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 fiancee, cellist Jacqueline du Pre, 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, a leading Palestinian intellectual in the United States and a talented pianist, Said has much in common with Barenboim, and the two men became fast friends. "What appeals to me about Edward is the 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 into 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 on 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 onstage. Whatever bitterness might have been lingering in the hall was banished when he played the dramatic opening chords of Beethoven's "Pathetique" 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."
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