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Arab-Israeli orchestra celebrates 20 years of harmony

The Divan Orchestra founded by an Israeli and a Palestinian as a humanist project for friendship and dialogue is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Today, its young members are both Israeli and Arab. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent David Tereshchuk reports on the collaboration.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains in deadlock, especially with new plans by Israel to annex occupied territory on the West Bank. However, one remarkable example of cooperation between Arabs and Israelis is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

    It's an orchestra whose young members are both Israeli and Palestenian. Special correspondent David Tereshchuk reported on this story before coronavirus shutdowns were in effect.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    The Divan Orchestra is the creation of two cultural giants from the Middle East. Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who's an Israeli citizen … and Edward Said, the Palestinian academic and critic.

    Said died in 2003, but his widow still works to keep the Foundation going that supports the orchestra.

  • Mariam Said:

    Their friendship was based on whatever they had in common. And what they had in common was music.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    The idea of the orchestra is to get people from the Arab world and Israel to get to know 'The Other' in a humanistic project whose language is music.

    They named the orchestra 'Divan', an Arabic word for a council or assembly, to denote a coming together of disparate people. At 77 now, Daniel Barenboim delegates some leadership roles to his son Michael. He's a violinist and like his father believes the orchestra offers the Middle East an example for forging better relations between Arabs and Israelis.

  • Michael Barenboim:

    The idea is to offer an alternative model of thinking for the region that is not based on conflict, but more on understanding, dialogue.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    It begins on the ground with an elementary-level school in the desert city of Ramallah, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

    Finding young Israeli Jews with the required talent is relatively easy, since the Jewish community has a long-cultivated tradition of musical education.

    But it's harder to find Arab children with a developed aptitude for western classical music. The foundation scours Arab areas, including the West Bank refugee camps.

    The recruiters found violinist Yamen Saadi, of Nazareth, when he was very young, or perhaps he found them.

  • Yamen Saadi:

    None of my family is a musician or none of my friends were musicians. When I was in first grade I think I saw somebody playing the violin on TV. And back then the Barenboim-Said Conservatory opened in Nazareth. And that's where I started, where I had my first lessons.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    Yamen was ten years old when he auditioned before the Maestro Daniel Barenboim.

  • Yamen Saadi:

    He liked what I played. I said that I want to join the orchestra. And then he said, yes, you can, but you're a bit too young. And I said, Okay. But if it helps you, I can say I'm 21.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    So it took a little longer, until he was just 11 in fact, before he did finally make it into the Orchestra, where most new entrants begin at 18. And he's played there now for twelve years.

    Achieving harmony in the music they all play is an obvious aim. Getting people from such differing, even antagonistic backgrounds to harmonise outside of music … presents bigger challenges.

  • Mariam Said:

    Most of the disagreements are about the political situation in the area.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    Inevitably it's when the violence around them reaches a crescendo that tensions get to be most serious.

  • Mariam Said:

    When they are playing together and the situation is dire, like during the Lebanon war in 2006, during the Gaza bombardments in 2014 .

    You can hear it in what they give you in the music. And audiences resonate to that. They see that they are saying something different than regular musicians.

  • Yamen Saadi:

    When we all come from so many different backgrounds, it's normal to have different opinions about things.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    And, what happens?

  • Yamen Saadi:

    So we, we try to discuss it when we try to understand why, why are we different? Sometimes we agree to disagree, which is completely fine.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    It's especially valuable, according to Mariam Said, that the orchestra offsets – in some measure – the inequalities that result from Israeli dominance.

  • Mariam Said:

    For the Arabs, this is a big thing that when they are sitting in the orchestra playing together, they are equal. And the other, that thinks – that has been brought up to think – that he or she are superior than the other side, realize that here we are not. We are equal.

  • Michael Barenboim:

    You will not find any orchestra where everyone gets along. And that doesn't exist. And it is also not realistic. But there's something happening in this group when they play together, when they spend time together, that is just something I've not seen elsewhere.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    A subset to the orchestra has developed – drawn from the string section, a chamber music group of just eight members. It's a more intimate team than the full orchestra, and – until COVID-19 stopped all travel – its leaner numbers were easier to send on tour.

    Cellist Astrig Siranossian, whose Arabic-speaking family sought refuge over generations all across the Middle East, finds the chamber ensemble to be ideal for forging the closest kind of cooperation.

  • Astrig Siranossian:

    Chamber-music was the music of family. It was set to play in the living rooms. We are, of course, all having our differences in our different ways of seeing things. But we talk about it. We talk a lot. And there is no border in between us.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    The Divan players were determined to take their musical message to a wider audience, beyond the Middle East. Just before the world started shutting down with anti-pandemic restrictions, the chamber group reached for the top in the United States.The orchestra members have performed at many prominent venues. Now they're to play at that international pinnacle of musical excellence … Carnegie Hall.

  • Yamen Saadi:

    You always hear about Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall! It felt a bit like a jam session. It was very friendly atmosphere, a very warm atmosphere. Just the feeling of being there is very rewarding.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    Other rewards coming from these young musicians' collaboration could even include – according to Mariam Said – a template for tackling the enmity that has bedeviled the Middle East.

  • Mariam Said:

    We have already produced a generation that can talk to the enemy. Perhaps these people from both sides who can talk to each other, in the future they may find an alternate way to resolve bigger issues.

  • David Tereshchuk:

    Do you think in a broad sense you're contributing in any way to a lessening of tensions in an area where we know politically it's deadlocked right now?

  • Michael Barenboim:

    Well, I think that would be a little bit optimistic, to be honest. But we play music together that offers some kind of different view on what the Middle East could look like. But It's not the Mendelssohn octet that will bring peace to the Middle East. We do what we can. We're musicians. So what we can do is, is play music.

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