The intellectual, the maestro, and the “piece process”

Daniel Barenboim (top) and Edward Said

Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra had just rolled into Geneva, Switzerland from Seville, Spain to play to a crowd overflowing with the town’s music lovers, peace mongers, diplomats, and bureaucrats. The hall, despite its high culture and aesthetic, was unbearably hot. This fact was most clearly illustrated by the ever-present fanning that was going on from the very first rows up to the highest balconies. People used whatever they could get their hands on to fabricate a breeze, anything to reverse the sensation of sitting in a large Baroque sauna. The programs were the most popular choice but some chose to just sweat it out, completely mesmerized, their eyes on the stage.

Elaborately decorated with gilded ceilings, its walls mounted with the busts of angelic Hellenic stone women, Geneva’s Victoria Hall is what you’d expect from such a venue in the heart of Europe. It is what you’d expect the city of Voltaire and a country where French, Italian and German are all spoken. It is the sort of place that older American theatres and concert halls are modeled after.

Yet, to the Rumsfelds of the world, it is also part of “Old Europe” and the city of “failed diplomacy” to others, a place that seemingly holds no weight in the eyes of Washington’s policy makers. But Geneva, on the night of Friday August the 6th, fulfilled its reputation as a place of hope (even without the overdue resignation of the complicit, soft-spoken Kofi Anan).

The performance was cultural diplomacy at its best, and at the same time represented the kind of politics that, quite simply, defies the very conventions of politics. Peace making made fun (and beautiful), but not watered down, the performance was a sophisticated, classic display of the pen’s superiority over the sword, the violin over the rifle. And in just two and a half hours, the young musicians and the energetic, outspoken Maestro directing them, showed us why peace efforts in the Middle East, from Oslo to Geneva, and to whatever transparent agreement is yet to be announced and implemented, only to implode, be renounced and then re-announced, have all been doomed to failure. In short, they have all suffered from an acute lack of imagination, vision, passion, and understanding.

The orchestra, directed by Mr. Barenboim (who serves as musical director of both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Staatskapelle for most of the year), keeps its summer home in Seville in the heart of what was once Muslim Spain, and is composed roughly of 90 young Israeli and Arab musicians from all over the Middle East. Needless to say, it is by no means some sort of amateur night at the local school gym, nor is it the kind of passing publicity stunt often sponsored by the bankrupt elements of the peace industry. It is crisp, well played music that just happens to be inherently political and inspiring as well. However, it stands easily on its own merits, unlike, say, Israeli occupation minus the U.S. veto, or George W. Bush minus the cowboy act and scripted press conferences.

The evening started off with a few words from by the late Edward Said’s wife, Mariam Cortas. Speaking briefly to the crowd in that distinct Middle Eastern French that is filled with rolled R’s and shortened vowels, she was, as usual, a dignified ambassador for her husband. The eternally resonant voice for Palestine and the oppressed everywhere, as well as a renown classical music and literature critic, Said had formed a deep friendship with Daniel Barenboim (an Israeli citizen) years earlier and created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (in 1999).

And Mrs. Cortas was standing in front of the large crowd mostly because she knew her husband would have been there, no matter what. He would not miss it for the world, and anyone who knew him would concede this point. For it was only a year ago (almost exactly) that a visibly drained Said made the journey to Seville, to a city located in one of the hottest parts of Europe and in the midst of the continent’s oppressive heat wave, simply to be with the young musicians and his friend Daniel Barenboim. It was one last gutsy monument to his love for the project and his unbending commitment to it. He passed away a month later in New York. Friday night once again illustrated just how much he is missed.

Brought together by their mutual love of music and their desire to turn on its head the absurdity of the violence, hatred and injustice in Palestine and in the Middle East, Said and Barenboim acted tirelessly on behalf of the voiceless and created prolifically in their respective (and shared fields) in the name of tolerance and understanding. They both knew that music bridged the tenets of their philosophies and five years ago this month undertook the journey of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

They first gathered in Weimar, Germany, then the cultural capital of Europe. It was summer and my family and I had the pleasure of seeing them in action for a couple of days that August. Only 17 years old at the time, I watched a group of people my age and older being instructed, restructured and conducted by some of the contemporary masters of classical music. There was Barenboim, of course, as well as renowned cellist YoYo Ma and others, all of whom delved into the task of refining the talented but young musicians who were raw and still suspicious of each other at the time.

I admit I am far from a connoisseur of classical music, yet I had the intense sensation then that what I was watching in Weimar, all the workshops, the rehearsals, the tutorials, were the start of something very special. And even despite the apparent and understandable fractures within the young group at the time, the mere presence of Said confirmed my thinking and washed away my doubts. If Edward Said is involved, I told myself, and working with Israelis no less, then there has got to be something to it. And there was.

Five years later, as I watched many of the same musicians take the stage to the raucous applause of the Geneva crowd I did not really recognize them. I had even seen them again in Chicago a couple of years back, but there had been a change. They were older, yes, and I was sitting with the rabble in the upper deck (in the parlance of our times), but there was something different about them. They were confident and relaxed, smiling and joking amongst themselves between pieces. Whether playing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, they looked like a unit and played like one too. They made it look easy.

Barenboim too must be given his due credit, for besides his technical genius as a conductor and musician, he has showed extreme courage in confronting the lies and terror of Israel’s occupation, and not just through the West-Eastern Divan, but on his own as well. Barenboim last year challenged the norms of Israeli cultural sensitivities by choosing, daring rather, to play Wagner in Israel (for the first time in the country’s history). He has played numerous recitals in Ramallah, started a musical kindergarten for Palestinian children in the occupied territories, and in the Israeli Knesset has spoken out vehemently against the wall and the occupation, all to the dismay and rabid outcry of many Israelis.

Daniel Barenboim, it seems, possesses some of the same endless energy and courage that Edward so miraculously conjured up throughout his illness, and especially in the last years of his life. In these dark times it is a powerful reminder that we too must pick up the slack and do our parts to fill in the emptiness left by Edward’s departure. He made it look easy when it wasn’t, but watching the Divan Orchestra play brings about the realization that we too can (and must) do this. The only way to end the occupation is piece by piece … so pick up your pens and your violins — compose and resist.

Ismail Khalidi is a writer, studying international relations at Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). He can be reached at

Related links:

  • BY TOPIC: Edward Said
  • Daniel Barenboim’s statement at the Knesset upon receiving the Wolf Prize, May 9, 2004
  • A Guiding Light Falls on Ramallah, Sam Bahour (7 May 2004)