Monday, June 28, 2010
Jeremy Harding: Could I ask you a last question about what you’re working on at the moment – you’re doing something that’s a kind of sequel isn’t it to Gate of the Sun?... a kind of evolution of Gate of the Sun – Bab El Shams
Elias Khoury: Actually I’ve finished a novel which is nothing to do with Bab El Shams, it ‘s coming out in December I hope. So it’s finished.
And then my new project which I began working on since five years is – because you know Bab El Shams finishes with Khaleel saying “and I walk and I walk and I walk” and there is no full stop. And I insisted upon my publisher that there must not be a full stop because this is not the end of the novel. So my new novel is not a continuation, it is a requestioning of Bab El Shams itself
Jeremy Harding: a rephrasing?
Elias Khoury: No - a total requestioning of the Bab El Shams approach, and it is from the approach of the Palestinians who stayed behind, the Palestinians who stayed in Israel and their experience and then their experience mingled with the experience of the West Bank...
It’s an attempt not only to read the Palestinian daily life and everydayness – which I think is very important – and an attempt not only to read what we can call the necropolitics of occupation – there are major issues about occupation, where you can bury and you cannot bury and it is one of the major things that the Palestinians in the West Bank are facing and nobody speaks about it – but also it’s a questioning of the literature related to the question of Palestine – that is a requestioning of Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Emile Habibi’s Pessoptimist, and requestioning the literature of our Israeli cousins where the Palestinian character is a shadow and trying to put these elements together in the real experience of the Palestinians...
Sunday, June 20, 2010
During the three-day World Literature Weekend organized by the London Review Bookshop in the Bloomsbury area of central London, writers from more than 15 countries took part in nine events on the overarching theme: language and exile.
The bookshop’s director of bookselling Andrew Stilwell said the focus was “writers who have changed their country or their language or both, whether through choice or compulsion. We want to hear how they have made their experiences heard across frontiers and how they have used the language and literature of one country to understand and contribute to that of another.”
The Middle East and North Africa region was well represented in the program. On the evening of the first day there was a discussion at the London Review Bookshop between the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and British writer Jeremy Harding, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books.
Harding described Khoury as “a man of many attributes”. In addition to his fiction writing Khoury edits the weekly cultural supplement of An Nahar, and he has been involved in Palestinian activism for more than 40 years. He studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and has taught at universities in Lebanon and the US.
Harding recalled that Khoury’s famous novel on the Palestinians, “Gate of the Sun”, had made such a “huge difference” to Harding’s way of seeing things that in 2006 he wrote to Khoury and arranged to visit him in Beirut. The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said described Khoury as giving “voice to rooted exiles and trapped refugees, to dissolving boundaries and changing identities, to radical demands and new languages.”
Harding and Khoury talked about Khoury’s 1981 novel “White Masks”, which was recently published by Archipelago Books of New York in an English translation by Maia Tabet.
The novel starts with the discovery of the corpse of a disappeared civil servant in a garbage dump. The narrator tries to piece together the story of the dead man from the voices of some of those who knew him. Khoury said: “The job of literature is not to tell us what happened, but to question our knowledge and way of seeing. There are different possibilities and versions, the many versions of reality.”
Multiple versions are central in the novel “Yalo”, the central figure of which is a young man detained during the civil war on charges of robbery and rape. His interrogators force to write the story of his life. Khoury’s latest novel is due to be published in Arabic in December, and he is now working on a sequel to “Gate of the Sun”.
Another session during the weekend took the form of a discussion between two Arab novelists who write in English and are long-time residents of London – Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif and Libyan Hisham Matar. The intention was to explore the way in which living in one language and writing in another “can create a space for languages and cultures to meet.”
The two authors read excerpts from their latest fiction works to an appreciative audience. It is 11 years since a book of fiction by Soueif was published. Her 1999 second novel “The Map of Love” was short-listed for Britain’s leading literary prize, the Man Booker, but since then her writing energies have been diverted into essays and reportage. In 2004 Bloomsbury published a collection of her essays, “Mezzaterra: Fragments of the Common Ground”. She launched in 2008 the annual Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest). The novel on which Soueif is now working moves between present-day and ancient Egypt.
Hisham Matar’s fiction has echoes of the extraordinary circumstances of his own life, as the son of Libyan opposition activist Jaballa Matar who was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Libya. Nothing has been heard from him since the early years of his incarceration, but at the beginning of this year Hisham received news that his father had been seen in a prison in 2002.
Matar’s debut novel “In the Country of Men”, published by the Penguin imprint Viking, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2006. His second novel, due to be published next spring, is about a man who is haunted by the absence of his father. Matar described it as being concerned with “the existential reality of living with inconclusive loss”.
Ben Jelloun said his exile is a linguistic exile, and that “my writing in another language allowed me to say all kinds of things that I wouldn’t necessarily have said if I had been writing in Arabic.” His parents did not speak a word of French and “I was writing in a language they couldn’t understand. I wrote things they would not have liked to have heard, especially with regard to the condition of women”.
Ben Jelloun added that exile is “something that preoccupies me every single day. I write a lot about immigration and about those who are exiled. Even when I am back in my country Morocco I still feel in exile.” His latest novel to appear in English translation is “Leaving Tangier”.
Atiq Rahimi, who lives in Paris, wrote his first books in Afghan Persian, starting with the 2000 novella “Earth and Ashes”, followed by “A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear”.
Atiq said that after visiting Afghanistan in 2002 for the first time in 18 years, “I suddenly realized that I could no longer write in my mother tongue, and so when I wrote ‘The Patience Stone’ I wrote it in French.” Polly McLean’s English translation is published by Other Press in the US and Chatto & Windus in the UK.
Atiq said: “I would never have written ‘The Patience Stone’ in my mother tongue. I might have written about women who are victims, or who have to wear the veil, and talked about their social conditions, but I would never have written something that was provocative. I would never have written about sexuality in the way that I write about it in that particular book.”
Appearing alongside Ben Jelloun and Rahimi was the Iraqi-born Jewish writer Eli Amir, who left Baghdad for Israel in 1950 at the age of 13 and has never returned. Amir said: “We felt we were in exile when we were in Iraq, and when we came to Israel we again felt we were in exile.” In Israel the Iraqi Jews were newcomers encountering an entirely different culture with a different language and which knew “almost nothing about Arab culture and Arab countries.”
It took him more than 20 years to start writing books, and his first novel, “Scapegoat”, was about the ordeal of changing identity in a new society. It was with his second novel “The Dove Flyer” (also known as “Farewell Baghdad”) that he drew on his memories of Iraq. “Every time I want to remember Baghdad I read a chapter of my book.” Halban of London recently published the English translation from Hebrew, by Hillel Halkin, of the novel which is set in Baghdad in 1950, a time of increasing difficulty for Iraqi Jews.
Amir noted that three or four writers from Arab countries have become famous in Israel – and his writing is part of the school curriculum – but he complained that in bookshops their works are not considered part of mainstream literary culture but are consigned to shelves for Arab, “Oriental” or “ethnic” writers.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Mixed results in the British general and local elections for candidates of Middle Eastern origin
[original of article that appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat 17 June 2010]
When the first weekly “questions to the prime minister” session of the new British parliament was held in the House of Commons on 2 June, among the few MPs chosen to ask a question was the new Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, Nadhim Zahawi [pictured top].
Zahawi (43), who was born in Iraq in 1967, made history in the general election of May 6 by becoming the first person born in an Arab League country, and the first Kurd, to be elected as an MP.
Zahawi asked the new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron: “Was the prime minister surprised that so many people in the public sector earn more than he does?”
Zahawi was referring to the new coalition government’s publication of public sector salaries, as part of its policy of transparency. The figures showed that as many as 172 top civil servants each earns more, in some cases much more, than the £ 142,000 annual salary of the Prime Minister.
Cameron replied that the publication of the figures is good for democracy and accountability and will help to control public spending. “There will be pressure to keep top pay levels down,” Cameron said. He added it is possible that the new government will restrict the salary of those at the top of a public sector organisation to a multiple of no more than 20 times as much as the salary of those at the bottom of the organisation.
Zahawi’s constituency of Stratford-upon-Avon is the English town in which the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare was born in 1564. The seat is a safe Conservative seat, and the Conservative share of the vote rose in the election to 51.6 per cent, from 49.2 per cent in the 2005 election.
Before the election, Zahawi was best known as the co-founder in 2000 of the highly successful market research and opinion poll company YouGov in 2000, whose operations now extend from Britain to Middle East, Scandinavia, Central Europe and the USA.
Zahawi was one of a number of candidates with roots in the Middle East or North Africa who stood in the general elections of May 6 or in the local elections held on the same day in London and many other places in England.
One of the Arab candidates who was elected as a councillor in the local elections, Algerian Mouna Hamitouche, has since then been elected by her fellow councillors to serve as the Mayor of the North London borough of Islington for 2010/11. She is the first Arab woman, and the first Algerian, to be a mayor in the UK.
“Being the first Arab woman to hold the office of Councillor and now Mayor makes me hugely proud of the values we hold here in the UK for tolerance, respect and equality,” Hamitouche [pictured in her mayoral robes] told Al-Hayat.
Hamitouche first became a councillor in the 2006 local elections when she was elected for Labour in the Barnsbury “ward” (ie electoral district) in the borough of Islington. At that time she had the distinction of being the first Algerian, and the first Arab woman, to be elected as a councillor in the UK.
Several candidates with roots in an Arab League member country stood as parliamentary candidates in the general election. They included Labour politician Mark Hendrick (52), who was re-elected as Labour MP for the northern English constituency of Preston. Hendrick, who was born in northern England, is half-Somali and served as a member of the European Parliament before first being elected for Preston in a by-election in 2000.
Beirut-born Bassam Mahfouz (30), who stood for Labour in the newly-created West London constituency of Ealing Central and Acton, had a good chance of being elected as an MP. The constituency was regarded as one of the closest three-way marginals in the country, in which the three main parties were very close. After a vigorous election campaign he was in the end beaten into second place by the Conservative candidate Angie Bray. She got 38 per cent of the vote, while Mahfouz got 30.1 per cent, pushing the Liberal Democrat candidate John Ball into third place.
Bassam’s journalist father Hafez Mahfouz is originally from the town of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon. The family moved to London when Bassam was four years old and he joined the Labour Party at the age of 17. He has for a number of years been a councillor on the council of the borough of Ealing.
As well as standing in the general election on May 6 Mahfouz [pictured] stood in the local elections, and was re-elected as a councillor in the Northolt West End ward of Ealing. Labour did well in the local elections in Ealing, and seized control of the council from the Conservatives. Mahfouz is now a member of the Ealing Council Cabinet, in which he has responsibility for Transport and Environment.
Two women with Arab roots stood as parliamentary candidates for the Liberal Democrats. Anood Al-Samerai , the daughter of an Iraqi father and British mother, stood for the party in the constituency of Ilford South in north-east London which is traditionally a safe Labour seat. Al-Samerai came third, but she also stood in the local elections in which she was
re-elected as a councillor in the Riverside ward of Southwark, where she has already been a councillor for some years. More than that, Al-Samerai was chosen as leader of the Liberal Democrats group of 25 councillors on Southwark council.
Layla Moran [pictured], the daughter of a Palestinian mother and English father, stood for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, London, at the age of only 27. Like Al-Samerai, she came third.
Even though Mahfouz, Al-Samerai and Moran were not elected, it is encouraging that young British Arabs are now being selected as parliamentary candidates for the main British political parties. Their experience gained through being candidates will be invaluable to their political futures – and it should anyway be remembered many of the biggest names in British politics lost in at least one general election early in their parliamentary careers.
In the local elections, there was a marked increase in the number of elected councillors with roots in Arab League countries, even if the number is still modest. Most of the Arab candidates in the local elections stood for Labour, although there were some exceptions.
In contrast to its performance in the general election, Labour did well in the local elections in London, increasing the number of boroughs it controls by eight, to a total of 17 boroughs. The Conservatives control 11 boroughs and the Liberal Democrats two, while two boroughs are not under the control of any one party.
The chairman and founder of the British Arabs Association [Rabita Al-Arab Al-Britianiyeen] Atallah Said [pictured], who was born in Palestine in 1947, was for the first time elected as a Labour councillor in the May 6 elections, in the East Actor ward of Ealing. He notes that Ealing Council now has three Arab councillors, all of them from Labour – him, Bassam Mahfouz, and the Somali councillor Abdullah Ahmed Gulaid who represents Acton Central ward.
Atallah joined the Labour Party in 1997 and in 2000 founded the Arab Labour Group. Despite the defeat of the Labour government in the general election, Atallah remains an optimist about the party’s future, and declares: “Well be back!”
He chairs the Arab Labour Group, and Mahfouz is the secretary. The vice chairman is Abdessalem El Idrissi El Amrani (known as “Skip Amrani”) who is of Moroccan origin and who was elected on May 6 as a Labour councillor in Catford South ward of the borough of Lewisham in south-east London. El-Amrani is the director of trade services at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce. He first served as a councillor from 1998, but lost his seat in the 2006 local elections.
Last year Atallah founded the British Arabs Association as “a forum for British Arabs to promote integration and promote domestic issues which are of wide concern to the community.” The Association was launched at a reception [pictured] at which the guest of honour was the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
The British Arabs Association is to hold a reception on 8 July to celebrate its first anniversary, at which Miliband, who is now the front runner in the contest to become new Labour leader, will again be the main guest. The other guests will include Arab councillors elected last month.
Among the new Arab councillors is energetic Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Gharib Abdel-Hamid, who is thought to Britain’s first-ever Egyptian councillor. He was elected for Labour in the Church Street ward of the borough of Westminster. The Church Street ward is located around Edgware Road, the street in central London famed for its many Arab restaurants, cafes, newspaper shops, apartments and small businesses.
Abdel-Hamid has lived in Britain since 1973 and is the founder and chair of the Anglo Egyptian Society, a charity based in Harrow Road which gives legal and other services to the local community, whether Arabic speaking or not.
At least seven Somalis have been elected as councillors. The upheavals in Somalia have led to a large influx of Somalis into Britain in recent years, many of them as refugees. It is striking that they are keen to participate in local politics, and it was estimated that around 17 Somali candidates stood in the latest local elections.
The newly-elected Somalis almost all stood for Labour in London boroughs. As well as Abdullah Ahmed Gulaid in Ealing, they include Abdifatah Aden in the borough of Brent, Adbul Mohamed in Southwark and Ahmed Adam Omer in Tower Hamlets. Outside London, Asad Osman is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Ardwick ward, Manchester.
Awale Olad [pictured below] has been elected as a Labour councillor in the Holborn and Covent Garden ward of the borough of Camden at the age of only 25. Born in Mogadishu, he came to England in 1992 at the age of seven. He lives in Holborn, where he went to a local school.
Camden is an area of high Somali concentration. Olad estimates there are between 4,000 and 6,000 Somalis in Camden, although “you can never be sure without a proper census” , of whom 2.500 are registered to vote.
But Olad makes it clear that he wants to help all communities in his ward, and not particularly the Somali one. For example he is currently a volunteer football coach to the 8th Holborn Scouts. “Not a single Somali in sight – but I hope to inspire the kids who turn up every Thursday evening to be good citizens, show kindness, respect, and give up their free time for charitable causes. Charity is very important for me.”
He has been chairman of the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre which started in 2000, and for which he first started to do volunteer work with young people after he had finished university.
A major reason he has always supported Labour is the benefits it has provided to those who are less well off. This includes the Education Maintenance Allowance “which took huge financial burdens off my mother and helped me greatly at school. It may have even saved my education.” He says the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would not dream of giving such incentives.
He joined the Labour Party in 2005 but did not become a party activist until after the 2006 local elections when Labour lost control of Camden Council to a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition which “deployed the worst assault on public services, housing, education and the third sector [ie non- governmental organisations], that this borough has ever seen. It mobilised me – it made me want to stand up and fight back – it made me a Labour councillor. And their temporary stewardship came to a swift end.” (Labour regained control of the council in the May elections).
Asked about the fact that there are now at least seven Somali councillors in Britain, and about the apparent keenness of Somalis to get involved in British politics, Olad says:
“I never stood to just be part of a small contingent of Somali councillors. I stood because I felt the injustice locally and wanted to fight for what I believe in. But if seven councillors of Somali origin will inspire the Somali community to engage with local and national politics, even though I sincerely do believe that Somalis, like other communities, are politically active and aware of current affairs; then that can only be a good thing. But do it for the right reasons – do it because you want to represent everyone and not just a minority of people, and have a vision.”
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Exploring the politics of Palestinian dance
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette June 10 2010
Nicholas Rowe [pictured below] is a graduate of the Australian Ballet School and has worked as a choreographer and dancer with major dance companies in several countries including Finland, the Philippines, New Zealand and Turkey. But it was a trip to the Occupied Palestinian territories in 1998 that changed his life.
He decided to move to the West Bank, and lived in Ramallah from 2000 to 2008 working with young dancers on various projects. “Curiosity brought me to the West Bank, but love made me stay,” Rowe writes in his book “Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine”, newly published by IB Tauris of London and New York. On his first trip to the West Bank he had met a beautiful and creative dancer, Maysoun Rafeedie. The two eventually married, and they are the parents of two young daughters.
Rowe is now an Associate Dean at the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His book is based on a PhD thesis he completed through London Contemporary Dance School.
Rowe was recently in London for the launch of his book at the Mosaic Rooms, part of the A. M. Qattan Foundation, and for the screening at the Palestinian Film Festival of his 2009 film “The Secret World” made with Ramallah schoolchildren. At the launch he spoke with insight and humor about his experiences of working with Palestinians in dance workshops and training them to run workshops themselves.
Rowe’s account of the circumstances around his first visit to the West Bank shows the extent to which culture can be a minefield in the Israel-Palestine context. He had gone to Israel at the invitation of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to write a critique of “Curtain Up – Zionist Movement”, the annual showcase of Israeli contemporary dance. A few months earlier some artists in Cairo had given him dance contacts in the West Bank, and he decided to combine his visit to Israel with a one-week dance workshop at the Popular Arts Center in Ramallah.
Rowe was struck by the contrast between the dance workshop, which was not very different from dance workshops he had taught in other places around the world, and the conditions the Palestinians had to endure. Each day on leaving the studio he would step “into a world so shaped by military oppression that the very thought of dancing seemed bizarre.”
At the workshop the young West Bankers had used movement to try to tell their stories in ways that might interest and inspire others in the community. In his published review of “Curtain Up” Rowe commented on how peculiar it was that none of these stories from the West Bank could be found in the tales of personal angst performed at the comparatively lavish contemporary Israeli dance festival just an hour’s drive away in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli Ministry of Culture never invited him to write about Israeli dance again. “’Why did you have to go and get political?” the Israeli cultural attaché in London bellowed at him down the phone. “We sent you to write an article on dance!”
In his book Rowe traces the numerous interrelationships between Palestinian dance and politics. The history of Palestine has been a highly contentious area of study, resulting in radically polarized versions of events. Israeli school textbooks for example, have largely ignored the pre-Zionist existence of a local Palestinian population, and the traumatic impact of Zionist colonization and nation building on that population.
“A presentation of local dance history that first recognizes the existence of a substantial local population in the region prior to Zionist colonization and then examines the collective trauma experienced by that population is therefore bound to provoke contention,” Rowe says.
His thorough and lucid study covers dance in Palestine from its ancient roots to the present day. The earliest reference he has come across was in a letter written 3,800 years ago by King Zimri-Lim of Mari to his wife Queen Spitu.
The book includes reproductions of a number of remarkable old photographs of dance-related events, some taken 100 or more years ago [picture shows Bethlehem women performing a wedding danceand song in 1940s]. Recent photographs capture the work of leading West Bank dance groups El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe and the Sareyyet Ramallah Troupe for Music and Dance [pictured bottom].
At the heart of Rowe’s book is a discussion of the dance revival movements that have played a prominent role in battles over cultural ownership between Palestine’s indigenous population and the colonizers. The revival of dances from Palestine’s indigenous population occurred three times in the 20th century, associated with Zionism, pan-Arabism and Palestinian nationalism respectively. Each approached the revival process from different ideological and aesthetic viewpoints.
The Zionist “salvage” amounted to an appropriation of the dance practices of the indigenous Palestinians. The motive was partly a desire to forge a collective Israeli identity and to reestablish cultural links with an ancient Jewish past, of which local traditional dances were claimed to be a legacy.
In the 1930s and 1940s Zionist dancers researched the local Palestinian peasant dabkeh. The steps were re-choreographed into stage presentations of folk dance by Zionist youth. Israeli choreographer Shalom Herman said that the new Israeli dances became “one of the best known ambassadors of the spirit of the new State of Israel and its people.”
Pan-Arabist salvage was seen in the West Bank under Jordanian rule in 1947-67 when the stress was on pan-Arabism rather than Palestinian nationalism. Folkdance productions from Lebanon became particularly influential.
The Palestinian nationalist salvage of dance culture came after the 1967 war. Under the Israeli military occupation, West Bank academics researched folklore and looked to ancient culture to challenge the Zionist narrative and provide unifying symbols of collective Palestinian national identity. “By striving to authenticate a distinctly ‘Palestinian’ dabkeh, Palestinian nationalist folklorists were challenging both Zionist appropriation and pan-Arabist assimilation.”
Rowe terms the 1980-2008 period the “post-salvage paradigm”. This period included the first intifada, the Oslo peace process, and the second intifada. The Palestinian nationalist folklore movement continued to play a prominent part in West Bank dance revival but in the 1990s there was a dramatic increase in cultural encounters between local and foreign artists.
Dance artists were “forced to negotiate with both the ongoing local salvagist ideals of unchanging traditions and foreign definitions of modernism and postmodernism.” This led to disputes over cultural identity and cohesion in the early years of the 21st century, when the West Bank became relatively isolated once more.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
New lecture series honors memory of Edward Said
by Susannah Tarbush
Nearly seven years after the death of the outstanding Palestinian scholar, author, music lover, and campaigner for Palestinian rights Edward Said, an annual lecture series in his memory has been launched in London with the inaugural lecture delivered by British scholar and author Marina Warner.
The topic of this first Edward W Said London Lecture, held in the British Museum’s BP lecture theatre, was “Oriental Masquerade: Fiction and Fantasy in the Wake of the Arabian Nights.”
Marina Warner is Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and holds positions at several other institutions. She is an intellectual of exceptional originality and breadth and has won numerous distinctions and awards.
Warner first got to know Edward Said in 1993 when he gave that year’s Reith series of BBC lectures. “He was a man of great warmth, and dazzling elegance, and huge presence and when he gave you his interest and his friendship it was a very great thing,” she recalled. He was “a mentor and catalyst to so many”.
The event was introduced by Professor Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary, London University, and opening remarks were given by the eminent Jamaican-born sociologist cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Professor Rose described Said as “one of the – if not the - most important and influential public intellectual of his time. I know I am not speaking for myself alone when I say that he taught us what being a public intellectual might mean.”
Hall paid tribute to Said’s “capacious capacity for friendship and his deep influence on my thinking and writing.” He outlined some of Said’s hallmark concepts, such as “worldliness” and “contrapuntal reading”, and gave an overview of his books including the enormously influential “Orientalism” (1978).
The work of Said which touched Hall most personally was the memoir of his childhood and youth, “Out of Place”, partly because it carried so many echoes of , and correspondences with, Hall’s own experiences.
The BP Lecture Theatre was packed out for the lecture, which was sponsored by the A M Qattan Foundation and supported by the British Museum, London Review of Books and the Lebanese-British author Hanan Al-Shaykh.
Said’s widow Miriam Said had travelled to London for the event, as had his son Wadie and daughter-in-law Jennifer.
One focus of Warner’s lecture was the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) founded by Said and the Argentine-born Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. The orchestra began in 1999 when Said, Barenboim and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma held a workshop in Weimar, Germany, for young musicians aged between 18 and 25 from the Arab world and Israel.
Weimar was European Capital of Culture in that year, which also marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of the great German writer and poet Goethe. Said remembered that it was in Weimar that Goethe had composed the 1819 collection of poems “The West-Eastern Divan”, which was inspired by his enthusiasm for Islam and for Persian poetry.
The orchestra adopted as its name the title of Goethe’s cycle of poems. “The name of the orchestra was born: it wasn’t discussed further and it has remained – resonant, mysterious, a promise of possibility” Warner said.
The establishment of the orchestra was “politically heroic and anachronistic, and it remains so. Its existence brushed against the grain of so much in the region at that time, and its struggle to survive continues even more acutely now (the almost unimaginably deteriorating situation since then is not diminishing the difficulties).”
Warner did not elaborate on the difficulties that have faced the orchestra recently, with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) alleging that WEDO violates the boycott and promotes “normalization”.
Miriam Said refuted the allegations in an article published in March, but in a response PACBI stuck to its previous line. Miriam has played an active role in the orchestra’s activities since Edward’s death and is vice president of the Barenboim Said Foundation. She described in her article how Said had described WEDO as “the most important thing I do in my life”.
Warner said that WEDO’s two founders “markedly rejected interpreting the orchestra as a political enterprise: in his 2006 Reith lectures Barenboim affirmed that the work of the orchestra was musical through and through.”
Warner examined how Goethe’s “West-Eastern Divan” poems embody the orchestra’s vision. The Divan became part of what the French literary scholar Raymond Schwab called The Oriental Renaissance in his 1950 study “The Oriental Renaissance: Europe's Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880”.
Schwab’s book excited Said’s enthusiastic endorsement. “It explored how the culture and civilisation of the West was actively shaped by the encounter with Arabic, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures in ways that have not been sufficiently explored or recognised, even when the European debt to Arab science is remembered.”
Oriental Masquerade was the height of fashion in the 18th century in theatre, literature, philosophy and politics – for example in the writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire. Mozart’s opera “Cosi Fan Tutte”, which Said admired, used Oriental impersonation and masquerade.
In the opera Ferrando and Guglielmo appear in their masquerade with Ottoman style moustaches in order to prove the fidelity of their betrothed.
“The Albanian disguises of their fiancés trigger out-of character behaviour in the two young women,” Warner said. “Said chose to see past the light malice of the opera’s ideas about the ways of all women and suggest instead that it offers a deeper insight into human character.”
Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte “project a modern understanding of the self as changeable in relation to others, rather than atomised; identity does not possess fixed integrity, but alters as elective affinities work metamorphoses upon it.
Goethe was in his sixties when he began pouring out the poems of the “West Eastern Divan”. As Edward Said himself grew older, his thoughts turned to the effects of lateness in his essays “On Late Style” posthumously edited by Michael Wood and published in 2006.
Towards the end of her presentation Warner quoted from a lecture Said gave at Berkeley in early 2003, the year of his death in which he spoke of his WEDO project with Barenboim. Said asserted that separation between peoples and ignorance of the other is no solution to the problems dividing people. Cooperation and co-existence of the kind the project had experienced through living, performing and sharing music might be a help.
Warner concluded: “The courage of Said as polemicist developed this late style of furious ‘advocacy’ as well as invective. He never lost his fine fury, but the many antagonists of his insights are blind to the deep humanity of his vision and the possibilities he saw of making culture cross borders and even move them.”