The 19th century American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, called music the universal language of mankind. For the last three years, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has used music to bring together young Arabs and Israelis to practice, perform and have an opportunity to talk about their differences. Participants in the program also find they have a lot in common.
One recent afternoon at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, 73 musicians from Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries sat down to one of their few remaining rehearsals. They were preparing for a concert that concludes three weeks of training with Daniel Barenboim, the director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The musicians range in age from 15 to 25. All auditioned in their home countries to be a part of the third annual West-Eastern Divan Workshop. Mr. Barenboim began the workshop in Weimar, Germany, in 1999 as a way to build bridges between young people in the Middle East. "I think that the great majority of people on all sides of the Middle Eastern conflict will agree that war is no option anymore," he said.
Mr. Barenboim says at the first workshop, he found the young people tolerant of each other, but wary - wary both of trusting one another, and of each others' musical abilities. "The degree of ignorance from both sides about the other - ignorance of the fears, the real aspirations of each side - this ignorance is really enormous," he said.
The students spend 9-10 hours a day in lessons and rehearsals. In the evenings, they get a chance to become better acquainted. Israeli cellist Imbal Meggido, 24, was attending her first workshop.
"For me," she said, "this is the way to go about moving things forward in the Middle East rather than continuing with what has been going on. We have to start doing something else."
Rayek Khoury, a violinist and an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, was attending his third workshop. "We get to meet people from different cultures and countries," he said, "people we do not meet every day. It is a wonderful opportunity we have here - to share music together, to share laughs, to share fun. It is one of the most incredible experiences that one may have."
Mr. Khoury says the students had a chance to learn about each others' music. He says one evening, an Arab oboe player taught some of his favorite tunes to an Israeli. He said, "It was amazing to hear here, an Israeli, playing Arabic music, with the quartertones and so on. It was something really amazing."
There were supposed to have been 85 students at this workshop, but Mr. Barenboim says several students chosen from Egypt decided not to come because of pressure at home. He says some of those who did attend face criticism when they return, from people who do not feel Israelis and Arabs should have any contact while tensions in the Middle East remain high.
Imbal Meggido says that tension is one reason she wanted to attend. She said, "This is really a place where you get to forget that and just deal with the people as human beings and not have to worry about politics. Having to worry about the bowings or the fingerings on a certain piece and then if you want to, you can talk about politics and try to make people understand the points of view."
Students can choose to attend evening discussions on culture, politics and music. During rehearsals, Mr. Barenboim arranges seating so that an Israeli and an Arab will share each music stand. "I do not believe that music solves any non-musical problems, said Maestro Barenboim. "It certainly will not solve the Middle Eastern conflict, but it does have a way not only of bringing people together, but giving them a lot of strength by the simple fact that they share a passion."
Just about all of the participants plan careers in music. Mr. Barenboim hopes they will be able to establish those careers in the Middle East.