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West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Strengthens Amid Mideast Tensions, Says Mariam Said

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The arrival of the West-Eastern Divan at Carnegie Hall is enormously exciting for many reasons. But the one that resonates most with me is that it is a wonderful tribute to a dear family friend, the late Edward Said, humanist literary critic, writer, educator and musician who envisioned this endeavor with his friend, conductor Daniel Barenboim, and saw the beginnings of its success.

The Divan continues to thrive in the good hands of Maestro Barenboim and the late Edward's Said's wife, Mariam. Edward was a somewhat formidable older boy when I first met him at a cousin's birthday party in 1950's Cairo. We could never have imagined that an earlier Egyptian Revolution would bring us to new lives in America and that in 2013 I would be interviewing Mariam Said for WQXR. Here are excerpts from that interview.

How did Edward and Maestro Barenboim decide to create the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra? How did it come about?

Edward and Daniel did not decide to create the WEDO. Circumstances and certain opportunities led to creating the WEDO. Edward and Daniel, two exceptional people, one Palestinian, and the other Israeli, met by chance in London. They became instant friends, because they had many things in common, most of all, music. Their friendship led to a series of conversations about music and society which resulted in a publication: Parallels and Paradoxes. Edward and Daniel thought since we two have broken the wall of hatred and enmity that separates us why don't we try and extend this to our compatriots.

But they still did not know how to go about it. It so happened that their ideas came at a time when Weimar was designated the Cultural capital of Europe and Bernd Kauffmann was responsible for organizing the various celebratory programs for the city. Daniel knew he did not want to play a concert at Weimar. Edward happened to be in Berlin at that time, so Daniel and Edward and Yo-Yo Ma, who also happened to be there, discussed the matter further and suggested to Kauffman a musical workshop of Arabs and Israelis. Kauffmann liked the idea. That is how the first workshop took place in 1999 and at the end of three weeks, Daniel decided to make an orchestra of the participants because he discovered that the competence and level of musicianship was high enough to play in an orchestra. The first concert took place in Weimar at the end of the workshop. That is basically how it all came about.

Was there a mission for the orchestra from Edward's perspective?

The orchestra was not created with a mission. The workshop itself was an experiment in co-existence. Basically it is an educational and humanistic endeavor whose language is music where participants try to know and understand each other in order to break the wall of hatred that separates them. It is not an orchestra for peace as some have described it. That phrase was coined by the media. That was not Edward's or Daniel's intention.

Would you tell us about Edward's musical background?

Edward came from a musical family and at a very early age was taught to play the piano. Edward loved music, persevered and pursued his music musical education even as an adult in Egypt with Tiegermann, a very well known pianist and musician, and later in the US. At some point he toyed with the idea of becoming a pianist. His musical knowledge was phenomenal. His first book on music was "Musical Elaborations" - where he discussed the history of performance, audiences etc. He then became the music critic for The Nation magazine and for many years, he wrote reviews and musical criticism.

What is the origin of the name: "West-Eastern Divan?"

Weimar was Goethe's city and certainly in Weimar you are aware of Goethe's presence everywhere. Goethe had written a collection of poems called "The West Oesterlich Divan." Goethe was the first European to say that the west and east are complementary. He learned Arabic and Persian in his 60's and loved the Persian poet, Hafez. Both Edward and Daniel were familiar with Goethe's Divan. Edward knew the work from a literary point of view, and Daniel through the poems that had been set to music. It seemed apt that the orchestra be named after that collection of poems. Whose idea it was, I am not sure.

You have been interacting with the musicians in this endeavor from the beginning. Have you experienced many gratifying moments in your work with the Divan? Do you feel that fruitful discourse and a meeting of minds has resulted among the musicians?

The project is not about changing minds. Yes, there were many gratifying moments especially the success of concerts and the development of the orchestra. There has been a good deal of interaction, discussion, agreement, disagreements, but not much meeting of minds. There exists a vast rift between both sides. But what has been overcome is the individual and personal. That is why it is possible for these musicians to play together and express themselves through music.

How have you dealt with the heavy odds that you have sometimes had to work against?

We try to finesse them as best we can. Heavy or not, we try to survive and press on, as Edward liked to say. For example, in 2006 the Lebanon war took place during the workshop and that was very hard on everyone. However, it did not deter us. [The workshop] took place and everybody tried to face it as well as they were able. We also dealt with the assault on Gaza in 2008/2009 and survived. The project proved to be very solid and we knew that it would not die so easily. It had become strong.

What was the mindset for choosing the nine Beethoven Symphonies for this Carnegie Hall visit?

The choice of music is solely Maestro Barenboim's domain. He is training and teaching this orchestra a repertoire he believes will give them the best training. He began with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and moved on to Mahler and Wagner. The Beethoven series began two years ago. Maestro thought the musicians were ready for that. And also, the Ninth Symphony, with its theme of brotherhood it is in a way, our message as well. The series was performed in Korea, London and now it will be performed in New York.

Do you feel Edward would approve of the progress made?

Edward would have been ecstatic, I think. This project and the success of the orchestra went beyond anybody's imagination. I must add that all this was made possible after the regional government of Andalucia adopted this project. It helped us launch the orchestra to the world.

Interview has been edited and condensed