The great German poet Goethe was one of the first Germans to be interested in other countries. Astonishingly, he wrote a fantastic collection of poems based on his enthusiasm for Islam. He discovered Islam through Arabic and Persian sources. A German soldier who had been fighting in one of the Spanish campaigns in the early part of the nineteenth century brought back a page of the Qur’an for him. Goethe was transfixed. He started to learn Arabic, although he didn’t get very far. Then he discovered Persian poetry and produced an extraordinary set of poems, West-Östlicher Diwan (The West-Eastern Divan). This is something unique in the history of European Culture.
The idea of the West-Eastern Divan was conceived in 1998 in the minds of two artists and intellectuals — Israeli Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian Edward Said. They decided to create a workshop for young musicians from Israel and various countries of the Middle East with the aim of combining musical study and development with the sharing of knowledge and comprehension between people from cultures that traditionally have been rivals. In this workshop, young musicians build upon their musical knowledge while living side-by-side with people from countries that may be engaged in conflict with their own. The West-Eastern Divan is not only a musical project, it is also a forum for dialogue and reflection on the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Through cross-cultural contacts made by the artists, the Project could have an important role in overcoming political and cultural diiferences between the countries represented in the workshop. In this model, an orchestra serves as a good example of democracy and civilised living.
The founders named the orchestra after Goethe’s collection of poems. An equal number of Israeli and Arab musicians provide the base of the orchestra. They are joined by a considerable number of Andalusian players. An added thirty students from Spain and Palestine attend the workshop as observers. Every year the Divan grants scholarships to particularly talented musicians to study in Europe or the USA. Some of the recipients of these scholarships now hold positions with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Damascus Symphony Orchestra and the Cairo Opera, among others.
The West-Eastern Divan takes place during several weeks each summer in Andalusia. With an intensive work plan—each session lasting an entire day and combining different activities—the young artists develop their musical abilities within a peaceful and fitting environment. They also discuss different topics and different points of view on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is then followed by a tour. Since 1999, the Orchestra has performed in Germany, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the USA.
What is extraordinary about the West-Eastern Divan Project was that the level of ignorance about the ‘other’ was incredible in the beginning. The Israeli kids couldn’t imagine that there were people in Damascus and Amman and Cairo who can actually play the violin and viola. The Arab musicians knew that there was a musical life in Israel, but they didn’t know much about it. One of the Syrian kids, reportedly, told Barenboim that he’d never met an Israeli before and, for him, an Israeli was somebody who represented a negative example of what could happen to his country and to the Arab world. The same boy found himself eventually sharing a music stand with an Israeli cellist. They were trying to play the same note, to play with the same dynamic, with the same stroke of the bow, with the same sound, with the same expression. They were trying to do something together, something about which they both cared, about which they were both passionate. And having achieved one single note together they would most probably look at each other differently in the future.
It is sad in a way that the political leaders in the USA and Europe still behave as if they control the world, whereas in fact they hardly control anything. The world is controlled by big business and money. Money can buy a lot of things and even goodwill, at least for a short while. But the fact remains that if conflicts are one day to be solved, they are only going to be solved through contact and understanding between the warring parties. Contact is inevitable in a relatively small area like the Middle East. But it’s not only dollars and political solutions about borders that are going to be the real test of whether a peaceful settlement will work or not. The real test from a humanitarian vantage point is how productive this contact will be in the long run.
While music will obviously not solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, it does play a role in bringing people together and allowing them to get to know one another. The only political aspect that permeates the West-Eastern Divan is the understanding that there is no military solution.
The West-Eastern Divan Project, led by Barenboim and the late Said, is deservedly admired throughout the world due to the fact that it combines a love for music with the necessity for a better understanding among Mediterrenean cultures. This project has consistently proved that music is a useful way to break down barriers that were, up until now, considered insurmountable. It suggests that bridges can be built that encourage people to get closer, showing that it is possible for people from different backgrounds to co-exist peacefully – much in the same way that the young musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will share scores, rooms, dining halls, and above all, a passion for music.
Perhaps the more influential political leaders of our time need a preliminary education in music!