Can Divan Orchestra Bring Peace to the Middle East?

Reflections on a "project against ignorance" for young Arab and Israeli musicians.

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Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Photo: Monika Rittershaus.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has posed some version of the question in the headline throughout its nearly 20-year existence. Founded by Argentine-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian activist-scholar Edward Said — two thinkers who forged an unlikely, but cherished, friendship — the ensemble brings together young Israeli and Arab musicians to foster dialogue and understanding between opposing sides of a decades-long, intractable political conflict.

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It’s hard to imagine a musical and social endeavor that you would want more to succeed. Last month, the Divan concluded its first coast-to-coast tour of our own divided country, prompting myself and others to wonder about the results of the experiment. Musically, its success is categorical. Under Barenboim’s top-tier direction, the Divan plays major venues worldwide and boasts recordings on both Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, including all nine Beethoven symphonies. Amidst a constellation of recent press for the tour, Mark Swed of the LA Times’ declared, “unless I am missing something, the Divan is the best orchestra and the most significant cultural orchestra to have yet performed in Los Angeles.”

Naturally, the Divan’s social achievements are harder to quantify. Lest its mission sound quixotic, Barenboim, who grew up in Israel and is an outspoken critic of the nation’s hostile relations with Palestine, maintains no illusions about its chances to push for an Arab-Israeli peace. In a July interview in The Guardian, he said the Divan “is not a love story, and it is not a peace story… It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and I not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view.”

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Last month, in an interview with The New York Times, he elaborated further, describing his approach to working with professional musicians whose personal politics are a given. The musicians, he said, all “tune to the same A. So they have to listen. Then they try to play the same way, with the same bow strokes. They do that for six hours a day, and then they eat in the same dining room. Their attitude changes.” He added:

I always say to them: ‘I expect all of you to agree on how to play Beethoven… I don’t expect you to agree on the other side’s narrative. But I do expect you to try to understand it and respect it.

Still, significant structural and social obstacles are inevitable. Divan’s musicians hail from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Spain. With the exception of the Andalusian regional government — which gives the Divan a permanent home in Seville — none of those countries supports the ensemble or even allows it to play there. If music is not the same as diplomacy, the Divan nonetheless seems largely tangential to the people and struggles of the Middle East.

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Violent outbreaks at times, such as between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon back in 2006, can make attending rehearsals unfeasible. As one Lebanese cellist told the Times, “I didn’t have the psychological state to go on tour with the orchestra while my parents were under bombardment, and the whole country was severely damaged… I couldn’t imagine myself traveling around and playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was too optimistic for me.”

In 2005, the Divan gave an emotional, first-ever performance in the West Bank, in the Cultural Palace of Ramallah. The year before, a similar concert had been attempted but abandoned over security concerns. In the video above, as police escort the nervous, but excited musicians to rehearsal, you can hear Barenboim muse, “You see, the impossible is much easier than the difficult.”

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Yet whatever the state of the surrounding politics, the Divan consistently puts its young Christian, Jewish and Muslim musicians in a physical proximity they would almost certainly not experience otherwise. It’s not utopia, but they do create community by rehearsing, eating and arguing together. A friend of mine — a former member of the orchestra from Egypt — always spoke of it with a special warmth, calling it “my home.” Since 1999, hundreds of players have performed in this home; imprinted with this experience, one wonders just what these women and men might do.

One senses the duality, the opposing forces of hope and impossibility, in the Divan — down to the orchestra’s name. Co-founder Said took “Divan,” meaning “the other,” from a set of poems written by Goethe inspired by Arabic and Persian verse. Said, of course, knew what Goethe could do. The same as Beethoven and Mozart and all artists can do, especially at a time when all other human institutions fail: to create the space to reimagine the world.