Appointed by the UN Secretary-General in 2016 as the UN Global Champion for Cultural Understanding, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra recently played its first concert at the UN headquarters in New York, at a special event organized to show that when people listening to each other, both musically and in other ways, great results can be achieved.

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble will perform at the UN headquarters in February 2023

UN News/Abdelmonem Makki

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble will perform at the UN headquarters in February 2023

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, led by the orchestra’s concertmaster Michael Barenboim, draws on players of Arab and Israeli heritage.

Founded in 1999, the orchestra originated in conversations between its creators, Edward W. Said and Daniel Barenboim. Over the course of their friendship, the Palestinian writer-scholar and Israeli conductor-pianist discussed ideas about music, culture and humanity.

In their exchanges, they recognized the urgent need for an alternative way of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The opportunity to do so came when Barenboim and Said initiated a workshop for young musicians using their experience as a model.

“We have musicians who come from countries that are in conflict with each other in one way or another. We show that by collaborating on a project like this, it is possible to bring together people from states that are in conflict so that they can work together towards a common goal, says Michael Barenboim.

Violinist Michael Barenboim is concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble

UN photo/Mark Garten

“I think it shows an alternative model and an alternative way of thinking for the Middle East region. Which is not based on guns, 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, he added.

Mariam Said, widow of Edward W. Said, is vice president of the US-based Barenboim-Said Foundation.

“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,” explained Mariam Said.

“Teaching music as a language opens minds, which leads to the generation of new ideas in society. It also allows people to get to know each other,” she added.

Sindy Faisal Abdel Wahab from Egypt plays violin in the ensemble.

“I started playing with the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble in 2013, and it was the first time for me to meet musicians from other Arab countries and Israel. It was a surprise for me, and I was curious how we would handle each other, how we would play together and understand each other,” he said, adding that “I discovered that Israelis have a similar culture to us, but politics. is what separates people. When we play together, we forget everything.”

West-Eastern Divan Ensemble cellist Assif Binness (right) is from Israel.

UN photo/Mark Garten

David Strongin, who is from Israel, also plays violin; he believes that the orchestra’s mission is for musicians with different backgrounds to play music together.

“Through music you can do everything. You don’t need words, and you don’t need lyrics. You play together, you learn to listen to each other. And this is actually a great help to life for us as people, because we learn us to listen to each other.”

“I think it’s not very easy to make music with strangers,” he added, “because you have to put so much soul into what you’re doing. But this orchestra feels like a family so it doesn’t matter where we come from. We just love each other as people.”

Speaking ahead of the concert, Maher Nasser, director of the Outreach Division of the United Nations Department of Global Communications, said: “When you see a group of eight musicians playing together and all reading from the same paper, they introduce harmony, and they are all equal . Some of them play the cello and some of them play the violin but the sound that comes out seems to come from an instrument. Every one of them is the same, every note is the same.”