A divan can be a place to sit and do nothing. But the Arabic word has more active meanings. In Persia, a diwan was originally a brochure; later it came to signify a meeting place, a ministry, a court, an account book, a great hall, even a collection of poems, as in the West-Eastern Divan of the German writer Goethe. Its newest meaning is a special kind of music. The West-Eastern Divan is the name of an orchestra dreamt up after the chance meeting in a London hotel of an unlikely couple, Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and U.S.-based Palestinian writer and critic Edward Said. The players are equally unlikely: 78 musicians aged 13 to 26, roughly half of them Jewish, half from Arab countries.
Last week, as the West-Eastern Divan rehearsed in a former Catholic seminary outside this southern Spanish city, Barenboim explained the motivation he and Said share: "That there is no military solution in the Middle East, either strategically or morally." He doesn't pretend that his young musicians with a dash of Spaniards and Moroccans among the Israelis and Arabs have the answer, but he believes music has lessons for nations, particularly his own founded in 1948 and the Palestinian one struggling to exist. "Nothing in music is independent," he says. "It requires the perfect balance between head, heart and stomach." When emotion and intellect are in tune, he argues, it is easier for nations to look outward as well as inward. "The reason we named this orchestra is because Goethe was one of the first Germans to be really interested in other countries he started learning Arabic when he was over 60."
Barenboim is 59 and addresses his young musicians in a mix of English, Hebrew, Spanish and German. Most were selected on the basis of tapes they submitted. Mina Zikri, 24, an Egyptian violinist, says the experience "humanizes the other party a bit." He is sitting next to a blond woman of his age, Ayelet Ballin, a bassoonist from Tel Aviv. "Images can be very misleading," says Zikri. "The suicide bomber brings to mind a certain image, so does the military operation. But these must not be fixed in one's brain." He has met Ballin at other music courses. "Now when I see her again I think 'Here is my friend,' not 'Here is the Israeli person.'" Ballin says she feels the same way, while admitting that she finds it hard to hear others criticizing her country, "even though I do this myself."
Saleem Abboud, 25, is a Palestinian Israeli who was discovered by Edward Said playing piano in Nazareth. Now based in Berlin, he has attended all four West-Eastern Divan gatherings, the first held in the German city of Weimar in 1999. "The way we talk to each other is as important as concrete matters like withdrawal or dividing Jerusalem," he says. "The orchestra is an attempt to create a new reality in which this talk would be so normal that the media would have little interest in coming here."
Said was not in Seville to hear how good West-Eastern Divan has become "wonderful," in the words of Barenboim, who also describes Said as a fine pianist. From his home in New York, Said explains the reason: "I have leukemia." But he says what he and Barenboim have put together is "one of the most important things I have done in my life. The orchestra is nonpolitical and has no ulterior motive. It doesn't pretend to be building bridges and all that hokey stuff. But there it is, a paradigm of coherent and intelligent living together."
The €600,000 that it cost to bring the orchestra to Seville for three weeks, along with Barenboim and 10 music teachers from Berlin and Chicago he directs Berlin's Deutsche Staatsoper and conducts the Chicago Symphony comes from the Three Mediterranean Cultures Foundation, a joint project by the regional government of Andalucía and Morocco. It has now offered West-Eastern Divan a permanent home in Seville. Barenboim is considering the proposal because the cultures the foundation refers to Muslim, Jewish and Christian coexisted in Spain for seven centuries under Moorish rule. After Spain, the East-Western Divan performs in Lübeck, Germany this Friday, at Berlin's Deutsche Staatsoper on Sept.1, and at the Congress Palace in Strasbourg on Sept. 2. Last week, while rehearsing, Barenboim halted his young team in a subdued passage of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. "Too much muscle," he scolded the strings. If only it were as easy to make music replace muscle in the lands where these musicians live.