In 2004 the English press—specifically newspapers that are usually rather critical, The Guardian and The Observer—covered some western classical music initiatives in Ramallah led by the celebrated conductor Daniel Barenboim. They were wildly admiring, while also reproducing imperialistic discourses about Arabs and Europe (the former in need of the latter’s civilizing missions). I embarked on research, and 9 years later published this book, an examination of western art music in the history and contemporary situation of Palestine. (Follow this link for an interview with me about it). I offer an exploration of three types of musical imperialism—religious, state, and neoliberal—through a study of music in European and American missions to Palestinians since 1840. The book is also a reflection on the legacy of theorist and activist Edward W. Said.


Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West is an important contribution to ongoing debates over the current state and future of Western art music and education, the use of music as a means of resolution or amelioration ofconflict, the expedience of culture in the current neoliberal moment, and numerous related topics. It should be central to any discussion of musical missions, whether these be religious, humanitarian, or explicitly political in orientation.” — Benjamin Brinner, twentieth-century music

“Rachel Beckles Willson’s Orientalism and Musical Mission is an important, original and thought-provoking book.” — Ruth HaCohen, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication.

“Beckles Willson’s complex, sensitive, but unsentimental and sometimes ruthless examination of the way in which power and colonial attitudes underlie these events and relationships — even those underpinned by the most well-meaning intentions. As such, this is an important book, albeit a challenging one for the non-specialist in Palestinian history, and one which deserves to be read well beyond a “musical history” niche.” — Sarah Irving, The Electronic Intifada

“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. … the book provides a fascinating history of musical activities in Palestine since the end of the eighteenth century. … 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. … this is a very good book that will interest and delight scholars working on Middle East studies, orientalism, music, and non-governmental organizations.” — Nadim Khoury, Society and Space

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