Barenboim breaks the barrier

World-renowned conductor and pianist performs at Cairo's Opera House, decries "tendency to put all Israelis in one basket."

Barenboim 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Barenboim 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli culture is not usually welcome in Egypt, and many have charged that until Israel changes its political course towards the Palestinians, normalization of culture will not occur. This did not, however, stop world-renowned conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim from performing at Cairo's Opera House on April 16. The performance was postponed in January after Israel's incursion into Gaza increased the region's ubiquitous hostility to the Jewish state. But three months on, Barenboim finally arrived in Cairo to perform under the auspices of the Austrian Embassy. Some activists are criticizing longtime Culture Minister Farouk Hosni for allowing the performance, arguing that he is permitting an Israeli to perform in Egypt in order to improve his reputation and win votes in his campaign for UNESCO's top job. "I don't think it is right. We must maintain a strict policy that does not allow Israelis to perform in Egypt no matter how liberal they may be... because we must continue to support the Palestinians against their aggressors," said Khaled, a student activist who asked not to reveal his full name. Other Egyptians believe that Barenboim is first and foremost a musician and that his nationality - Israeli, Spanish and Argentinian - makes no difference. "He's here to conduct an orchestra. I don't see how his nationality is relevant," said Egyptian Yasmin El Rifae. Commenting on the Arab world in general, Barenboim told The Media Line that there was "the tendency to put all Israelis in one basket and say, 'we boycott, we don't want anything to do with them, anybody who goes there is an enemy.'" He added that he felt confident that if Arabs visited Israel and made their arguments in a setting that was open and honest, much could happen in the region. "It would be much better if Egyptians and Syrians and Palestinians and Jordanians and Lebanese would go to Tel Aviv, and explain their point of view, and express their point of view." Hosni, apparently changing his stance toward Israel, pointed out to The Media Line via telephone that the conductor had "been outspoken against Israeli policies and there have been requests to have his citizenship revoked in Israel." Before the concert, one of Hosni's top advisers said that although the minister would not officially meet with Barenboim, he would be attending the concert at Cairo's Opera House. "He will be there close to the front, and the minister is excited about the music," the official said. Although Hosni has been opposed to cultural normalization with Israel despite a peace treaty between the two nations, it appears he is willing to cut corners in order to allow an Israeli who has often spoken out against his own nation. The 66-year-old Barenboim has constantly criticized Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank. He is most known in political circles for his work with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said with whom he founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and published a book of their conversations that highlighted the need for further dialogue in the region. In 2008, Barenboim was given honorary Palestinian citizenship for his pursuit of justice in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, not all Egyptians believe that Barenboim's visit to Egypt is a good idea. On the Angry Arab blog, the writer tells of his "distrust" of a man who worked for many years with Said in order to build bridges between Israeli and Palestinians. "I never liked or trusted this man, and his friendship with Edward Said meant nothing to me. I never felt that I need to befriend an Israeli to complete my humanity or to prove my civility," the posting reads. For the most part, Egyptian media have been in sync with the anger of the blogger in denouncing the trip. They say that the time is not yet right for an Israeli, no matter his background and evenhandedness, to be a part of the country's cultural scene. "I am against normalization with Israel, as it is the enemy of Arabs and Palestinians, and nobody is happy about what is happening to our brethren in Gaza. Such incidents are absolutely unacceptable," according to Egyptian daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm board member Salah Diab. "The different Israeli governments... have not really understood that the real security of Israel, which they talk so much about, can only come through the acceptance of all the neighbors of Israel, starting with the Palestinian people," Barenboim said at his press conference at the Austrian Embassy's cultural forum. The question that has been thrust upon Egyptian society and the Arab world is how to deal with non-traditional Israelis. Someone like Barenboim, an Egyptian journalist at the press conference said, should be treated with respect. "We can learn a lot from the man, because he is someone who can relate to us as well as to them. If we don't support him, then Arabs will only have themselves to blame," the journalist argued. The one-time child prodigy pianist and Grammy Award winner headed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade beginning in 1991 and has worked closely for many years with the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, among others. "We don't represent Israel and I don't represent any government," Barenboim said at the press conference.