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Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim looked to the unifying power of collaborative music to open discussion and foster understanding in the Middle East and beyond.

The story of the West-Östlicher Divan of Goethe goes back to his study of a(n imperfect) German translation of the woks of 14th century master of the Persian ghazal, Hafez.

In his study of this foreign poetry, he sought out the unifying poetic principles and contextual common ground between West and East. Goethe instigated a sort of dialogue between himself and this classic socio-cultural bastion of the Arab world; two voices from two different places ruminating both sensitively and satirically on the same facets of human existence: love, indulgence, morality, and hypocracy.

It was in this spirit that two long-time friends, Palestinian philosopher/author Edward Said and Israeli pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, collaboratively sought alternative and supplementary paths to dialogue and understanding in the Middle East. They settled on founding an orchestra.

When you visit the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's website, their motto is simply and elegantly inscribed in Arabic, English, and Hebrew on its first sub-page: Equal in Music.

In 1999, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan as a workshop for Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians. Meeting in Weimar, Germany -- a place where the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment are overshadowed by the Holocaust -- they materialized a hope to replace ignorance with education, knowledge and understanding; to humanize the other; to imagine a better future. Within the workshop, individuals who had only interacted with each other through the prism of war found themselves living and working together as equals. As they listened to each other during rehearsals and discussions, they traversed deep political and ideologicala divides. Though this experiment in coexistence was intended as a one-time event, it quickly evolved into a legendary orchestra.

[...] Three years after it was established, the orchestra was given a home in Seville by the regional Spanish government of Andalusia. The area's history as a center for Muslims, Christians and Jews in Europe continues in the West-Eastern Divan's rehearsals and discussions.

The legacy of Said and Barenboim's friendship and common purpose lives on not only in the orchestra's continued success, but in the Barenboim-Said Akademie recently opened in Berlin in addition to several culturally-focused charitable foundaitons. If you would like to learn more about the orchestras, its initiatives, and how to become involved, visit their website at west-eastern-divan.org.

"We aspire to total freedom and equality between Israelis and Palestinians, and it is on this basis that we come together today to play music."

Since its creation, the orchestra has performed all over the world and has recorded everything from Beethoven to Boulez. It was a dream for Said and Barenboim to have this orchestra perform in all of the nations represented by its members. Ramallah, Palestine's de facto capital, was high on this list. Said didn't live to see it realized; he died of leukemia in 2003. Despite the diplomatic nightmare it was, Barenboim persisted.

The journey of the orchestra, from its genesis to this historical performance, was artfully illustrated by filmmaker Paul Smaczny. You can watch his 2005 Emmy Award-winning documentary Knowledge is the Beginning: Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra below (in seven parts):

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BONUS: Just months before Said's death in 2003, Said and Barenboim's constant conversations resulted in the publication of a co-authored effort Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society. In the first few minutes of Smaczny's documentary, he includes a short clip of the catalystic discussion between Said and Barenboim. Check out the rest of their hour-long dialogue from Weimar in 1999 about the unifying power of creative exchange below (in two parts):

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