The sovereign independent republic of the West-Eastern Divan, as I like to call it, began as an unpredictable experiment in 1999. Over the years, it has grown into an example of how Middle Eastern society could function under the best of circumstances. Our musicians have gone through the painful process of learning to express themselves while simultaneously listening to the narrative of their counterparts. I cannot imagine a better way of implementing the first and most fundamental article of the United Nations’ declaration of human rights: that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, that they are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Unfortunately, today in the Middle East, not all human beings are granted the same freedom and equality in dignity and rights. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a musical organization, not a political one, but for the approximately six-week duration of its annual existence it is able to provide its members with one basic need, and that is equality. It is a realistic utopia. The same two young people who might encounter each other at a checkpoint in the roles of border guard and citizen under occupation sit next to one another in this orchestra, playing the same music, equally striving for perfection of musical expression and equally responsible for the result of their striving.
Music, unlike any other art or discipline, requires the ability to express oneself with absolute commitment and passion while listening carefully and sensitively to another voice which may even contradict one’s own statement. This is the essence of musical counterpoint and a limitless source of inspiration to us in our extramusical dialogues. Without the music, our conversations could not possibly be as productive and enriching as they are; the circumstances on the ground in the Middle East create too much inequality, and the prerequisite for any dialogue is equality. Without equality one cannot speak of dialogue but only of soliloquy, which produces an excellent dramatic effect in the theater but causes irreparable damage in daily life.
Before a Beethoven Symphony we are all equal. Whether we come from Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Turkey, or Syria, we must approach the music with the same humility, curiosity, knowledge, and passion. The attitude we must have towards the music forces us to develop the reason and conscience correctly presumed by the first article of the United Nations’ declaration to be inherent in human nature. Music makes it possible for all the Israeli members of the orchestra to support an Egyptian oboist during an oboe solo, and for all the Arab members of the orchestra to support an Israeli flutist during a flute solo because music engenders a true and effortless spirit of creativity and brotherhood.
This year I carry the title of United Nations messenger of peace, which I believe gives me both the right and the responsibility to work towards abolishing ignorance, and to contribute in whatever modest way I can towards real equality. Without equality there can be no justice, and without justice there will be no peace.
The human being does not want to be dependent, but he knows that complete independence is unattainable; therefore the only constructive way of life is one of interdependence. This is perfectly logical in the world of music but sadly very far from what takes place so thoughtlessly in the Middle East every day.
This article first appeared in a shortened version in the International Herald Tribune, 10.12.08