Musical Diplomacy in the Middle East: 1993-1995

Thirty years ago this month the world watched as Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat joined US President Clinton on the White House lawn to sign what became known as the Oslo Accord. Nowhere was that being more closely watched than at the Canadian Coast Guard College, where wary naval, coast guard and other maritime professionals from Israel, the PLO and a number of neighbouring Arab countries were meeting for the first time.

A Canadian Link

The Middle East Peace Process, launched in Madrid in 1991, followed two tracks. The first was direct bilateral negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians. The second addressed multilateral issues, engaging some forty regional and non-regional participants in five working groups, one of which addressed “Arms Control and Regional Security”. Early in 1993, the ACRS Working Group asked Canada to take the lead on maritime confidence-building measures, based on its naval and coast guard expertise, active role in ACRS, and long history of peacekeeping in the region (as well as capacity-building for the Palestinian Coastal Police). It would focus on two issues. One, led by the Canadian Coast Guard, was Search and Rescue; a clearly humanitarian and non-political obligation on all states. The other, led by the Navy (in those days called “Maritime Command”), was confidence-building between navies. As Senior Staff Officer Doctrine at naval headquarters I was desk officer for an agreement with Russia for preventing unwanted and unintended incidents at sea, so this was my bailiwick. Besides, on a personal level, a tour with the European Community Monitoring Mission during the war in Yugoslavia had spurred a deep interest in conflict resolution.

Singing Sailors

It was fortunate that our first gathering began on the same day as the Washington event. Most of these former enemies had never actually met anyone from the other side, so the Canadian diplomatic hosts were anxious to set the right tone. There would be no formalities and we would all wear casual civilian dress. When time for the broadcast approached, we broke from our initial working sessions to gather in front of a large television in the instructors’ lounge. Arabs, Israelis, Canadians and extra-regional supporters of the process all held our breath. Many doubted that Rabin would shake the hand of a terrorist. But he did, and there was a collective cheer and applause all round.

Canadian Coast Guard College
Canadian Coast Guard College – Sydney NS

That evening the mood remained up-beat as we travelled by bus for dinner at the restored 18th Century fortress of Louisbourg. Near the end of the meal, musicians in period costume joined us to share traditional French folk songs. To enhance the spirit of togetherness I requested the well-known “Chevalier de la Table Ronde” because it has an easy sing-along chorus. They didn’t know it, so I stood up and sang a couple of verses, with everyone joining in the chorus of “oui, oui, oui” and “non, non, non”. Claps and cheers. Then someone suggested that the Americans show Canadians how it’s done, but they declined politely, whether out of dignity or shyness I don’t know. So I offered to help them out with a verse of “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew”. That prompted an ebullient Russian diplomat to his feet. “Ha!” he announced with a thump of the chest. “Americans cannot sing, but I am Russian and we sing! And with that he launched into a rousing rendition of something called “There Lived a Captain Brave”. More claps and cheers. Catching the spirit, the Chinese attaché and a few others from non-Middle East nations volunteered national favourites. And then, sensing we were on a roll, a certain Canadian naval officer who will remain unnamed raised some worried diplomatic eyebrows by challenging folk from the region: “So, do Arabs sing?” A burly, outgoing Coast Guard officer from Bahrain was up like a shot. “Of course – I’m Arab and I will sing”. After sharing a Bahraini tune he challenged his Arab colleagues to match him, and they entered into the spirit. And finally, of course, we called out the Israelis: “Come on, you can’t hide in the corner. Up you get!”, and they led a rousing chorus of “Hava Nagila”. That’s Hebrew for “Let us rejoice”, which couldn’t have been a more fitting climax to a memorable day.

Street in Louisbourg
A street in Fortress Louisbourg

All this may sound very trivial, but it served a very practical function. Lifetime enemies who had arrived with varying degrees of suspicion and uncertainty, joined in singing together from Day One. For the next three years, one of the first questions whenever we got together was “When is the sing-song?” We even produced a “Middle East Peace Process Songbook”, although sadly I can’t find a copy now. In my experience before and since, once you get sailors into the same room to solve a problem, they are just fellow sailors and a lot of politics drop aside. But that’s a subject for future stories.

Mischievous Russians

A year later there was a brief flutter of excitement at Canada’s naval headquarters when a fax arrived from the Russian Foreign Ministry addressed, not through the formal official channels, but to me personally. It was from the Senior Counsellor who had sung “Captain Brave” at Louisbourg. Aside from nice words about a recently concluded event, he included Russian lyrics for the English folk song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”, asking me to check that the translation was okay.

It took a bit of explaining to satisfy our security people that I didn’t actually speak Russian, had no regular contacts with either the Russian Foreign Ministry or Embassy, and that certain pesky Russian diplomats had a wicked sense of humour. As did my Admiral, who never did let me live it down.

Fax from Russia

Photo Credits:
Feature image of the handshake – Wikimedia Commons
Canadian Coast Guard College – CCG College
Louisbourg – Paul McKinnon/shutterstock, via