During my years as a GP in Buckinghamshire, I served a patient list that was over 75% Pakistani. From them, I learnt that the title ‘Hafiz’ meant that that person had memorised the entire Holy Qur’an.
To my Iranian patients however, Hafiz had an additional meaning. It is the name of their revered 14th century poet (full name Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī) whose poems lauding the joys of love and wine but also targeting religious hypocrisy are part of popular lore even today, quoted as proverbs and witticisms.
The poetry of Hafiz has influenced others since, throughout the Islamic world. His work was translated into English in 1771, extending his influence much further. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a ‘poet’s poet’ and writers and thinkers as varied as Thoreau, Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Wilberforce Clarke fell under his spell. Most famously, the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was inspired to write an anthology of poems (‘diwan’ which means a collection or assembly in Arabic) titled West-östliche Divan (West-Eastern Divan) in 1814-19. It would be Goethe’s last great cycle of poetry (there are twelve books with exotic titles) and was stimulated by the translation of Hafiz’ poems by orientalist Joseph von Hammer but also by his infatuation and correspondence with Austrian dancer and actress Marianne von Willemer. Goethe immortalises her in one of the twelve books (Buch Suleika) of the cycle.
Goethe was deeply interested in the Middle East; at 23, he had written a poem in praise of the Prophet Mohammed. He became increasingly fascinated with the Qur’an and by the elevated style of Islamic scripture, as a holy text and as poetry. He saw in Hafez a ‘twin soul’, a kindred spirit. Goethe’s life-affirming and sensual Divan is essentially a ‘response’, a love poem to Hafiz. His output brought the lyric mode of the Oriental tradition to European poetry, taking poetry back to its musical roots and reintroducing words to the physical pulse of song.
They both lived in interesting times: Hafiz had seen Persia invaded by Timurlane and even met him; Goethe had lived through the Napoleonic Wars, and likewise met the invader, Napoleon. Goethe loved also the contradictions within Hafiz: religious yet unorthodox; virtuoso poet yet hedonist; earthy and ethereal.
In the centre of a park in Goethe’s city Weimar, there is a contemporary bronze and stone sculpture to commemorate his West-östliche Divan: two grand chairs face each other across a stone base, decorated with Arabic script. The quote from Goethe translates: “Those who know themselves and others/Will realise here too/That the Orient and the Occident/Have become Inseparable.” Goethe’s Divan is a salutation to the Orient.
Over a century and a half later, when Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said (1935-2003) wrote his famous book ‘Orientalism’ (1978), a critical study of the inaccurate cultural representations that influenced how the West regards the East, he made a distinction between Goethe’s work on the one hand, and those of others who sought to appropriate the Orient. The phrase “west-eastern” in the title refers not just to an exchange between Germany and the Middle East, but also between Latin and Persian culture, as well as the Christian and Muslim cultures. Goethe saw that both sides would gain by this inter-cultural dialogue.
Said through a chance meeting became a great friend of Argentinean-Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, and their exchanges on music, culture and humanity inevitably addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They realised the “urgent need for an alternative way” to resolve this impasse.
Together they founded in 1999 an orchestra incorporating Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians. The title of the Goethe work seemed apt as a name for this ensemble, and Weimar the logical choice for its first workshop. But there was an additional significance; to quote from the orchestra’s website: “Meeting in Weimar, Germany – a place where the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment are overshadowed by the Holocaust – they materialized a hope to replace ignorance with education, knowledge and understanding; to humanize the other; to imagine a better future.”
In 2002, the orchestra was given a home in Seville in Andalucia; the region was once famed for its ‘convivencia’, a sustained co-existence among Muslims, Christians and Jews in Europe. The orchestra website is quadrilingual: Arabic, Hebrew, English and Spanish.
By bringing together Arab and Israeli musicians, the West-Eastern Divan orchestra defies fierce political divides in the Middle East. As Barenboim often explains, when two musicians share a music stand and play a note together, all extraneous differences vanish, and a commonality is established, which is the foundation for dialogue and understanding, of ‘harmony’ in more ways than one.
In his words: “The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to…create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”
The orchestra performed at the BBC Proms festival at the Royal Albert Hall London this year, their twelfth performance at this prestigious festival since their first invitation there in 2003, barely four years after their inception, quite an achievement. I listened to that concert via internet radio, and it was heartening to see Israeli cellist Ali Tal (who recently performed as part of the Fidelio Piano Trio with Patricia Rozario in Goa at the Child’s Play benefit concert ) in its ranks.
Barenboim was keen also to bring Iranian musicians, although Iran is strictly speaking not an Arab country. Nevertheless it is a significant factor in the Middle East, and perhaps the inclusion is also a nod to Hafiz.
(An edited version of this article was published on 4 October 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)