The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

I have just seen the deeply moving film ‘Knowledge is the Beginning’. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was set up in 1999 as an expression in music of the peace that eludes the Middle East, and the film follows the fortunes of the orchestra from its inception to 2005. It was the brainchild of the late Palestinian academic and activist Edward Said and the renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, born of Russian Jewish parents in Argentina. Their close friendship was itself a symbol of human solidarity across ethnic and religious barriers. Members of the orchestra are young musicians from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Spain and together they have performed in a variety of European cities. Sevilla was one of these, significant to Barenboim and Said because of its ability to accommodate and honour Jews, Moslems and Christians during the early medieval period when the Spanish monarchy welcomed diversity.

The climax of the tour was a performance in Ramallah.

It took more than two years for members of the orchestra to come to terms with such an idea and the logistics of organising travel for so mnay different nationalities was complicated. Spain came to the rescue when Prime Minister Zapatero issued all the players with Spanish passports. The authorities refused permission for Israeli members to fly to Palestine, so the players separated, travelling to different airports. The Israeli members arrived on the day of the concert in a fleet of patrol cars and were whisked away after the concert was over. This was the first time the orchestra had performed in the Middle East, and it was a tremendous success as well as a memorable event.

Throughout the fascinating documentary, members of the orchestra gave their views of the experience they were sharing and their hopes for the future. Most of them were cautious but positive about the possibilities of peace.

Hearing their belief in the future against the civic implosion of Palestine in the last few days, was a poignant reminder of the apparent hopelessness of a conflict that seems to have no end. Until there is knowledge there can be no understanding is the powerful message of the film which is full of the most glorious music-making. See it if you can. There is a DVD.


More about Daniel Barenboim next time…..