A musician, Barenboim believes, can offer a useful model for considering the "big, existential questions of life and society" anew. "Musicians are used to looking at the same printed page every day from scratch and always making it new." He gestures at the piano. "You know, we played the Liszt concertos six times in different cities in the past week, but today we will not go to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, Pierre Boulez and the Staatskapelle and I, and repeat something we did either rather well or not so well in the previous concert. We will have to start completely from scratch. But we will have the added knowledge of the last time." So the lesson of music is about accruing wisdom, and not repeating the mistakes of history? He nods. "I don't mean to sound fatalistic, but I truly think these two events happened in order to say to all of us, to the population of the planet: beware, and think long term."
. . .
If the world appeared stunned by the passion and energy driving the Arab youth uprisings, Barenboim was surely not. No stranger to political confrontation himself – the Israeli Knesset declared him persona non grata a decade ago, while many Palestinians accuse him of encouraging "normalisation" by inviting Arabs to "collaborate" with Jews through music – he has surrounded himself with revolutionary youngsters from this region for the past 12 years. The Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iranian musicians of the West-Eastern Divan may not be practising self-immolation. But simply by attending the orchestral tour every summer, alongside their Israeli counterparts, they are committing a form of resistance. It is worth remembering that not a single government represented in its ranks gives their blessing to its existence.
Nor do they hold on to their ideal of peaceful co-existence in some kind of utopian fantasy: every year, about 150 beating hearts and open minds, an equal ratio of Arabs to Israelis, come together – a model that remains unimaginable in the political sphere. "And every year," Barenboim adds proudly, "these young musicians defy their government, their families and their society." He points a finger at me – a surprisingly meaty digit given the delicacy of his pianism. "As you well know."
In 2008, Barenboim invited me to join the West-Eastern Divan as an "honorary" violinist on the orchestra's 10th anniversary tour. Between a surreal backstage audition in December, and the day we all converged in early January 2009, Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead offensive against Gaza. The tour was thrown into jeopardy: scheduled concerts in Qatar and Egypt were cancelled after security threats and some Arab members threatened a boycott. Barenboim e-mailed us all on New Year's eve expressing the heightened importance of meeting during "this difficult time", and the tour went ahead. In the ensuing three weeks, I witnessed at first hand the distinction Barenboim prefers when describing the Divan as "not an orchestra for peace, but against ignorance". The discussions about the Middle East conflict, as central as music itself, proved that scepticism about the commitment of youngsters on both sides to understand better "the other" is unfounded. And in such circumstances, Barenboim's insistence on the meaningful connections between music, in which one must listen and empathise or die, and the rest of life, became especially compelling.
"In front of a Beethoven symphony, unlike in life, these people are all equal," he insists. "My contention is that music is a weapon through which we can learn a lot about ourselves, our society and about humanity in general."
In the past few years, Barenboim has been increasingly committed to providing such "weapons" to young Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet any mention of Barenboim in the Palestinian territories inspires ambivalence. While he is outspoken in his opposition to the Israeli occupation – "the occupation has to stop, the settlements have to stop, otherwise there is no future" – many Palestinians view his bridge-building initiatives with deep suspicion, especially as the Divan has never officially denounced the occupation. As one former Palestinian member of the orchestra tells me shortly after my meeting with Barenboim, "Everyone knows that it is a beautiful thing that we can stand side by side in the orchestra, but they are not prepared to admit the reason why we cannot stand side by side anywhere except the orchestra, and that reason is the occupation."
Barenboim is unflustered by the "normalisation" accusation. "It is essential that both sides have more contact with and exercise more curiosity about the other," he tells me. "This is not a war between two nations, this is a conflict between two peoples who are both deeply convinced they have the right to live in the same little piece of land. If you drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza without checkpoints, it takes 35 minutes. But the people of Tel Aviv live in a make-believe world, as if Gaza were further away than Vietnam." There is a knock on the door, which he ignores. "The Arabs have tried to throw the Jews into the sea and it didn't work and the Jews have tried to throw the Arabs into the desert and it didn't work. Their destinies are inextricably linked."
The question of entwined destiny is particularly pertinent, I venture, when you consider the demography of Israel, where the Arab population is growing at almost twice the rate of the Jewish. Barenboim agrees. "I do not believe that the question of the Palestinians – and now I'm talking about the non-Jewish population in Israel – is really being addressed by the Israelis. If you are strong, you can win a war against your enemy. If you are very, very strong you can win a war against many enemies. But you cannot win a war against people who are amidst you ... I don't think there is a solution that can be imposed from outside. What the outside world can do is push for negotiations – not negotiations on the peace process, but negotiations on peace." At that word, peace, Barenboim stops, and looks suddenly, uncharacteristically defeated. "We are all tired of the process."