The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, appointed as the United Nations Global Advocate for Cultural Understanding by the UN Secretary-General in 2016, recently played their first concert at UN Headquarters in New York, at a special event organized by to show that when people listen to each other, both musically and in other ways, great results can be achieved.
The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, led by the orchestra’s concertmaster Michael Barenboim, draws on players of Arab and Israeli descent.
Founded in 1999, the orchestra’s origins lie in conversations between its creators, Edward W. Said and Daniel Barenboim. In the course of their friendship, the Palestinian writer-scholar and the Israeli conductor-pianist discussed ideas about music, culture and humanity.
During their exchange, they realized that there was an urgent need for an alternative way of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The opportunity arose when Barenboim and Said started a workshop for young musicians, drawing on their modeling experience.
“We have musicians who come from countries that are in conflict with each other in one way or another. We show that by working together in a project like this, it is possible to bring people from states in conflict together so that they can work together towards a common goal,” said Michael Barenboim.
“I think this shows an alternative model and way of thinking for the Middle East. Which is not based on weapons, bombs, war, blood and conflict, but on understanding, dialogue and listening to each other. When you play music, you play, but you also have to listen to others,” he added.
Mariam Said, widow of Edward W. Said, is vice president of the US-based Barenboim-Said Foundation.
“Edward believed that humanity is the only thing we can use to counter the disintegration of our world. And this is the message the orchestra is trying to send,” explains Mariam Said.
“Teaching music as a language opens the mind, which leads to the generation of new ideas in society. It also allows people to get to know each other,” she added.
Sindy Faisal Abdel Wahab from Egypt plays the violin in the ensemble.
“I started playing with the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble in 2013, and it was the first time I met musicians from other Arab countries and Israel. It was a surprise to me and I was curious how we would interact, how we would play together and understand each other,” he said, adding: “I found that Israelis have a similar culture to us, but politics is what separates people. When we play together, we forget everything.”
David Strongin, who is from Israel, also plays the violin; he believes the orchestra’s mission is for musicians from different backgrounds to make music together.
“You can do anything with music. You don’t need words, and no text. You play together, you learn to listen to each other. And this is actually also a great help in life for us as humans, because we learn to listen to each other.”
“I think it’s not that easy to make music with strangers,” he added “because you have to put so much soul into what you do. But this orchestra feels like one family and so it doesn’t really matter where we come from. We just love each other as human beings.
Before the concert, Maher Nasser, the director of the Outreach Division of the UN Department of Global Communications, said: “When you watch a group of eight musicians play together and they all read from the same piece of paper, they introduce harmony , and they are all equal. Some play the cello and some play the violin, but the sound that comes out seems to come from one instrument. Every one of them is equal, every note is equal.”