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  • Maurice Hanna Bisharat, seen with his wife, Mary, handcrafted 26 violins.


    Keith Bisharat, a Sacramento State professor, prepares violins for shipment to the Palestinian territories for use by children of all ages in music schools. The violins were made by Bisharat's father, the late Dr. Maurice Hanna Bisharat, a Palestinian immigrant.


    Ten violins made by Dr. Maurice Hanna Bisharat – being prepared at left by his son Keith – are expected to arrive at music schools in the occupied territories by late June. A Jewish friend introduced Bisharat to classical music, his son said.

Family sends handcrafted violins to Palestinian children

Published: Friday, Jun. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 12:16 pm

Ten violins handcrafted by the late Dr. Maurice Hanna Bisharat are on their way from Sacramento to Palestinian children in the occupied territories.

Bisharat, a Palestinian immigrant who died in 1998, taught his children to honor their Palestinian roots, and his violins are destined to be played by children of all ages at music schools in cities, villages and refugee camps.

"It's really a lovely exclamation point to his career and his life," said his nephew Charlie Bisharat. "It's a poignant completion of the circle from where he came from to where his violins will end up."

Charlie Bisharat, a studio violinist who's the only family member to play his uncle's instruments, has taught kids ages 6 to 13 at the Edward Saed Conservatory of Music in Ramallah in the West Bank, where some of the instruments are headed.

"They have very limited resources, and the music students were very attentive, a huge contrast from what I'm used to here," he said. "Music takes them off the streets so they can be a part of something beautiful."

Dr. Bisharat's own children rediscovered the rare trove of violins – copies of Stradivarius and Guarnerius models used by the masters – while going through the home of their late mother, Mary Bisharat.

"They were suspended in a special cabinet he'd made," said his son Keith Bisharat, a professor of construction management at California State University, Sacramento. "He played the piano a little, but he really loved the violin. He couldn't play it very well, because his fingers were very broad.

"A Jewish friend introduced him to classical music and he loved listening to classical composers all his life, especially Mozart."

Maurice Bisharat was born in Es Salt, Jordan, and moved to Jerusalem with his family at age 3. He earned his medical degree at the American University of Beirut, specializing in the treatment of eye disease, and performed thousands of surgeries in Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948, Keith Bisharat said.

He moved to the United States in 1946, became an award-winning watercolorist, studied psychiatry at the Menninger Foundation in Kansas, served in the U.S. Navy at Treasure Island and joined the clinical faculty at UC Davis Medical School, his son said.

A classic renaissance man, Dr. Bisharat wrote poetry and translated the poetry of Omar Khayyám; tangoed; grew olives and walnut trees, which he carved into gunstocks and engraved; fished with his own flies and hunted with his own weapons.

"He went through a phase where he was inspired by Ishi, the last of the Yahi, and made bows and arrows out of deer antlers, turkey feathers, flint and obsidian, and tied weeds around his head so he could hunt animals like the first Americans," Keith Bisharat said. "He was also a philosopher who liked to say, 'When you are a mouse, everyone around you looks like a cat.' "

Maurice Bisharat's violin-making phase began after the family moved to Sacramento in 1967, and he learned how to make the delicate instruments with the help of Albert C. Mueller, a fourth-generation violin maker.

"Using beautiful little tools he carved himself, he made 15 violins from 1977 to 1979," Keith Bisharat said. "He completed his 26th just before he died. He even invented a shoulder balance to make violin playing easier."

Charlie Bisharat has one of his uncle's violins. "He gave me Number 14 when I visited his basement in Carmichael in the 1980s," he said. "He had me try the violins because he didn't to get hear them played. He'd ask me if this one had a rich tone or a sweet tone," he recalled. "Some came out more polished than others, but they're all finely crafted and playable."

Dr. Bisharat's passion for violins was ignited by Mozart's music, which was always playing in the house. "Mozart wrote operas, arias, quartets and violin concertos, and most of his works include violins," Charlie Bisharat said.

Before donating the violins to the Al Kamandjati Association, a nonprofit that will hand-deliver them to Palestinian youth, the family had Sacramento violin maker Cheryl Macomber inspect them. Macomber, with 30 years of experience, operates a full-service repair shop.

"He did a good job; they are playable," Macomber said. "He definitely put his heart into what he was doing and used the proper woods – maple on the back and sides, spruce on the top, which allows for proper vibrations and tone," Macomber said.

Making a violin takes at least six months, and handmade instruments range from $5,000 to $30,000, "so this is a very nice gift," Macomber said. She understands why Bisharat would love making violins even if he could barely play them.

"It's like a living instrument; you feel the vibrations as you play it. Each one has its own personality, and the more you play it, the more it opens up, the richer it gets," Macomber said.

"It really does become an appendage of the person who plays it," she said. "It can express your anger, sadness, happiness, cheerfulness, playfulness and excitement – Paganini would mix all those emotions into his music."

Bisharat's violins should be in the hands of the young music students by late June, Keith Bisharat said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for my father's instruments to have a second life, to finally have a voice," he said. "They are like little pieces of him going home."

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

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