The Lebanese cellist Nassib Ahmadieh doesn't play for your average orchestra. He forms part of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, a project launched in 1999 by the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian academic Edward Said. Named after an anthology of poems by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the orchestra is made up of Arab and Israeli citizens. Since its inception, it has met annually for rehearsals and performed in cities around the world, including at a high-security concert in Ramallah in 2005.
Ahmadieh visited the UAE this week to attend the inaugural screening of Paul Smaczny's Emmy-winning documentary on the orchestra, Knowledge Is the Beginning, and to answer questions on the project. As a long-standing member, it's a subject which he talks firmly and openly about. "We don't have political ambition," he says. "We're not trying to engage in any political activity or to correct decisions that the government has taken. We just want to practise our freedom and see things for ourselves."
Born in Kuwait and raised in Lebanon, Ahmadieh became involved in the orchestra after being invited to audition from the Beirut Conservatory in 2000. In order to return to the Divan after his first year, Ahmadieh auditioned two further consecutive years. "But after three years maybe they know that you're suited," he says. "Because it's not only about having good musicians, it's most important that they fit the project. There are good musicians all over the world, millions of them. But we need people who fit with the workshop because we don't get any money out of it, so that means you have to really engage."
Engage, that is, in the idea of co-operation between Arab and Israeli musicians. "Communication through music is the biggest lesson we can ever have - letting each other express what we have to say," Ahmadieh says. He is surprisingly open when it comes to discussing the controversial nature of the orchestra, where political debates are actively encouraged as the legacy of Said's efforts (he died in 2003 of leukaemia).
"Maestro Barenboim took charge of the music and Edward Said took charge of the cultural, political and education side of things," says Ahmadieh. "Though, actually, I won't call it an education. It was more like putting a discussion on the table." Said's wife, Miriam, has now taken over her late husband's role. "She's responsible for inviting intellectuals, and we have wonderful opportunities to talk to people who, I must say, living in the Arab world, I wouldn't have the chance to meet otherwise.
"[The discussions] are hot sometimes," Ahmadieh says. "People do leave the room. You're not polite or diplomatic but just say what you think." It is this exchange of ideas and provision of a meeting point that is so central to the project. "For us Lebanese, we have restrictions. We cannot go to the occupied territories, we cannot go to Israel. The only thing we hear is what we're told, so it's very important for us to have contact with these people. I have lots of friends that I communicate with from Israel now."
Currently, the Divan consists of 120 musicians from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel, as well as Spain, where the summer rehearsal camp is based. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Ahmadieh says, "Spain was the perfect example of an intercultural exchange. Jews, Muslims and Christians had a chance to coexist." Barenboim and Said came up with the idea of rehearsing in Spain, and the Spanish government agreed. It has supported the orchestra ever since, going so far as to organise diplomatic passports for the orchestra's 2005 concert date in Ramallah.
It was an ambitious undertaking for the group, and many dropped out through fear or pressure from family and friends. To get there, the Arab, Israeli and Spanish musicians travelled in three separate convoys, with the Israelis allowed in for one day only and escorted back out by the police as soon as the concert was finished. "It was one of my biggest dreams to go to Ramallah and see for myself," Ahmadieh says. "And it was one of the most important things we've ever achieved in the Divan."
The concert there also inspired Barenboim to do other projects in the area: a kindergarten, a music conservatory and scholarships for talented musicians. Sadly, the recent events in Gaza led him to cancel two of the orchestra's concerts, scheduled this month in Qatar and Egypt. Ahmadieh remains upbeat. "Said and Barenboim said that the full dimension of the workshop will only be achieved if this orchestra could play in every capital that is being represented in it," he says. Until then, it seems he and the Divan remain determined to play on.