The West East Divan Project

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Clara Takarabe

SEEING OLD FRIENDS, former students, colleagues, landscapes and voices from my past, I was filled with conflicting emotions from elation to sorrow when I first watched Paul Smaczny’s double DVD “The Ramallah Concert/Knowledge is the Beginning: West Eastern Divan Orchestra” with Daniel Barenboim, the superstar Israeli-Argentinian  conductor and pianist.

One DVD is a filming of the orchestra’s concert in Ramallah, occupied West Bank in 2005; the second is a documentary that chronicles the years 1999, 2002-2005 of the West Eastern Divan (WED) orchestra and participants, Barenboim’s journey to the West Bank, and the effects of the wall.

The highlight of “Knowledge is the Beginning” is Daniel Barenboim’s quiet, dignified yet explosive acceptance speech on being awarded Israel’s highest artistic honor, the Wolff Prize. In front of an audience that included the stone-faced Education Minister Limor Livnat, Barenboim quoted from Israel’s Declaration of Independence and stated its incompatibility with the occupation and denial of rights of another people.

I cannot ignore the strange dissonance of an Israeli crowd hissing with shame at the man who reads to them their founding principles, as if it were some sort of unspeakable insult. This profound dissonance of speech and action continues as a mystery language throughout the entire film.

The West Eastern Divan is an orchestra formed in 1999 through the friendship and vision of the late Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, to address the situation surrounding the state of Israel and its military and political strategies. Young musicians, Arabs from all over and Jews from Israel and the United States, auditioned to form an orchestra first in Weimar, then in Chicago and finally in Seville, to meet, make music, learn about each other, fall in love, and to struggle with each other and each with him and herself.

With the one exception of my former student Tyme, aspiring musicians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories did not have the opportunity to participate. Music cannot be cultivated in a place where there is not basic stability. Certainly capital-heavy Western music cannot be cultivated at the high audition level of the WED in the condition of continued conflict.

In the Palestinian territories, the social and artistic capital has fled with the onset of instability and violence. These deficits, not only in education but in building social strength and social pleasure, has left a population of children in deep hunger for the cultivation for music, with no practical possibility of pursuing it. The year that I lived in Ramallah, the students came to lessons, master classes and workshops, through all manners of deprivations — road blocks, checkpoints, bombings and curfew.

Shortly after the assassination of Rehavam Zeevi aka “Gandhi” (a right-wing Israeli government minister who advocated “transfer” of the Palestinian population — ed.) in 2001, the Israeli military carried out its first helicopter gunship bombing in Ramallah at 4 am one December morning.

The town was stunned, but at 7 am the first call I received was from a student asking whether the special six-hour practice marathon was still on, despite the bombing — the call coming from a nine-year-old young violinist. The second call was from 12-year-old Tyme. I had no idea whether the school would be open in light of the bombing, but when I became exasperated by the lack of information, I walked to the conservatory, to see all my students waiting for me, chiding me for being ten minutes late.

When the situation worsened, from occasional bombings to total curfew and siege, the students organized to move me into homes where I would continue teaching.

Even in the face of such determination and the will to music making, Palestinian society is becoming one without musicians and music children — a frightful reality, as a society without living music is a society whose soul is deeply silenced and takes on chaos when expression is not nurtured.

The Sound of Conflict

It was also the case, as far as I knew in the first few years of the WED, that the managers of the project did not hold auditions in the West Bank, saying that it was too dangerous to go there or that one was not allowed there by the Israeli government, which is not entirely true. Whatever the reason, to have actual Palestinians in the project required a better knowledge of the situation on the ground: The reality for Palestinians has not been that they may physically go where they would like, to pursue their desire to express their musical life.

No amount of will or desire would have permitted them to pass the Qalandiya, Al-Ram or Bethlehem checkpoints to go to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem auditions for the West East Divan project. It did not matter anyway. The longterm effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a definite sound, namely that of silence when it comes to the Palestinian side, with regard to the life of music.

Cultivation of music is very much like care of a newborn baby; it must constantly be guarded, nurtured, and the parent of music — namely the music teacher — must be physically and spiritually present with compassion, indulgence, wisdom and humor to coax the development of music out of children’s bodies. (Those with music teachers who are not imbued with such qualities, run away from them now! Fear and trembling are not fertile grounds of learning.)

With teachers and artists gone, and the society that supports music transformed into survival mode, there was no one to coax music out of the children. Given the reality of music education available to them, even if they’d had the chance to travel to the other side of the Green Line very few West Bank students could have won an audition into the West East Divan orchestra.

But what most bothered me about the film is that it presents a highly sanitized commercial view of the project. The WED has had an eight-year life now, in which the political picture has gone from a failed Oslo process to the Second Intifada, the demise of Arafat and Sharon, the sieges of many Palestinian cities and suicide bombings, Hamas replacing Fatah, to now, where the future is a great Wall which speaks to a future of unilateral separation. That so little of this context appears in the DVD makes it hard, I think, to really appreciate the meaning of the project itself.

Since WED’s inception, 4269 Palestinians, 1017 Israelis, some 1000 Lebanese have met violent deaths, with data reflecting non-military death directly related to the conflict on either side yet to be considered.

Deeper Meanings

At first I was irked that there were only a few darlings of the project who spoke on film, about the media distortions on both Arab and Israeli sides and of how miraculous it is just to be in proximity of their purported enemy. But upon repeated viewings, I realized that the participants were speaking of something profound and perhaps a reality that is pre-verbal, or not in the realm of verbalization or of cerebral rationality.

I think what they were trying to say was that in being near each other, they found a truth of being. It is difficult to express — especially in English, the mother tongue of none of these participants — feelings and experiences of being and presence, and their knowledge about the Other which is deeper than rationalistic knowledge that might be conveyed through media.  Being and presence are quiet and pregnant knowledges, known by the body but not perceived and digested by the rational mind.

There is a rather uncomfortable yet important scene where two violinists — a Russian Israeli named Ilya and a Lebanese named Claude — discuss how remarkable the musical experience and the camaraderie is in the program. When the interviewer asks whether more projects like this should be instituted for peace, the young Lebanese participant becomes angry and refuses to talk about peace and stalks off, while the Russian Israeli interviewee looks sheepishly at the camera.

I’m glad that the filmmaker Smaczny included that scene. I think that refusal to speak of peace is significant: clearly not a refusal to look for a future of coexistence since the two eagerly accept musical brotherhood, but an expression of pain and rejection of what has politically been called “peace” in the past. Unfortunately, for someone who was not present at the Divan this scene looks like there is one smiling Israeli side and one angry Arab side, one who walks away from peace talks, reinforcing certain propagandistic stereotypes, while the truth is much more complex than that.

In Divans prior, I witnessed more refusals to talk about peace, cynicism about peace, anger, fear, exhaustion regarding political discussions than I saw in the DVD. At first I thought the participants lacked hope and an appropriate desire to change the situation. I wondered why they were in the program to begin with.

But watching this DVD, where the few chosen participants were too rosy about the future, I realized that there was a much deeper reason the participants were there, beyond peace and having a chance at the fruits of Barenboim’s power and influence.

Surviving Failed Discourses

Peace, it seems, is a fraud, the name of a failed political as well as military process. Now it is the discourse of partition, where the social body of the nation state is determined at the cost of the “Other,” where the reality and necessity of existential human interdependence is nowhere to be found.

These are not just discourses that failed in the intellectual mind; these failures were experienced by each participant in their emotions, in their bodies, in the traumas of their bodies and in the deaths of those in their communities. The physical and emotional exhaustion is captured by Smaczny in split-second moments, when the camera catches the young musicians’ faces, prematurely aged and etched with worry and trauma, bodies tense and tight.

What is truly admirable about the WED is not shown in the DVD, and I do not believe this is because the filmmaker chose not to film it or did not include footage that could have been shown. It is something not possible to film, I believe, because it is not possible to film the non-verbal processes of grief and paralysis, of failed hope and of fear, and the processes of internal change, discovery and resistance to change which resides in each of these participants.

Yet the participants persist in the project, despite their rational understanding that none of the present political or military discourses make sense. A number of participants do drop out of cynicism, anger, or confusion. Many remain even if the project awakens inner agitation or turmoil.

What makes sense, participants say repeatedly in the DVD, is being together, their sociosensual knowledge of each other. Without physical presence of one people to another there is no fundamental building block for trust. To politically look toward security and peace without the conditions for building trust seems foolish and deadly.

In another scene, which I appreciated, an Israeli girl and a Lebanese boy discuss the problem of the Wall. The boy’s English is limited. When he tries to express the problems of the Wall, the Israeli girl just asks, but how can you (Arabs) provide us with security? There was no question about the destruction of family lands, of land grabs, of being jailed by unilateral separation.

The question was: How can one people give to another people something such as security, which essentially must be created together? Security is not like passing a torch from one person to another. The present discourse speaks of security as if it were a material object that can be handed over or confiscated. This is a categorical error. Security is an attribute of a committed and intimate relationship in which physical presence and free and sophisticated communication is requisite.

Total separation through the Wall is an incoherent solution to the situation. The boy cannot answer, gives up and says, “I don’t know, I really don’t know.” And the two realize there is something deeply amiss. The Israeli girl says, “But here we are.” I’m sure that if they were more verbally capable, that they could have duked it out and had a rowdy political debate, but I think it was better that they had not.

In truth there is no solution to the problem of the Wall, which is unstoppably being built by a government that has no idea what a people is, their own or others.

Seeking Each Other

The real discourse of the WED project is not what the participants or what the managers of the project say. The truth is in the bodies, near each other, desiring each other, as musical partners, as erotic partners, in social company, in play and in fighting. They are present and desiring nearness and the many forms of touch: touch through the skin, touch through the ears, touch through the eyes.

I used to be deeply cynical about the WED, because I was cynical about the nature of establishing peace. However, there is something more truthful about these participants being together that is more truthful than the sound and fury of the latest debates and plans for security and peace that the political class is trying to accomplish — security and peace without the conditions of establishing trust, which literally requires the safe physical presence, not the absence, of the other.

In the WED 2001, a year which was not featured on the film — the first year of the Second Intifada, when tensions were very high among the participants — Barenboim and Said attempted to organize a political discussion, but this quickly became a finger-pointing shouting match over who was perceived to have committed more atrocities, murder, and ethnic cleansing: Who were “the Nazis,” the Arabs or the Israelis? Who killed more? Who suffered more? It became a room filled with gaping pain. I heard lists and litanies of atrocities: Auschwitz and Dachau, Sabra-Shatila and Deir Yassin.

For all the participants, whatever “side” one was on, the one thing that was undeniable in that hall was the presence of pain, so great there wasn’t even fear: pain from the present conflict, personal pain, pain by looking to a bleak future, pain carried through generations, pain of families, pain of communities — pain and indignation at each other, as if each side had caused all the pain, as each side looked at the other as enemies, and knew it was not as simple as that.

I was humbled and stirred by this incredible show of pain, because it was clear everyone was treading on sacred ground, helpless.The atrocities on each “side” were not the same, in magnitude or in character, yet there was an equation: the more pain, the more it seemed sensible to do with whatever ferocity not to incur more pain.

To feel palpably the threat of annihilation, to think of past annihilations, present and possible annihilation, both individually and as a people, as a culture, a way of life — the good and the bad way of life — this is part of the fear that each participant carried within him or herself.

Where Music Comes From

This is where I find the absolute genius of the West East Divan. Fear, anger, grief, all these emotions and bodily states are stored in the same place from which we express and experience music. It is not possible to find the greater good for all from a place of existential grief and fear; but neither is it possible while repressing the powerful urges of grief and fear. Expression, full expression does not just lead to mental and bodily health, but full expression of desires and emotions are one part of possessing human dignity.

In music there is sublime beauty, tenderness, warmth, as well as aggression, vanity, pride and sheer violence. Music is the medium where we can learn to manage our incredible powers to touch as well as to kill, to be born as well as die, to do that and still be alive.

The magical part is that while each of these participants has been robbed of health and of life by the condition of their nations, here they can find expression, dignity, and the strength to communicate and, strangely, to give back, because in music there is an incredible exchange of feeding oneself emotionally and giving emotionally.

Here is the beginning of the roots of coexistence: True knowledge comes from the personal and physical presence of the Other. This is the full experience of pain, pleasure and presence that music embodies and purifies, on a higher level than the verbality of politics that have left us all cynical and exhausted.

The knowledge of the body in safety is the place to begin an analysis of how to proceed out of this tangled mess. Individuals with real knowledge, grounded in bodily reality, cannot accept illusions that the media puts forth. After an experience of gaining knowledge through the body, the body will then reject knowledge which does not resonate harmoniously with it.

The WED is quiet in its acquisition of knowledge, but beautiful in its expression of its acquisition of knowledge through its music making. The modus operandi of the WED is totally untranslatable in our current language of violence and thus necessarily of death, dissociation and desensitization.

Perhaps that is why the project is seen by many as a naive and wishful fantasy: A reality which is based on the idea of mental and physical health through safety, communication and deep creative development of individual agency that has no real receiver for anyone who speaks the language of violence, which is not based on agency or security of the self, but on loss of the self and addiction to cycles of destruction.

ATC 128, May-June 2007