Hopeful sounds of peace

A coexistence music festival that does not have Israelis and Palestinians performing together.

huetter 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
huetter 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite the ongoing talks between Israel and Syria, and sporadic contacts with the Palestinian leadership, there doesn't seem to be much progress happening over a solution to the ongoing regional tension and violence. So it might not be a bad idea to try a different tack, one that circumnavigates the political domain and tries to appeal to an alternative area of interest shared by all inhabitants of the region. That's an ethos embraced by Erich Oskar Huetter, a thirtysomething Austrian cellist who periodically doubles as artistic director of the Sounding Jerusalem Festival. The annual festival is currently under way for the third time and will end on July 5. One of Huetter's declared intentions is to use the festival to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together and to offer a glint of hope for peaceful coexistence. A quick rundown of the roster of artists who are participating in the concerts reveals the names of musicians from Austria, Germany, France and Switzerland, as well as five musicians from Israel, including master oud player and violinist Taiseer Elias. However, none of the 21 concerts in the festival program involves the joint efforts of Israeli and Palestinian musicians, although Jews and Arabs can often be heard playing together. So why does Huetter believe Sounding Jerusalem will succeed where politicians have repeatedly failed? While the ideology behind the festival may seem somewhat fanciful, the cellist appears to have both feet firmly planted on terra firma. "Look, you can't tell people to simply get on together, play music together and everything will be fine," says Huetter when we meet at the Austrian Hospice in the Old City. "You can't just do your nice festival - that just doesn't work. You have to consider many things." Rather than skirting around the potential political and socio-political minefields, Huetter feels the problems and suffering of both sides should be respected, if not addressed, within the framework of the festival and - on a far grander scale - as part of an eventual solution to our regional problems. "It would be disrespectful to Israelis and Palestinians to suggest that they should forget their differences and sorrows and simply get on with each other. So I never planned to have musicians from both sides playing together." The common ground, Huetter believes, can be achieved simply by sharing the same uplifting experience. "Palestinians with permits, and Israelis who can go there, will attend concerts on both sides. When you sit next to each other, despite all your differences and wariness about the other side, everyone can enjoy and get something from a music concert." And this, apparently, is not just wishful thinking. "I have seen Israelis and Palestinians chatting together over coffee after concerts we have had in the last two years. Yes, music is a way of bridging gaps. It really does work, but you have to do things gradually. "We are not going to change the world overnight, and I don't expect all the problems in the Middle East to be solved after the festival," he explains. "But if Moshe and Moussa get to see each other as real people, and not just 'an Israeli' and 'a Palestinian' - with all the bad connotations they can have for each other - then you can find a way of getting around the political stuff and the bad stuff." Huetter's ideas are based on firsthand experience of the conflict. "I taught in Ramallah for two years, right in the middle of the second intifada, so I know how things are there, and how Palestinians live and think. I know that side better than Taiseer [Elias]. He is an Israeli Arab who lives in Israel. He doesn't know that much about the Palestinian side. And I know the Israeli side better than the Palestinians," he says. "I remember the curfews and not being able to leave the house because of Israeli soldiers on the streets. And I was in a restaurant in Ramallah when a bunch of the Aksa [Martyrs Brigade] gunmen walked in, sprayed bullets everywhere and then just walked out again. I dived under a table but I remember the glazed eyes of one of the gunmen - like he was in a trance. So all that has to be addressed too. "You have to work with people, and not try to create something artificial." There will be plenty of opportunities for classical music lovers on both sides to imbibe some spiritually enriching works between now and July 5, with concerts held in west and east Jerusalem, Jericho, Jenin, Deir Ghassana, Zababida, Ibillin, Abu Ghosh, Ras Karkar and Ramallah. For more information, visit: www.soundingjerusalem.com