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A New Divan: East-West dialogue 200 years after Goethe

Grzegorz Szymanowski
November 25, 2019

In his "West-Eastern Divan" published 200 years ago, Goethe promoted the idea of cultural proximity between Orient and Occident. The festival "A New Divan" in Berlin aimed at revisiting his idea.

Graffiti by Bahia Shehab
Wall painting of Cairo-based artist Bahia Shehab on the Greek island CephaloniaImage: DW/B. Shehab

Guillem Palomar spent four months working on his piece. Four months, all for just eight minutes, the duratino of the 22-year-old composition student's setting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poem Wo hast du das genommen (Where Did You Get This?) from the collection "West-Eastern Divan." In it, Goethe described a circling, nomadic pulse of life, through "an immeasurable distance / In an ocean of stars," which fascinated him and made him feel "as if newly-born."

Guillem Palomar
Guillem PalomarImage: DW/G. Szymanowski

"For me, this means that you find yourself not within your own comfort zone, but by running out of it and getting lost," Palomar told DW.

The fascination for the unknown is a similarity he sees between Goethe and the famous 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. It was the reading of Hafiz's poems that moved Goethe to write his own "Divan" — the term stands for "oriental poetry collection" — between 1814 and 1819. Germany's most famous man of letters went as far as describing the Persian author as his "twin brother in spirit." In his view, East and West were two sides of a coin: "The Orient and the Occident can no longer be separated."

In the tradition of Goethe

Two hundred years later, calls for a separation from the Islamic world are growing louder in Western countries. That a young composer today would dedicate himself to the relationship of Goethe and Hafiz is an outcome of the festival "A New Divan," held last week at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin. With lectures and panel discussions, an exhibition and concert, the events sought to revive Goethe's idea of an artistic dialogue between East and West.

Named after the famous Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim and the deceased Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, the Barenboim-Said Academy itself stands in the tradition of Goethe's work. Twenty years ago, Barenboim and Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians: an artistic peace initiative in spite of the Middle East conflict.

Barenboim und Said
Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said in 2002Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Among the musicians trained at the academy in Berlin since 2016 is Guillem Palomar. The world premiere of his piece In the Ocean of the Stars at the end of the festival was given by two young Divan orchestra members, a baritone and the 77-year-old Daniel Barenboim himself. The event also included music by Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann.

The German edition of the book "A New Divan" was also presented at the festival, for which 12 poets from West and East respectively wrote poems for each of the 12 motifs of Goethe's Divan. They include well-known names such as the Syrian poet Adonis and Durs Grünbein from Germany.

Empty gestures of reconciliation?

After being invited to participate in the project, the 53-year-old Egyptian poet Iman Mersal, now living and teaching in Canada, reread Goethe's Divan but remained unimpressed by the idea of ​​dialogue through art.

Iman Mersal
Iman MersalImage: DW/G. Szymanowski

"I was overwhelmed by the complexity of West-Eastern relations and doubted whether poetry could contribute to fixing them," Mersal told DW. "For me, poetry is very personal and deeply rooted, I do not buy the idea of ​​dialogue initiated by a book." She also feels that it is not the task of artists to represent political ideas, so her contribution to the book is a poem about love.

Mersal's skepticism seems understandable; Goethe's work never became popular. It is often mentioned in gestures of reconciliation but rarely read. "A New Divan" also seems to appeal to a rather narrow, literary-interested audience.

The smart premises of the new Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin-Mitte were well filled with students and culturally savvy audiences. "I live in Neukölln (Ed: a Berlin district heavily populated by migrant communities) and do not know how this event could reach my neighbors," said Ali, a 29-year-old PhD student who came to one of the movie presentations with a friend.

In contrast to her initial skepticism, Iman Mersal sees the added value of the festival in the gathering of poets who would otherwise not meet: "By reading poems and getting to know the others personally, I can deal with this controversial topic, reconcile and let it go a bit." Mersal adds, "We need to value and use such opportunities, because otherwise we can not even pretend that East and West can be brought together."

Discussions eye-to-eye

Stefan Weidner, Islamic scholar
Stefan WeidnerImage: DW/G. Szymanowski

The biggest difference to Goethe's times is that today, direct exchange is possible, says Stefan Weidner, one of the translators of the "New Divan." Goethe himself had no contact to living Islamic culture. Hafiz's poems were already over 400 years old when Goethe wrote his answer to them. "It was an imaginary dialogue with a dead man, by whom Goethe was inspired, but from whom there was no echo," says Weidner.

For many European artists, on the other hand, the East has long been seen in the light of a supposed Western superiority. That "oriental question" cleared the way for colonialism. Even today, when most Nobel Prizes go to Western writers, the readiness of the Western literary world to look beyond its own cultural context is questionable.

"Today we must maintain contact with living Islamic culture and take it seriously as a partner in dialogue," warns Weidner. That means: listen, translate as faithfully as possible and enter into discussion. Stefan Weidner is certain: "If we do this with the same interest as Goethe did back in his time, we will do it right." According to Weidner, a new kind of world literature is being created by those writers who venture across borders and seek answers to questions not confined to their own regions.

Stone slabs resembling chairs face each other in a forested setting
Hafiz-Goethe monument in WeimarImage: Imago Images

A common destiny

A panel discussion with Homero Aridjis, a Mexican writer of Greek origin who creates "ecopoetry" aimed at provoking concern for the environment, is one example of that.

Moreover, the exhibition of the Cairo-based Lebanese artist Bahia Shehab showed that this intercultural enterprise need not be confined to literature. On walls around the world, Shehab paints quotes from poems by the Palestinian lyricist Mahmud Darwish. With them, she intends to illustrate a common human destiny. On the Greek island of Cephalonia she drew attention to the tragedy of dead refugees. "Those who have no land have no sea" are the words by Darwish she quoted in Arabic script, the letters arranged to suggest sinking ships.

Composition student Guillem Palomar takes a similar view. At its core, he says, cultures and religions, such as Christianity and Islam, are very similar. "Art is there to symbolically express this similarity," he says. Coming from Spain, where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully side by side for centuries and where Jewish mystics wrote in Arabic, Palomar adds, "I believe that art is greater than the egocentrism that separates us."

On the final evening of the festival, as cellist Astrig Siranossian and horn player Ben Goldscheider of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, together with baritone Michael Volle and Daniel Barenboim at the piano, performed Palomar's mysterious, atonal, slowly building composition, that aim seemed to have been reached — at least for eight minutes.