallah Orchestra would be reconnected, if only for a few hours, with their holy city. (Al Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem, means "The Holy.")

A trip in two worlds

But the five musicians who were denied permits had been told they would need magnetic identification cards issued by Israel.

According to Aburedwan, the director, who applied for them, "They said, 'We don't have the magnetic cards until July 10'" — days after the concert. In an orchestra of only 37 people, the contribution of these five musicians was vital.

So they devised a plan. The musicians without permits would sit in the back of the tour bus, hoping that the soldiers checking documents would get lazy and check only the foreign passports and approved permits of the musicians sitting up front.

Their journey started in the early afternoon, in the stone and copper courtyard of Al Kamandjâti’s headquarters in Old Ramallah. Three dozen young Palestinian musicians and visiting accompanists climbed aboard the bus, instrument cases slung over their shoulders, headed for the Old City.

The bus arrived at the Qalandia military checkpoint, an exhaust-choked border crossing where drivers jockey for position, funneling into a single line before submitting to inspection. Vendors selling kebabs, tissue packets, pillows, bottles of water and verses from the Koran weave through the mess of vehicles, plastic trash and chunks of broken concrete.

The bus inched forward. Finally, three Israeli soldiers came on board, their M-16 rifles slung around their shoulders, and began their inspection. One of them, baby-faced, with honey-blond hair, looked as if she could still be in high school. The soldiers checked the passports in the front row, conferred among themselves, and moved toward the back. Within minutes, nearly all of the Palestinians, even the ones holding the proper papers, had been ordered off the bus. Permits or not, they would not be allowed to cross the checkpoint in relative dignity, like the foreigners who remained on the air-conditioned bus. Instead, they would have to walk past the red metal benches of the "passenger lounge," surrounded on three sides by blue vertical bars, then down a long corridor of silver bars, like a cattle chute on a western ranch, moving through multiple 8-foot-high turnstiles, before ending up alongside dozens of other Palestinians in front of yet another blockade.

The bus waited on the other side of the checkpoint, where Montasser Jebrini, a Palestinian clarinetist now studying in France, was riffing on the hot pavement. He was playing "Helwadi" (Beautiful Girl), a song made famous by the Lebanese singer Fairouz. Montasser said he believed he had been allowed to stay on the bus because he passed for a European or Anglo-American.

"I am glad to be here," he said, "but I feel bad; it's just because my skin is lighter, while my friends have to walk through the checkpoint."

In the parking lot, Simon Hewitt Jones, a visiting British soloist, stepped off the bus with his violin. Other musicians broke out their instruments, and they began jamming: Violins, viola, cello, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, played by an American, three Brits, a Frenchman, an Irishman and a Palestinian. Mozart's "A Little Night Music" gave way to Mendelssohn's violin concerto ("opus baking in the sun," someone quipped), then morphed into "Morrison's Irish Jig," led by Johnny McBride, a fiddler from Northern Ireland.

The whole tableau was set against the backdrop of gun turrets, spindly red-and-white surveillance towers, and the Separation Wall.

Steps away, on the Ramallah side, separated by more walls of bars, the Palestinian musicians waited in the scrum. Every so often, above the turnstile, a red light turned green, a click sounded, and three or four more people passed through to place their possessions on a conveyor belt, hold up their permits to a dull green bulletproof window, and wait as bored-looking soldiers on the other side inspected the documents and waved the permit holders through.

But there were only nine permits for 14 musicians, and those without couldn’t talk their way through. And so the Ramallah Five were turned away. They clicked their way back through the turnstiles and cattle chute to the Ramallah side, uncertain what to do next. They had to come up with a Plan B.

One or two at a time, the Palestinian string players met at the bus. Soon all of them had arrived, except for the five who were turned back. "They couldn't get through," one of the musicians said. "They said to go on to Jerusalem. They will try to join us somehow."

Back in the bus, the remaining passengers rode south in silence for a time, wondering if the concert would have to be canceled.

Plan B

"Hey, you want to go to Jerusalem?" The man, who sat with a group of others smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, nodded toward a nearby van. "Yes," said the musicians who were left behind. The man would charge them 250 shekels, or about $70 — $14 per musician.

The man offering passage turned to his partner: "Get these guys to Jerusalem."

The Ramallah Five piled into a van. The door slid shut and the driver began working two phones, making arrangements. The musicians haggled over the price, agreeing on 40 shekels (about $11) each if they paid immediately. The driver gave them his phone number, and told them to call when they reached Jerusalem. A short time later, he pulled over, walked into a building, and emerged with a long ladder. "Come," he said. The five musicians approached the towering concrete barrier.

A string player went up the ladder first, gazing up to the top where nasty-looking loops of razor wire presented a dangerous obstacle. But the driver, who had already scrambled to the top of the wall, had cut it; now, he sat beside the ladder at the top of the wall, and swept the loops of wire aside, like a curtain. They must do this all the time for illegal Palestinian workers, the musicians realized. Then their guide pulled a long knotted rope from a plastic bag, looped it around a metal post at the top of the wall, and dropped it down to the other side.

One by one, the young musicians mounted the ladder and slowly slithered down the other side. It wasn't easy; the knots were small. Halfway down, one of the musicians saw a vehicle approaching on the narrow access road. He froze; was this a soldier coming to arrest him?

"Don't worry," the driver called down, "it's a local Palestinian."

Still, the violist said, he began to imagine what would happen if he were caught. He fantasized about telling his fellow inmates that he'd been arrested for intending to perform Beethoven.

The timpanist tossed the bag with his sticks down toward him from the top of the wall. Now the violinist was coming down. But something was wrong; he was having trouble telling how far he was from the ground. He jumped too early, landing on his feet and falling hard onto his back. Everyone laughed because he seemed to recover quickly. From the top of the wall, the bass player tossed his violin to a colleague.

The Ramallah Five were on the Jerusalem side of the wall. The entire operation had taken five minutes. They brushed themselves off and entered a restaurant for kanafe, the pizza-shaped Palestinian dessert made of sweet cheese and pistachios.

"That kanafe was very good," recalled the viola player. "Then we called to see where the bus was."

Standing ovation

The bus stopped to pick up the five musicians, who were smiling broadly as they climbed aboard to cheers from the rest of the orchestra. One showed a video of the ladder, and the wall, and two of the musicians climbing up: proof.

Twenty minutes later, the orchestra arrived on the tranquil grounds of their concert venue: a French church built during the Crusades. An old French priest welcomed them with a soft smile and a heavy accent; tourists wandered quietly through the garden, or rested on shaded benches. A French flag flapped from the steeple. The musicians disappeared into the cavernous church to rehearse. The sound of a violin solo drifted out, joined now by the entire orchestra; trombone, oboe, flute and the pounding of the timpani.

But the violinist who had climbed the wall fell ill, vomiting repeatedly. It was shock, a doctor told him, from the hard landing at the wall. He would not play in the Old City that night.

The other 36 members of the Ramallah Orchestra did, however. A little after 8 p.m., strings whispered the haunting first notes of Beethoven's Fourth, in a minor key, as 200 visitors filled the seats in the old church, unaware of the journey the performers had taken to play for them that night. But perhaps they sensed something. Moments after the visiting French conductor made his last thrust, and the final notes of the Fourth echoed off the walls, the audience rose in a sustained, joyful ovation.

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