The Collegian
Saturday, June 10, 2023

Karin Davison discusses coexistence during Sept. 11 lecture on West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

<p>The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays at at a Washington D.C. concert hall during its tour of the United States. <em>Photo courtesy of Manuel Vaca for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra 2018 U.S. tour press kit.</em></p>

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays at at a Washington D.C. concert hall during its tour of the United States. Photo courtesy of Manuel Vaca for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra 2018 U.S. tour press kit.

The University of Richmond hosted Karin Davison for a lecture event on Sept. 11 to discuss her involvement with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an orchestra composed of Arab-Israeli youth musicians.

Edward Said, a Palestinian-American academic, and Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli-Argentinian conductor, founded the orchestra in 1999. The orchestra is meant to serve as a “workshop for young musicians to promote coexistence and intercultural dialogue,” according to its website.

Davison was born in Germany and has worked in the field of journalism for over 40 years, spending portions of her career at Time Magazine and the White House Press Office, in addition to producing several films and a few co-productions with PBS.

Scheduling the event on Sept. 11 was intentional on the part of Martin Sulzer-Reichel, the director of the Arabic language program at UR, who organized the event.

“I think something like West-Eastern Divan, for me, gives a message of hope,” Sulzer-Reichel said, “And I think 9/11 is a great day to remind ourselves of this message of hope.”

Getting Involved

It was during this eclectic career in journalism that Davison met Barenboim, who was a guest on one of the programs Davison was producing in 1998. She recounted their first encounter as follows:

Before the program, Davison and Barenboim had an extensive conversation about the Middle East. Impressed by her knowledge, Barenboim invited her to lunch the next day.

At lunch, Barenboim explained a project he was working on to Davison – a project that he wanted her to take part in. He was looking to form an orchestra of Arab and Israeli youth musicians, and he wanted Davison’s help recruiting the talent.

She needed clarification on whether he meant local Arabs and Israelis. Barenboim explained that he wanted to go to the source and recruit these musicians straight from the Middle East. He noticed Davison's extensive knowledge of the region during their conversation the day before, and he found her to be well-equipped for the job.

After considering the ongoing conflicts between various Arab nations and Israel in addition to her lack of experience doing the work Barenboim was requesting, Davison was hesitant. More than hesitant, even, which led her to initially reject the offer.

However, it wasn’t long before she changed her mind. Soon she was taking flights to Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, looking for talented Arab musicians while navigating unfamiliar territory.

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Davison recalled the recruitment experience as follows:

As she expected, the job wasn’t easy. She visited conservatories, met the people in charge and found talent. But any progress made came to a dead halt once they explained the project that they were recruiting for. 

“Very nice meeting you, but I don’t think this can be done.”

“I wish you hadn’t said that.”

“Would you please leave my room?”

“Are you absolutely out of your mind?”

Such were the responses Davison received once West-Eastern Divan’s purpose was explained, Barenboim said. Negotiations ended at the mention of Israel.

Undeterred, Davison kept trying. After rejections in Egypt and Lebanon, she returned to Syria, despite having already been rebuffed by one of the conservatories there. This time she took a more strategic route, she said. She encountered an American ambassador to Syria with a love for classical music and sought his aid. He directed her to the conservatory in Damascus, where there was plenty of talent.

Davison made progress here the same way she did at other Arab conservatories. She visited over the course of a few days, met the head of the school and so on. Again, progress halted at the mention of Israel.

Fed up with rejection and eager to recruit some of these uber-talented musicians, Davison pushed back this time.

She asked the head of the conservatory if he knew who Barenboim was, to which he replied that he did. She then questioned why he would deny these young musicians the opportunity to work under such a talented conductor.

“You have these brilliant musicians,” she recalled saying, “You’re gonna hide them? For some political thing? I mean, it’s music. Music has no borders. Music is free.”

She visited Damascus five more times before the head of the conservatory arranged a meeting between Davison and someone she called “the powerful person.” Davison refused to identify who this person was, only saying that they were powerful enough to give West-Eastern Divan the go-ahead on recruiting Syrian musicians. This would also enable Davison to recruit from Lebanon, which was under Syrian rule at the time.

She entered the meeting raring to go, sporting a red suit and painted nails for the occasion. Davison said she recalled being ready to go on the attack.

Davison and “the powerful person” met. She gave them the rundown – orchestra, young musicians, Arabs playing with Israelis. And somehow, she got their approval. But there was one condition: there was to be no mention in the press of Syrian or Lebanese musicians playing with Israelis. Seeing no other option, she agreed to the person's terms.

“Being a journalist, I figured I’d find a way,” Davison said.

Now that she had succeeded in recruiting Arab musicians, she moved onto Israel, where she had far less trouble. There were some safety concerns, but the musicians were eager to join and curious about playing music with Arab musicians.

“Music took over," Davison said. "Over everything."

And once the orchestra had rehearsed and played together -- and Davison had successfully dissuaded journalists from making any mention of Syrians and Lebanese musicians in the press -- the powerful person agreed to let the musicians return next year, this time openly.

Davison’s hard work had finally paid off. Now it was time for the musicians, Barenboim and Said, to get to work.


West-Eastern Divan is composed of musicians ranging from 16 to 22 years old. The orchestra requires that there is one Arab student and one Israeli student at each music stand during rehearsals and performances. In addition, it requires that roommate pairings comprise one Arab student and one Israeli student.

But Davison said much of the orchestra’s unity developed around the students’ common leader.

“They were only afraid of one person,” Davison said, “And that was Daniel Barenboim.”

Barenboim was a brilliant conductor and teacher to the students. Wanting his approval, the students worked hard to raise their level of play day after day. All of this promoted an environment of friendly coexistence among the musicians.

Davison recalled one story in particular that showed West-Eastern Divan’s goals were coming to fruition. The orchestra was visiting cultural capital of Europe Weimar, Germany, for a workshop. A couple of miles from Weimar is the site of a concentration camp called Buchenwald. Said and Barenboim decided that the orchestra should visit the site.

Once at Buchenwald, Palestinian Said joined the Israeli musicians, and Israeli Barenboim joined the Arab musicians.

“The Israelis knew what to expect because it’s part of their history, it’s part of their tragedy…” Davison explained. “But the Arabs were in complete shock. I mean they were so shocked; people were crying.”

Davison and the rest of the orchestra soon discovered that the horrors of the Holocaust had never been taught to the Arab musicians. So for them, this was a first encounter. And they were understandably devastated.

Later that day, the orchestra returned to the workshop and rehearsed. After rehearsal, there was an open discussion – something West-Eastern Divan always does.

But this time was different. The room was heavy. And the orchestra was silent. Nobody said a word for quite some time. 

Eventually Barenboim stood up from his chair. He walked over to the piano and began playing Beethoven sonatas. He played, and he played, and he kept playing into the late night. With time, Davison said, the heaviness of the room dissolved.

“All of a sudden, when you know your neighbor you have empathy…,” Davison said. “You have to understand it, and that was a moment of understanding.”

September 11

At the event, Davison was joined virtually by former students Doron Alperin and Mohamed Saleh, two former musicians who are Israeli and Egyptian, respectively. Nadim Karkutli, who helped raise an estimated two-thirds funding from the European Union on behalf of West-Eastern Divan, also joined virtually.

“I am honored that the University of Richmond is doing this on 9/11,” Davison said. “I am really thankful and honored that they’re doing that.”

Contact writer Alan Clancy at

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