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Rachel Beckles Willson, Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 364 pages, £65.00/$99.00 hardback. ISBN: 978-1-1070-3656-7.

“Music is universal” is a platitude that one often hears in situations of conflict—contexts where messages of universal peace are crowded out by the roars of nationalism, war, and oppression. Supporting this cliché is the soundtrack of Western classical music, the harmonious sounds of the symphony orchestra that provides a model for human togetherness. It is this cliché and its soundtrack that Rachel Beckles Willson successfully deconstructs in Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West. Whether one believes in the cliché or is tired of hearing it, one will find a great deal to learn in Beckles Willson’s book.

The book’s subject matter is Western classical music in historical Palestine. Beckles Willson is not so much interested in musical pieces themselves; her focus is on musical projects, or what she rightly calls, musical missions—projects aimed at researching music, teaching music, setting up orchestras, and opening conservatories. Her starting point is the West Bank and specifically the city of Ramallah, where such projects have soared in the last two decades. A noteworthy example that sets off the book is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra that is sponsored by the Barenboim-Said Foundation. The orchestra gathers young Arabs, Jews, and Spaniards for a workshop and concert tour every year. According to its website, while the orchestra’s members had only interacted with each other “through the prism of war,” thanks to the orchestra they have now “found themselves living and working together as equals.” It was western classical music that helped them traverse “deep political and ideological divides.” Here is the cliché at its best, and it offers Beckles Willson a platform for her critique.

The book offers a historical narrative of NGOs and foundations such as the Barenboim-Said Foundation, but it takes us down an unusual and unexpected path, all the way back to the late eighteenth century. “Many of these NGOs, charities and foundations,” Beckles Willson argues, “grew out of ‘single-issue movements’ that were led by dissenting British Protestants in the late eighteenth century, whose missionaries … disseminated their moral and social ideals worldwide” (page 292). The key words here are “grew-out” and “missionaries.” Growing out suggests a kind of organic development, a direct and evolutionary link between the late eighteenth-century missionaries and contemporary musical NGOs. Beckles Willson does notice some direct links; for example, she shows how people behind the Palestinian National Conservatory had family members who had worked in historical missions, missionary schools and/or the Anglican Church (page 221), but this is not the basis of her history. Instead, the book can be read as an attempt at a genealogy in the Nietzschean and the Foucauldian sense. “Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people,” writes Foucault, “on the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion” (Rabinow, 1984: 81). Beckles Willson’s narrative can be seen as a philosophical history that points to the ideational and conceptual links that pull together  eighteenth-century Protestant missionaries and twenty-first-century NGOs. For both of them, she argues, music is a tool for the “West” to morally reform subjects in the “East.” Today’s musical activists “may be considered as a new type of ‘missionary’” (page 292).

The book begins in the late eighteenth  century with renewed European imperial interests in the region. The Ottoman Empire was slowly dying, clearing the way for the European great powers to encroach on its territory, especially Egypt and Palestine. But whereas “Egyptian penetration was dominated by commercial and military ambitions,” writes Wilson, “claims to Palestine were almost all based on modern Bible study” (page 37). Imperial presence in Palestine would allow Europeans to reconnect with the bible, both spiritually and materially. The way to do so was through modern biblical study—i.e. the attempt to scientifically examine the Bible by conducting topographical, linguistic, and archaeological research on a land considered holy (Aiken, 2010). The scientific study of Palestine was heralded by religious scholars, whose purpose was to discover, uncover, and recover its biblical heritage and legacy.

In this enterprise, the science of geography played a key role. This was the holy land, after all, and geography would help uncover and chart the terrain on which the events of the Old and New Testament took place. Beckles Willson adds that music played an equally important role, albeit an underexplored one. In fact, if sacred geography was a way for these religious scholars to materially reconnect with the Bible, music was a way reconnect with it spiritually. In chapter two, Wilsson carefully delves into the works of the German missionaries, especially Gustaf Dalman’s (1855-1941) Palastinischer Diwan. Dalman hoped to recapture the last echoes of biblical music in the folklore of Palestinian peasants. Since the peasants had not yet been corrupted by civilization and modernity, they provided the closest link to the biblical past. Interestingly, the early Zionist movement would develop a similar conception of the Palestinian peasant, claiming that these were direct descendants of the ancient Israelites—Jews that were so attached to the land that they preferred conversion to exile. In both cases, we see the same logic at work, a logic that was articulated in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Dalman, very much like the Zionist movement after him, was not researching Palestinian peasants to better understand them. Rather, by projecting European theology onto the Palestinian population, he was studying himself and his Christian faith (page 51). What Dalman saw in the Near East was filtered and shaped by his religious imaginary. This projection was an imposition, insists Beckles Willson, “an imposition of Christian belief on non-Christians, by assuming the supremacy of the Bible above all other texts and indeed all cultural practices” (page 51). Here, empire and culture work hand in hand; the process begins with cultural imposition and ends with political dispossession.

What many missionaries brought with them was not only the projections and their fantasies, but also Western classical music. In chapter three, Beckles Willson moves from the research of peasant music to the education of classical music. Here the link with the missionaries is clear, since it was missionary schools such as the Friends School in Ramallah that added Western classical music to their curriculum. Beckles Willson delves into the archives of these missionary schools and explores how these sought to produce a certain kind of subject, and how they used music—especially singing—as a tool of consolation, spiritual fortification, and community-building (page 138). From the schools, Beckles Willson then moves to the radio. Chapter four focuses specifically on the PBS—The Palestinian Broadcasting Service—a radio broadcasting service created by the British in 1936. This is a fascinating chapter that uses the microcosm of the PBS to think more broadly about British policies during the Mandate period. “The chapter,” writes Beckles Willson, “is a case study in the management of people through music” (page 160). Beckles Willson focuses specifically on how the PBS divided its airtime to Arab, Jewish, and British listeners. She argues that it was the negotiation of these divisions that would set the ground for their future political divisions. The author convincingly shows how the PBS did not simply cater to already existing groups. The radio worked very much like the  missionary schools; it produced subjects and reproduced them, this time at a much bigger scale. The chapter should be read alongside works that stress the importance of media-capitalism in creating national imaginaries, such as the writings of Benedict Anderson (1991) and, more recently, Ziad Fahmy (2011).

The second part of the book focuses on the period following the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. It is marked by a change of methodology. Rather than focussing on archival research and history, the book moves to ethnographic work and anthropology. The subjects this time are the many music institutions involved in promoting Western classical music in Palestine, with foundations such as Barenboim-Said and Al-Kamandjati, amongst others, and events such as the Sounding Jerusalem Festival and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s concert in Ramallah in 2005. The last chapter concludes with the profile of the musicians that partake in these activities. This is a detailed portrait of the “contemporary missionaries,” those who have shed the theological components of their mission, but have fully embraced the belief that Western classical music is a tool of human harmony and reform.

The book’s main contribution is that it provides readers with three invaluable tools: the first is conceptual, the second is historical, and the third is political. Conceptually, Beckles Willson offers us a lens—the concept of mission—through which we can understand musical activism that has been present in Palestine since the late eighteenth century. This lens can be applied to many other countries, but Palestine is important as the locus of analysis. First of all, Palestine was—and still is—a primary location for missionary activities. Second, Palestine is a laboratory of peace activism that is backed by a multi-million dollar peace industry that has spawned all sorts of projects to create a culture of dialogue and peace. For these two reasons, the focus on Palestine is justified.

Historically, the book provides a fascinating history of musical activities in Palestine since the end of the eighteenth century. One may be tempted to think that this is peripheral since historical Palestine was never a center of musical production. This holds for Western classical music as well as for Arabic music. In fact, it was only at the end of the twentieth century that Palestinian musicians made a name and a style for themselves on the Arab music scene—one thinks of bands like Sabreen, ensembles like the Joubran Trio, and soloists like Khaled Jubran. Nonetheless, the history of music in the area is interesting because of the light it sheds on social and political history. For example, the focus on Wasif Jawharriyeh, a Palestinian musician that lived in Jerusalem during the Mandate Period, provides a fascinating insight in the relationship between Jews and Arabs, something of a history from below, that is refreshingly different from the history from above. This section also departs from the fantasized Jerusalem of the missionaries, and offers a nuanced and textured description of people’s lives under the Mandate Period.

Politically, Beckles Willson gives us the tools through which we can critique a dangerous kind of peace activism that has grown since the Oslo Accords and that inadvertently furthers/aids the Israeli occupation. By tracing the roots of contemporary musical NGOs to an orientalist and colonialist framework, she teases out the imperialist dimensions of such missions. In this sense, the book joins the ranks of growing critiques of foreign aid and NGOs that have proliferated since the Oslo Accords. This is a nuanced critique that does not show the Palestinian as passive recipients, but as active actors that have come to critique these activities and resist them in their own way.

But trying to hit these three birds—the conceptual, historical, and political—with one stone—the notion of mission—is not an easy task. Owing more to the nature of the project than to the skills of Beckles Willson, one is sometimes lost within the rich array of details provided in the book. The unity between the chapters is affected, and so is the conceptual and narrative arch. The author is aware of this danger, especially as she moves from the first historical section of the book to the second (page 32). Therefore, the book could have benefited from sections that clearly highlight the connections. What is also missing from the discussion are other forms of music that do not fit the Western classical music-Arabic music dichotomy. In the last decade, Palestine has witnessed the rise of rap, heavy metal, and electronic music. A look at these genres could confirm Beckles Willson’s theory or complicate it, and as such they deserve a place in the discussion. This said, this is a very good book that will interest and delight scholars working on Middle East studies, orientalism, music, and non-governmental organizations. 


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