LIFE magazine reports on the January visit of pianist Daniel Barenboim to Birzeit University
The following article appeared in the May 1999 issue of LIFE magazine. Photographs by Theo Westenberg, Text Richard Pollak.
Daniel Barenboim has appeared on most of the world's great concert stages. His recordings have been heard by millions. But until he performed in a recital hall at Birzeit University earlier this year, the internationally renowned Israeli pianist and music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had never played in the West Bank. The trip to Birzeit from Tel Aviv, where Barenboim grew up, takes about an hour, but it represents a lifetime's journey. In 1967, just after the Six-Day War, the 24-year-old pianist performed a series of concerts with his then-fiancée, cellist Jacqueline du Pré, to support the Israeli war effort. Since then, he has grown increasingly critical of what he sees as his country's harsh treatment of Palestinians and its failure to make peace with them after a 22-year military occupation.
Last year, when asked to help commemorate Israel's 50th anniversary, he declined. "It was not an act of defiance," says Barenboim. "I did not have the feeling I could celebrate with an open heart." The idea for the concert at Birzeit, a Palestinian school repeatedly shut down by the Israelis, was Barenboim's. But the story behind it began six years ago when he met Edward Said in a hotel lobby in London. A professor of literature at Columbia University, leading Palestinian intellectual in the United States and a talented pianist, Said had much in common with Barenboim, and the two men became fast friends. "What appeals to me about Edward is his ability to connect art, literature, music, and politics," says Barenboim, "I try to be like this."
Early last year, Said arranged for Barenboim to have dinner at the home of Birzeit president Hanna Nasir, who had been exiled by the Israelis for 20 years, and his wife, Tania. Like most Israelis, Barenboim had never spent an evening in a Palestinian home on the West Bank. "Are you sure it's safe?" he asked Said as their taxi made its way from Jerusalem to the West Bank. Barenboim was particularly drawn to Tania Nasir, a lover of art, poetry, and music with a large, embracing personality. The pianist responded by inviting her to Jerusalem for a recital. And he dedicated an encore to her, telling his audience that he had spent an evening at the home of a leading West Bank citizen and had been treated not just as a friend but as a member of the family.
Soon after, Barenboim told Said he wanted to perform in the West Bank-something no prominent Israeli musician had done since the territory was seized from Jordan. With Said's help, and with the cooperation of the Nasirs, the recital was scheduled for January 29. The 500 people who jammed Kamal Nasir Hall (named after a cousin of Hanna Nasir's who was assassinated by the Israelis in Lebanon in 1973) burst into applause when Barenboim walked on stage. Whatever bitterness might have been lingering in the hall was banished when he played the dramatic opening chords of Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata. By the end of the evening, after a rousing four-hand encore with Salim Abboud, a young Palestinian pianist, the audience was on its feet, applauding wildly. Even the three apprehensive Israelis who had brought a Steinway from Jerusalem for Barenboim to play were impressed. "This is the way to do peace," one of them said."With music and with love."