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World-Class Pianist Forges a Link for Peace in Mideast

Culture: The Israeli Daniel Barenboim braves critics to play for West Bank students.

September 11, 2002|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Daniel Barenboim said he came here Tuesday to play music, not politics, as if such a thing was possible for an Israeli citizen venturing into the heart of the occupied West Bank.

At least for one 15-year-old Palestinian girl, he clearly succeeded in reaching across the divide.

Barenboim, the acclaimed pianist and conductor who shocked an Israeli audience last year by conducting Wagner in Jerusalem, came to Ramallah to fulfill a promise he had made in March. He had planned to perform in the West Bank city then but was forced to cancel because Israeli military authorities said they could not guarantee his safety.

They still couldn't, or wouldn't, Tuesday. Barenboim had to break the Israeli military's rules to get to his noon concert at the Quaker-run Ramallah Friends Schools, a century-old oasis of flowers and calm amid the dust and rubble that is Ramallah in the aftermath of Israel's incursion this year.

Slipping through a military checkpoint in a German consular vehicle--the West Bank is closed to ordinary Israelis but open to diplomats--Barenboim made his way over rutted roads to the school, arriving to the cheers of about 200 uniformed, scrubbed and eager seventh-through 12th-graders.

For these children, the sight of an Israeli without a gun was a novelty.

"We hate them," volunteered 12-year-old Dalina Kashou, who said she could not imagine a day when Israelis and Palestinians would live side by side in peace.

Palestinian officials and school administrators were grateful to Barenboim for what they said was an act of great symbolism.

"It's very important for a musician of his stature to give a message to Israelis that Palestinians are people who appreciate--just like anybody else--music and culture and are entitled to a life for their children," said Gabi Baramki with the Palestinian Authority's Higher Education Ministry, who was in the audience.

Barenboim, 59, a Jew who was born in Argentina but grew up in Israel, took the stage without a word and launched into Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. When he finished, and the standing, shouting and whistling ovation had subsided, Barenboim spoke.

"Do you speak English?" he asked.

"Yes!" yelled the students.

After a brief salutation in Arabic, the pianist continued in English about his purpose in defying the Israeli travel ban.

"I think each of us has a responsibility to do what we think is right," he told the students. "And what I can do is play music.... By these few moments, maybe we can build down the hatred."

Over the last several years, Barenboim has developed a friendship with Palestinian writer Edward Said that led him to perform in Ramallah in 1999, before the current Palestinian uprising. That has not endeared him to some Israelis; neither did his decision to play the prelude to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at the Israel Festival in July 2001.

Wagner's anti-Semitism and associations with Nazi Germany have made his music unwelcome in Israel since the nation's founding in 1948. Barenboim, who is chief conductor of the Berliner Staatsoper, had argued that the composition is an important work that should be heard in a democratic society.

Last week, the Jerusalem Post published a commentary attacking Barenboim for saying recently that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "in spite of his love of music," would not be a welcome guest at his concerts because of his policies toward the Palestinians.

The maestro's latest appearance in Ramallah seemed certain to engender fresh attacks. Within hours of his appearance, the Israel Defense Forces had issued a statement saying that Barenboim's visit had been unauthorized and illegal.

Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Culture, Science and Sports, said the government had no objection to Barenboim's performing in the West Bank.

"If anything, it's a wonderful initiative," he said.

However, Fogel added: "We're all for activities on the Palestinian side that would promote the cultural life. But at the same time, we don't forget what they're doing in terms of promoting terror and what it does to our cultural life."

After his brief performance, Barenboim invited students to sit next to him and play. Three girls took him up on the offer, delighting both the performer and their classmates.

Second among them was 15-year-old Nadia Avouri, who attacked a piece by Mendelssohn with confidence and passion. A lanky, dark-haired girl with a poise that seemed greater than her years, she came up to Barenboim later to ask him for an autograph.

"She played very well," he told a group of reporters as Nadia beamed. "She will continue playing better because"--and here he looked at her pointedly--"she will continue practicing."

"I will," she promised.

Nadia said the last two years have been terrible for her, as for most Palestinians and Israelis. She had been a swimming champion in her age group, she said, but had to abandon the sport because she could no longer get to an indoor pool in Jerusalem. Her music has suffered too, with local suppliers unable to get copies of scores and her school unable to offer a music exam she needs to pass so she can advance.

She spoke bitterly about the Israelis: "They are trying in every way to erase our existence as a nation." But she spoke glowingly about Barenboim, whose scampering finger work had left her in awe.

"It was a brave decision," she said of his visit.

"Music breaks all barriers," she said. "I don't look at him as a Jewish person or an Israeli person. I look at him as a musician."

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