An Unfinished Symphony

Catharsis, whilst liberating, is also terribly humbling. I admit to being a stubborn, self-righteous person, traits that are generally laughed at by those close to me, tolerated by those nearby, and reviled by those at a distance. Changing my view of the world, therefore, is a humiliating agony. Publicly changing it on a political subject? Suicide seems easier.

And yet the West Eastern Divan Orchestra has prompted a very profound change that would be cowardly to deny. When I heard that (following a workshop in Spain) a mixed group of Israeli and Palestinian musicians was going to perform at Ramallah’s Cultural Palace led by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, my reflex was strong, my direction certain. But then something happened Perhaps the easiest way to explain this twist is to chart it chronologically. Three days before their August 21st concert, these were my feelings:

“The photo-op is incredible. Palestinian musicians and Israeli musicians performing a European symphony onstage together, in the occupied West Bank. This image is enough to ensure a centre place in any global newspaper. The headlines will vary, but circle the theme that “Culture Triumphs Over Conflict!” That somehow, the artistic muse has placated two warring tribes. A feel-good angle out of the land of tragedy. Our ability to play music together correlates with our ability to co-exist. Ho-hum

It is not terribly hard to harmonize with anyone (some people even manage to do it with their pet dogs), so how profound is the actual musical aspect of this fusion? If the whole Middle-East conflict really is based upon a cultural clash, a musical mash, an Arab-Jew melody crash, then this co-operation should be hailed as a historic breakthrough. Unfortunately, conflicting melodies do not underscore this region’s problems, and so the gesture is pat-on-the-head patronizing to a community that knows far more tragic reasons for the continuing suffering.”

For many (including myself), the prospect of attending such a performance felt somewhat nauseating. And so for many (excluding myself) boycotting the Ramallah event seemed the right thing to do. I went along, however, determined not to be ignorant of the slightest nuance of this gesture, fully armed and ready to unleash my torrid of damnation.

I entered the packed hall, took my seat amongst the thronging crowd, and the music began. First came Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for winds ­ an amiable, but (to be honest) trivial piece of music. Aural window dressing, an expression of naïve prettiness that I believe even Mozart composed in mockery of the superficial, hypocritical social order surrounding him. My thoughts continued

“So how do I know that today’s violins will not be replaced by M16s tomorrow, that these “peace-loving” Israelis, these musicians sitting before me on stage today will not stand before me at the Qalandia check-point tomorrow? How desperate are these young Palestinians, ready to forsake all their values just for a chance to play music.”

Mozart’s twiddling melodies dithered around and around, an affront to my rigid posture in the chair, and so I began to scan my list, the things I would expect of an Israeli before I would be willing to work with them, the list that I had published 5 years earlier…

“1. They must openly refuse to do their national service. I cannot work with anyone who would give any support to this military machine.

2. They must publicly declare, through their art or even a simple programme note, that they condemn the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

3. They must publicly declare, through their art or even a single programme note, that all the illegal Israeli settlements must be dismantled.

4. They must publicly declare, through their art or even a single programme note, that they support the return of refugees.

What a simple list, a little combination of UN 194 and 242 with a little something of my own, yet not a single Israeli artist (and I had badgered quite a few) was willing to accept it. Why not? I was simply asking for the same rights that they afford themselves and have denied Palestinians for so long.”

I am not, of course, the first to object to cultural interaction with Israeli artists. As a means of non-violent protest, refusing “cultural-normalization” with Zionists has a long and controversial history amongst Palestinian artists. Dating as far back as the locally organized cultural boycotts of British and Zionist musical groups in the 1930s, breaking such lines has led to some of the longest rifts inside the local Palestinian arts community. Institutions and artists have been internally boycotted for decades because of involvement in such cultural interaction. Others have been left off certain international funding-wagons because of their unwillingness to do so. Following a peak during the heady days of the Oslo peace process, activities that brought Palestinian and Israeli artists together in cultural activities quickly declined with the onset of the second Intifada. Seen as a weapon used by Israel, a means of whitewashing over the oppression of Palestinians in front of a global audience, the rejection of cultural interaction was founded in clear political reasoning, not petty communal spite.

Whilst the idea of “cultural normalization” is generally considered to be negative by most Palestinians (and equated with Palestinian submission to illegal Israeli actions), there has remained a collective uncertainty over what it actually is. This has led to conflicting episodes within Palestinian history. In 1999 the Israeli citizen Daniel Barenboim first performed for Palestinians at Birzeit University. The same year, a Spanish Flamenco group was uninvited by the Palestine International Festival, when it was discovered that two of the members held Israeli citizenship. In most other regions of the world, collective national standards outlaw such discrimination based on nationality, or outlaw such interaction based on nationality. Within Palestine, ironically, artists and institutions have greater freedom to make such decisions on a case-by-case basis.

As such, the local definition of normalization covers a very broad spectrum. At one end, there is the “indiscriminate” definition, similar to the national policy of Lebanon. By this definition, any interaction with Israeli artists and organizations constitutes normalization (even interaction with “Arab-Israeli” organizations, which has led to the boycotting of Palestinians in municipal cultural centres inside the ’48 borders). At the other extreme is the “conditional” definition of normalization. This definition suggests an event only constitutes cultural-normalization when the Palestinian participants are expected to bow to the political conditions of the Israelis, by condemning specific “terrorist” groups or acknowledging Israel’s “right to exist in peace and security,” and that anything else is just individual cooperation.

If we are to consider “cultural normalization” as a negative phenomenon, both of these definitions seem problematic. It seems ridiculous (even as blindly bigoted as the Zionist actions being resisted) to deny an artistic interaction with somebody simply based on their birthplace/religion/ethnicity. Media coverage and political manipulation make it impossible, however, for a cultural interaction between Palestinians and Israelis to be completely apolitical, regardless of any absence of direct political commentary. As Omar Barghouti (a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) says, “Joint projects that claim to be apolitical are the most blatantly politicized since they deliberately disregard the context of colonial oppression and deceivingly imply the possibility of achieving peace without addressing the root causes of conflict….Normal relations between peoples can only flourish after oppression has ended, not before and not as a prelude to it.”

As such, the middle path, suggesting that cultural interaction with Israeli individuals must be premised with an acceptance of Palestinian conditions, seemed the right way. I considered how Barenboim shaped up to my little list, as we moved into the bubbling third movement of the Sinfonia Concertante. He had confronted the Israeli Knesset and condemned the Wall and the occupation, yet his shallow understanding of the Palestinian situation was betrayed by conclusions that “There can be no peace if the Palestinians deny the Holocaust. But there can also be no peace if Israelis do not accept at least partial responsibility for the conflict.” My thoughts continued

“I have never met a Palestinian who has actually denied the Holocaust, as Barenboim suggests. Most Palestinians however, do not see why Nazi oppression should justify Zionist colonization and land appropriation. If Barenboim’s programme of artistic collaboration seeks these results ­ A) an acceptance that Zionist ethnic cleansing in Palestine is a legitimate response to the Holocaust in Europe and B) an acceptance that the establishment and expansion of the Israeli state is merely “at least partially responsible” for the Nakba and continuing conflict with Palestinians ­ then the ideological parameters of the West-Eastern Divan seem to meet only the most submissive of Palestinian goals.”

These very goals seemed to be encapsulated in the post-interval speeches of the invited Palestinian politicians, Nabeel Shaath and Mustafa Barghouti. Whilst they made criticism of the Wall and the occupation, the “R” and “P” words were conspicuously absent from their vocabularies, as though the whole concept of Refugees and political Prisoners dropped outside the parameters of acceptable political dialogue on this occasion. Conversely, the word “East” was very clearly underlined in any mention of Palestinian access to Jerusalem. Words tumbling over words tumbling over words, absent words, present words, uncomfortable words, forgotten words. Was this all part of the trade-off, for a night of classical music?

Then the words were over, the orchestra returned, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony began.

“That clichéd first movement, Ba ba ba Baaaa. Ba ba ba Baaa. Repeated so often, like a mantra for classical enthusiasts. Just like that mantra about culture being a bridge. That cliché that perhaps through culture, Israelis might come to appreciate and respect Palestinians. Wasn’t that a possibility?”

Past experience would seem to suggest that it is not. From the Israeli appropriation of dabkeh as their national dance in the 1930-40s, to other elements of cultural absorption, knowledge of another’s culture does not necessarily breed respect for their humanity. As Ilan Pappe notes, “music has no political or substantial cultural implication for the identity and behaviour of the society or state, and the most right-wing parties play (Arabic music) at the very rallies where they preach anti-Arabic rhetoric. Even the Gush Eminem (settlers’) radio station energetically broadcast Arabic music”. Performing the Nation, Elke Kaschle’s landmark study of Israeli and Palestinian dabkeh groups in the 1990s showed that even when “Israeli Jewish” and “Israeli Arab” dabkeh groups from neighbouring towns went on international tours together, no lasting artistic or even social associations followed. There is no evidence that Israeli anti-occupation, pro-Right-of-Return, refusenik movements are buoyed by such cultural interactions. As such, the personal decision to respect another human being as an equal seems to occur more profoundly when taken prior to (not pending the result of) watching them dance.

Beethoven’s opening portentous posturing gone, his lilting second movement brought a much needed change of mood. Finally, some melancholy. The dynamic quality of the musicianship really had to be noted.

Both Barenboim’s artistic stature and outspoken criticism of the Wall and the occupation lift this orchestra above previous normalization projects. As Ismail Khalidi describes, the West Eastern Divan “… is by no means some sort of amateur night at the local school gym, nor is it the kind of passing publicity stunt often sponsored by the bankrupt elements of the peace industry.” That the West Eastern Divan maintains no ties or dependence on Israeli government finances and opinion does free it from adverse political exploitation. The willingness of the musicians to perform in Ramallah, under banners that proclaimed “Freedom For Palestine,” suggested something of their political conceptions. Even if a little vague, it seemed a step in the right direction.

Then, as the third movement slid into the fourth, that rapturous sound that swings from so loud to so soft rocks you as though by waves in an angry storm, and thoughts cannot be gripped onto for more than a moment.

“Certainly such music can be very attractive, and like any good seduction, make one reconsider one’s values. Perhaps this is why I have enjoyed being a lover for so many years. The whole uncertainty of loving, the thrill of momentary self-doubt, the hesitant expectation of more, the fear of less. Seduction remains the most refined form of social persuasion, and human culture is all but a record of its manifestations. Seduction, instability, reconsideration. This is not inherently a bad thing, and is doubtless a reason why the most rapidly evolving civilizations in history have been companioned by some of the most sublime art and architecture. It also leaves one very vulnerable ­ intoxicated by art, how easy it is to forget

Then after that last movement, which Beethoven concludes like the slaying of some wild beast, a live-or-die challenge that crashes in both victory and defeat, my mind was shattered. And I realized that I have been hiding behind my wordy demands, a wordy list of expectations of Israelis that I comfortably know none will accept, or if they do, will have come so far to my way of thinking that there is no risk whatsoever in the dance. That I have so little faith in my own seductive abilities, my own art, that I need words to protect it. But when I chose dance as a profession so many years ago, part of the reason was to liberate myself from the tyranny of words. These rational little capsules that seek to reduce all sensual experience into an echo. Some thoughts cannot be achieved with words, some understandings cannot be structured into sentences, some persuasion cannot be found in paragraphs. Maybe an agreement can later be framed in words, but an epiphany requires something stronger, and I ultimately want to induce an epiphany in Israeli society. Words, so familiar, just pile up like the encircling Wall in the West Bank. Had I just listened to the words, just read the speeches and the articles surrounding the West Eastern Divan, I could hunt through them and find a multitude of logical reasons why I should continue to believe what I believed upon entering the darkened concert hall.”

The music ends, the crowd roars. Mr. Barenboim gives a little speech. I agree with some of what he says, certainly not all. Nothing has changed in my fundamental beliefs, in universal human rights, in the right of return for refugees, in the end of the occupation, in the destruction of the Wall, in the freedom of political prisoners, in the rejection of military solutions. If anything, these beliefs are stronger than ever. But I can no longer accept that words are the only way in which I can communicate and influence those who would disagree with me. Art, music and dance all have an essential position in dialogue.

Will I dance next week with (or to) a settler, if I think it will change his mind, or will I wait to change his mind with words first? Of this, I am not so sure anymore.

NICHOLAS ROWE, an Australian dancer and choreographer living in Ramallah, has worked with numerous Palestinian organizations during the past five years on dance development programmes and is writing a doctoral dissertation on “The Evolution of Dance in Palestine” through the London Contemporary Dance School.


Barenboim, Daniel. 2004. “The Autocrat is Dead: Long Live the People!”

Barghouti, Omar and Sfeir, Jacqueline. 2005 “Between South Africa and Israel: UNESCO’s Double-Standards.” An Open Letter to UNESCO

Kaschle, Elke. 2003. “Dance and Authenticity in Israel and Palestine: Performing the Nation” Brill: The Netherlands.

Khalidi, Ismail. 2004.”The Intellectual, the Maestro, and the “Piece Process””

Pappe, Ilan. 1997. “Post-Zionist Critique on Israel and the Palestinians. Part III: Popular Culture.” Journal of Palestinian Studies 26 (4):60-69.