A new arts festival now taking shape in Germany may help avert a "war of civilizations" by highlighting a shared reverence in the Islamic world and the West for classical poetry and fine art.
Goethe and Schiller prepare to welcome Persian poet Hafez to Weimer
The Divan Festival is to be staged in successive weeks next year in two fabled towns: Shiraz, the Iranian city of poets, wine and flowers, and Weimar, the central German home of the great German poets and writers.
The idea is to build bridges between European culture and the Islamic nations.
"Shiraz will be the first host in June 2009," explained the event's artistic director, Klaus Gallas, in an interview with DPA news agency. A 15-day Iranian culture program will then take place in August 2009 in Weimar.
The program will comprise concerts, literary readings and art exhibitions.
Gallas intends to hold the Divan Festival every year thereafter in both Weimar and a changing partner city in Iran or the Arab world. He said talks were already under way with the United Arab Emirates on a venue there in 2010.
The word "divan" has passed into several western languages meaning a collection of poetry. This was inspired by the Divan of Hafez.
Its author, Hafez, was a Persian mystic and poet born about 1325 in Shiraz. Sams ud-Din Mohammed Hafez lived till 1390 and his Divan collection of subtly ambiguous poetry is admired in many countries.
The title was mirrored by the West-Eastern Divan, the title of an 1819 collection of poems in a quasi-Persian style by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) who lived in Weimar and is revered as Germany's greatest poet, dramatist and novelist.
"We are calling the event the West-Eastern Divan Festival to commemorate both Goethe and Hafez," said the organizer.
A 1999 West-Eastern Divan monument in Weimar, in the form of two high-backed chairs carved out of stone and facing one another, already represents the two great national poets in virtual dialogue and recalls Goethe's cross-cultural interests.
Barenboim's orchestra is composed of Israelis and Arabs
The Argentine-born conductor Daniel Barenboim has also used the name, separately setting up a West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Weimar.
The city, which has given its name to the 1919-1933 pre-Nazi Weimar Republic in Germany, is a magnet for intellectual tourists because of its links with Goethe and other leading German poets.
"We aim to hold a cultural festival in Weimar that will be influential in the whole of Europe," said Gallas. "It will oppose the tendency to think in terms of blocks, east and west, occidental and oriental.
"The objective is to expose how we are mutually reluctant to be friends, how we are bound by our prejudices and misconceptions," said Gallas, who describes himself as a historian of culture. He has visited Iran several times, the first time more than 30 years ago.
Project gets German governmental backing
Gallas said he had won government encouragement from the German Foreign Ministry, the Goethe Institute which promotes German culture abroad, the Federal Culture Fund which promotes culture within Germany and the municipality of Weimar.
Steinmeier agreed to give his patronage
"Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has agreed to be the patron," said Gallas, who has now taken the step of legally incorporating the West-Eastern Divan Festival Weimar as a non-profit society.
"The next step is to apply for public subsidies," said Gallas, who adds that he has set up a board of cultural advisers.
Its membership would include Mumbai-born classical music conductor Zubin Mehta, who has twice conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Weimar.
Two German orchestras will be led by Iranian conductors in concerts at the opening and closing of the Festival under Gallas' plan.
"In between those dates there will be public readings from the works of Goethe and Hafez, exhibitions by contemporary artists and concerts of Iranian classical and popular music," said Gallas, 66, who has been working on the project for more than a year.
He denied in the interview that he was encroaching on Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
"I am in dialogue with Barenboim," he said.