Legendary conductor Daniel Barenboim leads an orchestra that brings together people from groups in conflict in the Middle East. Clemency Burton-Hill reports.

On the last night of the year in 2008, I received an email I’ll never forget.

A few weeks prior – following an impromptu audition backstage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York – I had been invited by the conductor Daniel Barenboim to join the members of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as an embedded journalist and ‘honorary violinist’ on their 10th anniversary tour.

Barenboim is an Argentine-born Israeli, who now also holds a Palestinian passport. In 1999, he founded the West-Eastern Divan – the title is based on a set of poems by Goethe – with the late Palestinian literary critic Edward Said. In inviting me to go on tour with the Divan, as it is known by its members, he was offering me a completely unique opportunity to witness the workings of the orchestra – which is made up of over one hundred Israeli and Arab musicians from the very heart of the orchestra, inside the ranks of the first violins.

We were to go to Qatar, Egypt, Russia, Germany, Austria and Italy in early January. We were to play music by Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Mozart and Schönberg. And we would perform in some of the world’s greatest halls including Vienna’s Musikverein and Milan’s La Scala.

And then, on 27 December, war broke out in Gaza. I wondered what this would mean for the West-Eastern Divan. Would any orchestral members boycott the tour? Would it all go ahead as planned? When the chips were down, how truly committed were this group of young musicians from opposite sides of the divide to engaging with each other? On New Year’s Eve, I clicked open my inbox. The tour dates in Doha and Cairo had been cancelled for security reasons; Maestro Barenboim would understand and support any member of the orchestra who felt they could not join the tour in “such difficult circumstances for everyone involved”; but it was times like these that made the existence of the Divan all the more vital. Attached to the email was an editorial Barenboim had written about the war in Gaza, which also laid out his three wishes for the New Year.

In the end, not a single Arab or Israeli member of the Divan boycotted that tour: from Israel, from the Palestinian territories, from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, they came together for a tough, but triumphant, two weeks.

And it was a fortnight that changed my life. The West-Eastern Divan is not an ‘orchestra for peace’, as it is so often dubbed, but an ‘orchestra against ignorance’ – mine, too. It is a singular space in which human beings who are otherwise forcibly kept apart can come together to exchange ideas and views, learn about each other and, above all, listen to each other in a world that would otherwise keep them silent.

No barriers

I have thought often about that New Year email and Barenboim’s three wishes for Gaza since the latest war in the region began in July. Here we are, over five years later, and the situation in the Middle East is somehow – unimaginably – worse.

And yet the members of the West-Eastern Divan meet on, play on and through their courage in the face of increasing hostility at home – not a single government represented by the orchestra’s members gives them its blessing – they are the living, breathing proof of a model in which Arabs and Israelis do come together. It isn’t perfect: there is plenty of disagreement within its ranks; but nor is it the product of some kind of utopian idealistic vision. Since the orchestra’s almost accidental inception fifteen years ago, hundreds of Arabs and Israelis have participated, and their daily discussions and debates about the conflict and the situation in the Middle East are as fundamental to their programme as the music rehearsals and concerts.

Engaged on their annual summer tour, which this year includes their own 10-day festival in Buenos Aires as well as major music festivals in Lucerne, Salzburg and Berlin, Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan arrived in London the week of 18 August. Against a backdrop of broken ceasefire announcements and unbroken strife between their peoples back home, the orchestra gave a BBC Proms performance 20 August that ended in no fewer than five encores from the rapturous audience at the Royal Albert Hall. Wherever you are in the world, you can listen to the concert here  via the BBC Radio 3 website.

With a programme that included Ravel’s beautiful Pavane for a Dead Princess and special commissions by two Middle Eastern composers, the Israeli Ayal Adler and the Syrian Kareem Roustom, it is hard to think of a more moving concert. As in 2009, no members of the orchestra have boycotted this tour, and backstage the sense of communal pride that even in this year of all years they were doing this was palpable. No question: Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian – they were in this together.

Out of many, one

“The only way out of this tragedy, the only way to avoid more tragedy and horror, is to take advantage of the hopelessness of the situation and force everybody to talk to one another,” Barenboim commented in the Guardian on the situation in Gaza a few weeks ago, speaking of a “need for a mutual feeling of empathy, or compassion”. He went on: “in my opinion, compassion is not merely a sentiment that results from a psychological understanding of a person’s need, but it is a moral obligation. Only through trying to understand the other side’s plight can we take a step towards each other.”

Notwithstanding those Arab and Israeli commentators who view Barenboim and his orchestra as ‘traitors’ to their people for what they view as normalising relations with the enemy, many otherwise sympathetic people might view the idea of taking steps towards each other through music with outright cynicism. “But what difference can music make?” is a refrain I have heard over and over again when discussing the Divan. “Isn’t all this just spectacularly naïve?”

Over the years, I have interviewed Barenboim on many occasions and I can say with certainty that he is the least naïve person I have encountered. His polymathic intellect is not only razor-sharp but highly analytical. Of course, he is under no delusion that music might directly create the conditions for peace in the region. But, as he said on the BBC’s Newsnight programme: in these times “we cannot afford the luxury of pessimism”.

The model of the West-Eastern Divan is utterly unique. On a musical level, it can proudly take its place along with the myriad great orchestras that grace the Proms – it contains within its ranks many leading musicians including a former Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. But that person, an Israeli, Guy Braunstein, shares a desk with a 17-year-old Palestinian named Yamen Saadi.

The Divan not only encourages, but dares us to imagine what might – still, somehow – be possible one day.

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