Harmony across the great divide


The death of the Palestinian scholar, Edward Said this year was a great cultural loss. Michael Jansen offers a personal recollection

When Edward Said died last September, one of the most moving tributes to the Palestinian scholar and thinker came from the Israeli pianist and composer, Daniel Barenboim. He wrote, "The Palestinians have lost one of the most eloquent defenders of their aspirations. The Israelis have lost an adversary - but a fair and humane one. And I have lost a soul mate."

The depth and breadth of the relationship between the two men is explored in a book of conversations, Parallels and Paradoxes: Exporations in Music and Society (edited by Ara Guzelimian, the senior director of Carnegie Hall, and published by Pantheon Books last year). Tragically, their relationship, based on their love and understanding of music and their attachment to the same land, was limited to the time Edward Said could keep up his battle against a rare and particularly pernicious form of leukaemia.

Born in in 1935 in Jerusalem, Edward Said became a refugee in December, 1947, when he and his well-to-do Palestinian Christian family fled the Holy City following a spate of tit-for-tat bombings and killings by Jews and Palestinians. He went to school in Cairo and boarding school in the US. He began studies at the Julliard School of Music in New York but renounced a career as a concert pianist to study comparative literature at Princeton and Harvard. While teaching at Columbia, he wrote more than 20 books and countless articles, earning a reputation as a world-class thinker on literature, music, and the connection between culture and imperialism. In the 1970s he emerged an eloquent spokesmen for the Palestinian people.

While Edward was dealing with permanent exile from Palestine, Daniel Barenboim's Russian Jewish family settled in Tel Aviv in the new state of Israel. By then Danny, born in 1942 in Buenos Aires, was a musical prodigy. He made his first recording in 1954, launching a career of confronting major musical challenges, including recording the complete piano works of Beethoven, and conducting piano and orchestrial works from the keyboard. Later he made his name as director of some of the world's most famous orchestras.

It is surprising that the two men did not meet until the early nineties.

When they did, the two men found they had more than music in common, including a similar attitude to the concept of "home." Edward took the view that the "idea of home \ overrated. There's a lot of sentimentality about 'homelands' that I don't really care for. And wandering around is really what I like to do most." He found himself happy in New York, where he had settled, because he could be anywhere "in it and still not be of it." Danny said, "I am at home wherever I make music... Wherever I can play the piano, or wherever I travel with the orchestras I lead...I feel at home."

World wanderers, Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim had no need to possess Palestine/Israel.

This did not mean they had a common approach to the history of their war-torn homeland. Edward pointed out that he and Barenboim had, in fact, very different points of view based on their personal histories but argued that this produced "healthy tension" as long as each acknowledged the view of the other. Both agreed that separating their peoples produced "paranoia" and "distortions" and believed that they must find a way to coexist amicably in one land.

I met Danny in January, 1968, seven months after Israel completed its conquest of Palestine with the capture of the West Bank and Gaza, and Said late that year.

My first encounter with Danny took place when my husband and I were staying with Suvi Raj Grubb and his wife Chandru in their flat next to the EMI recording studio in London, where Suvi was the technical wizzard who produced the company's classical music recordings. My husband, Godfrey Jansen, raised in Bangalore, and Suvi, from Madras, had become best friends while at university. Suvi and Chandru invited Danny and his young wife, the brilliant cellist, Jacqueline du Pre to dinner. Danny arrived in a false fur coat and cowboy hat, looking like a rotund bear from Texas, while Jacqueline wore a long green gown, her blonde hair cascading over her shoulders. They were going on to a reception at the British prime minister's residence at Number 10 Downing Street. During the meal of Indian food and red wine, we found Danny agreed with us that Israel had to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and come to terms with the Palestinians. He was far ahead of most of his countrymen who were still rejoicing in their conquest. Over the years the Grubbs brought us together on several other occasions with Danny, permitting us a glimpse of the humane man within the gifted musician.

We met Edward in Beirut at the home of Lebanese friends. Israel's capture of the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 war had revived his dormant connection with Palestine. Godfrey and I attempted to convince him that he should visit Jerusalem on his US passport to see how the situation was developing. But he rejected the idea, perhaps because it was too painful for him to contemplate. Thereafter, we met from time to time at meetings of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile.

Edward eventually broke with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and became one of his most trenchant critics. In the mid-nineties I was in the auditorium of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank when Edward received the first ever honourary doctorate granted by a Palestinian institution of higher learning. A few days later, as I was waiting for the lift in my hotel in the Jordanian capital, I heard Mozart being played on a piano in the dining room and found Edward at the keyboard.

In 1999, Edward arranged for Danny to hold a master class for Palestinian musicians and give a concert at Bir Zeit. In conversation with David Barsamian (Culture and Resistance: Pluto, 2003), Edward said that the first of Danny's performances at Bir Zeit "was a fantastic success. It was one of the great events of my life, and, if I can speak for him, of his life, that he was able to do this.."

This event, Edward said, was a purely cultural act which transcended politics, a "human act of solidarity and friendship" towards the Palestinians from a man whose services were in great demand in concert halls around the world. Danny played in the Kamal Nasser Hall, named for a Palestinian poet and PLO spokesman slain in Beirut in 1973 by an Israeli hit squad. A few weeks before Edward died, Danny braved the opposition of the right-wing government in Israel to perform again at Bir Zeit. Danny and Edward also established at Weimar in Germany, then the Culture Capital of Europe, a youth orchestra, the East-West Divan, comprised of Arab and Israeli muscians in the belief that if they play together they can get along together. Edward lived to see the orchestra perform its first Arab world concert in Morocco.

In Danny's view the artist, whose task is to remain faithful to principles and concepts, is better fitted to resolve conflicts than politicians whose job it is to find compromises which often undermine the solution they secure. He compares the way true muscians deal with a work by adopting the courage to play the most difficult and taxing bits to the approach statesmen, like Nelson Mandela or Pandit Nehru, tackle a political dispute.

"You have to go to the precipice, to the end, and then not fall, and not make a crescendo only half way."

In his tribute to Edward, Danny observed: "Perhaps the first thing one remembers about Edward Said was his breadth of interest. He was not only at home in music, literature, philosophy, or the understanding of politics, but also he was one of those rare people who saw the connections and the parallels between different disciplines . . . he had an unusual understanding of the human spirit, and of the human being, and he recognised that parallels and paradoxes are not contradictions...

"Many Israelis and Jewsdid not want to tolerate his criticism, not just of the present Israeli government, but of a certain mentality that he identified in Israeli thoughts and deeds - namely the lack of empathy with the fact that the very same war of independence of Israel in 1948, which brought about the acquisition of a new identity for the Jewish part of the population, was not just a military defeat, but also a psychological catastrophe for the \ population of Palestine... therefore he was critical of the inability of Israeli leaders to make the necessary symbolic gestures [including recognition of the right of return] that have to precede any political solution.

The Arabs, on the other hand, were and are still unable to accept his sensitivity toward Jewish history, limiting themselves to repeat their innocence as far as the suffering of Jewish people is concerned.

"It was precisely this ability of his to see not only the different aspects of any thought or process, but their inevitable consequences... He was one of those rare people who was permanently aware of the fact that information is only the very first step toward understanding." Danny said his friend always looked for the "beyond" in the idea, the "unseen" by the eye, the "unheard" by the ear.