The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded in 1999 on a conviction that the destinies of the Israelis and the Palestinians are inextricably linked, and that the Middle East conflict will never be solved through military means. Through its existence and through what it does, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra demonstrates that bridges can indeed be built.
A "diwan" is a collection of lyrical poems. Between 1814 and 1819, Inspired by the Persian poet Hafez, the towering German poet Goethe wrote a great cycle of poems which he called "The West-Eastern Divan". The twelve books which make up the cycle are a mix of eastern and western motifs and themes, and the work as a whole can be seen as an effort to bring understanding and harmony between the two cultures. In one sense it seeks to create a new world culture out of a mixture of the two.
In 1999 Daniel Barenboim, together with the late Palestinian academic Edward Said, decided to try to bring together young musicians from Israel, Palestine and various Arab countries. Their aim was to foster greater understanding between individuals from vastly different backgrounds through their common love of music. Barenboim is quick to point out that without Said’s involvement as co-founder, no Arab musicians would have come forward to audition for an orchestra led by a Jewish conductor, and where every Arab musician would be sharing a music stand with an Israeli.
“I expected maybe six applications from Arab countries," said Barenboim, "but we had around 200. What really amazed me was that the level of the best players was just as high as the best from Israel. When I told Edward, he said: "Wonderful, we must create an orchestra.” The idea was simple: bring together around 80 players, 40% from Arab countries, 40% from Israel, 20% from Europe." Barenboim and Said decided to call the new orchestra after Goethe's seminal work. So was born "the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra".
The orchestra’s first sessions took place in Weimar and Chicago. In 2002 it found a permanent home in Seville, Spain, where it is supported by the regional government of Andalusia. Since its foundation 11 years ago, the orchestra has performed throughout Europe to enormous popular approval and support. Its first concert in an Arab country was in 2003, when it performed in Rabat, Morocco. Two years later Barenboim succeeded in getting the whole orchestra into the occupied West Bank town of Ramallah (by dint of securing Spanish passports and visas for the Israeli members).
Just a few weeks ago, at the second attempt, the orchestra performed in the Gulf state of Qatar (the first try, in 2009, was frustrated by the Gaza conflict). The invited audience attended the concert in Qatar's National Theatre in the presence of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Since the general public were not allowed to be present, the hall was only half-full. Still, the ice was broken – on both sides. Young Israeli musicians had played for the Emir.
The West-Eastern Divan Workshop takes place during several weeks each summer in Andalusia. Once the working period is over, the concert tour of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra starts. This August the orchestra plan to embark on a tour of South America.
"The Divan," said Barenboim recently, "was conceived as a project against ignorance… 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. But... I'm trying to create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives."
Every time the orchestra plays, wherever that may be, the audience sees gathered before it, on one platform, young people from countries that have no understanding of each other – that in many cases do not even have diplomatic relations with each other. Yet there those young musicians are in front of them, sharing their love of music with each other and with the audience, and performing to the very highest standards – a living exemplar of what can eventually be achieved on the wider world stage.