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Orchestra Aiming to Build Bridges Between Israelis and Palestinians Performs First Concert at UN Headquarters


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

A flyer for the “Equal in Music” event that took place at the United Nations headquarters. Photo: Screenshot

A United Nations-supported classical musical ensemble that is comprised of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians recently played its first concert at UN headquarters in New York.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed at the UN on Feb. 23 as part of a special event called “Equal in Music,” organized by United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the United Nations Department of Global Communications (UNDGC). The eight-member orchestra is creating a “discourse of music, harmony, reconciliation, empathy, fraternity, and solidarity” in the hope of bridging alliances between Israelis and Palestinians, said UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, Miguel Ángel Moratinos.

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, led by the orchestra’s concertmaster Michael Barenboim, was founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim, a renowned Israeli pianist and conductor, and his friend, Palestinian scholar and author Edward Said. The orchestra was appointed in 2016 by then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a United Nations Global Advocate for Cultural Understanding.

“We have musicians that come from countries that are in conflict with each other in one way or another. We show that by cooperating in a project such as this one, it’s possible to bring together people from states which are in conflict so that they’re able to work together towards a common goal,” said Barenboim. “I think that’s showing an alternative model and alternative way of thinking for the Middle East region. Which is not based on arms, bombs, war, blood and conflict, but based on understanding, dialogue and listening to each other. When you play music, you play, but you also have to listen to others.”

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Said’s widow Mariam Said, who is a vice president of the US-based Barenboim-Said Foundation, said, “Edward believed that humanity is the only thing through which we can counteract the disintegration of our world. And this is the message that the orchestra is trying to send. Teaching music as a language opens minds, leading to the generation of new ideas in society. It also allows people to get to know each other.”

Violinist Sindy Faisal Abdel Wahab from Egypt joined the ensemble in 2013 and said it was the first time that she met musicians from other Arab countries and Israel. He added, “It was a surprise to me, and I was curious about how we would deal with each other, how we would play together and understand each other. I discovered that Israelis have a similar culture to us, but politics is what separates people. When we play together, we forget everything.”

Israeli violinist David Strongin said the ensemble feels like his family.

“You play together, you learn to listen to each other. And this is actually a great help also for life for us as human beings, because we learn how to listen to each other,” he explained. “I think it’s not very easy to make music with strangers, because you have to you put so much soul into what you do. But this orchestra feels like one family and so it doesn’t really matter where we are from. We just we just love each other as human beings.”

Before the concert at the UN headquarters, Maher Nasser, director of the UNDGC’s Outreach Division, said: “When you look a group of eight musicians playing together and they are all reading from the same sheet of paper, they introduce harmony, and they are all equal. Some of them play cello and some of them are playing violin but the sound that comes out appears to be coming from one instrument. Every one of them is equal, every note is equal.”

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