Composed of top-notch Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab musicians, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is an integrated symphonic orchestra offering a model for intercultural understanding in the troubled Middle East. Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim co-founded it in 1999 along with his close Palestinian friend, Edward Said, a Columbia University literature professor, who died in 2003. The orchestra has a two-fold mission: to offer up great performances, but also to promote communication among people on both sides of the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli divide. We hear from Barenboim, two musicians and Mariam Said, the co-founder’s widow. In most cases, the young musicians, aged 15-36, would have no other way to make contact with someone of the “other” group. About half the performers are Israeli, with the balance from Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and a small contingent from Spain, where Divan is based. Although the orchestra has played at many of the world’s leading concert venues, it has generally been prohibited from performing in any of the Mid-East lands represented by the musicians themselves. The one exception is an historic 2005 concert in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank.
The orchestra, Barenboim insists, holds no political position except that it advocates non-military solutions to the region’s festering problems. “This is a conflict between two peoples who are deeply convinced they have the right to live on the same little piece of land, exclusive of the other,” he said. “We have to first get to the point where both sides accept the right of the other also to be there. In other words, we believe that we can live side by side, Israelis and Palestinians, or together, but not back to back.”
We would have these heated conversations and we would stay up late at night and it takes hours and hours. People are shouting and some people are maybe crying and getting emotional. But the next morning we are at rehearsal at 10 a.m. and everything has—it didn’t really disappear, but we’re doing something else that doesn’t require argument or getting emotional in that sense. It reminds us that we’re actually doing the same thing! It reminds us that difference between us did not kill us.”
—Mina Zikri, Cairo-born violinist
It was the first time for me as an Israeli to meet guys from Egypt, from Syria, from Lebanon, and vice-versa. And of course it was very strange, I think, in the first years to hear and accept the other person, and within the years I think especially when we’re sort of growing up together, you learn to accept the other and you become almost like a small family, and therefore the discussions are maybe a little less heated but become a bit more civilized and understanding.”
—Guy Eshed, Tel Aviv-born flutist