West-Eastern Divan Orchestra makes beautiful music

“Music is a bridge,” says Miriam Manasherov. “It’s the language that all of us can speak.” Photo by Meirav Kadichevski

Growing up in Netanya, Israel, Miriam Manasherov had no encounters with Arabs or Palestinians. Her first was at 18 in the first East-Western Divan Orchestra workshop, a high-level orchestra program that brings together young musicians from the Middle East – Israel, Iran, Syria, Turkey and North Africa – and beyond. “It was, as you can imagine, quite an amazing situation,” the violinist recalled. “Meeting all my neighbors basically from Jordan and Egypt and from Syria — people I would never have met.” She termed the experience “amazing.”

Jussef Eisa, the orchestra’s first clarinetist, remembered mixed encounters with Israelis growing up. Raised in Frankfurt, Germany, by his Palestinian father and German mother, he visited his family’s West Bank home for summer vacations. “Sometimes [my encounters with Israelis] could be very nice,” he said. “Sometimes they could be uncomfortable, especially situations at the Israeli checkpoints.” He elaborated noting that because he traveled with his German passport, he had greater access to travel throughout Israel, than his West Bank cousins. But either way, his Arabic name often meant longer waits, more questions and discomfort at Israel’s border crossings.

Both musicians value their time playing with the Divan Orchestra, which was founded in 1999 by renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late literary critic Edward Said. The Argentinian-born, Israeli-raised conductor built the part-time orchestra to promote coexistence and intercultural dialogue.

Each year he brings together gifted young musicians from the Middle East and beyond to make beautiful music together. This fall, Divan returns to the United States after a five-year absence, including a stop at the Kennedy Center Nov. 7, to play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Strauss’s “Don Quixote.”  The orchestra also plays at Chicago’s Symphony Center, Carnegie Hall in New York, Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Calif., and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.


Divan’s chief focus, of course, is on creating exquisite music. But Barenboim hopes that musicians from various sides of the Middle East conflict will find common ground and experience one another as more than an enemy.

“Music,” said Eisa, “is important. It can connect people. While it’s definitely not the solution, it can bring people together.”

Manasherov added, “Music is a bridge. It’s the language that all of us can speak, so, of course, when we all sit together and try to form the same musical sentence that somehow bonds us.”

That very first orchestra meeting in ’99 took place in Weimar, Germany, both the locus of the 18th-century German Enlightenment, and, in 1933, the environs where the first Nazi concentration camp was located. And Buchenwald concentration camp is just five miles away. In this city of both cultural progress and the specter of the Holocaust, Barenboim and Said wanted to create a living monument to humanize individuals and wrestle with coexistence as a way to overcome ideological and political differences. Though it was initially planned as a one-time event, that first group wanted more. More time both to create music together and more time to build relationships across a political chasm.

Though they may think they have little in common, Eisa learned there is much these musicians – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Israeli, Arab, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian — share. “What many of us have in common is that as musicians we’ve become travelers. We get to see the world and I’ve played all over.”

That includes an appearance at the Jerusalem Festival. A member since 2009, he has forged friendships across the deep political divide between Israelis and Palestinians. He added, “It’s something like coming home” each summer when the orchestra meets to rehearse and prepare for its touring season. “I feel that I can speak freely [with fellow members] about feelings emotions and worries. It has change me a lot and made me very open, interested and curious about other people’s lives. I’m more understanding.”

Manasherov, who joined in the founding year, but took some time off before returning in 2010, has found that she has more in common with the players from the Middle East than those from Europe.

“What surprises all of us is that we’re so similar,” she said. “We like the same foods — the Middle Eastern foods we grew up with. We like the same kind of music, of course classical music, but also traditional or local music We are very similar and we behave the same, too.”

And her conversations with Palestinians, when they’re not playing or rehearsing, of course, are often the most meaningful. “With them I can speak about more …,” she noted. “We go more into details because all of us know more … about what’s actually going on. People who grew up in Nazareth, we have a very similar background. We can sit down and talk about things that maybe I won’t allow myself to speak about with my other colleagues from Egypt or Syria.”

Partly, she added, that’s because they can often speak some Hebrew together. But mostly it’s because, Israeli or Palestinian, “We consider the same place as home, which is kind of sweet. And we both want to live here in peace.”

When the news is bad, though, Eisa said, “It can be very painful talking about these things, very emotional. In the end what can we do? We can just share these emotions.”

Ultimately, no one is under the illusion that an orchestra, even one with such high ideals, is going to solve the Middle East conflict.

“As long as you have something, it could be music, or sport or dance, then you can communicate with somebody on the other side,” Manasherov said. “You already something to start with. The first thing we do is not to sit down and talk about politics. We are not a political orchestra whatsoever. But [music] brings us together so we feel safe among each other, and we can sit down and talk.”

Eisa added, “It’s not our purpose to make peace. But we can make a statement by meeting, playing and performing. That is our message.”

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, conductor, co-presented by Washington Performing Arts. Nov. 7, 8 p.m., Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW, Washington. Tickets $45-$155. Call 202-476-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.

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