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 International: “Arabesque”

Artby: Dr. James J. Zogby, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Last Friday, the "Weekend" section of The Washington Post featured a cover story on "Arabesque: Art of the Arab World," the Kennedy Center's three-week-long festival of Arab arts and culture. There is no better way to begin a reflection on the program than to quote the opening lines of the marvelous "Weekend" review by Ellen McCarthy. She wrote:

"The residents of Washington might not know it yet, but something extraordinary is about to take place on the banks of the Potomac.

Something that has never happened here - or anywhere, really."

McCarthy was so right. From the moment the curtains opened on "Arabesque's" first night, I knew something quite remarkable was occurring, and I was, quite simply, overwhelmed.

"Arabesque" is a wonder. ...

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Negotiating the logistics and politics necessary to assemble the festival was monumental. Locating the talent, securing visas, transporting sets, costumes and works of art was, itself, a remarkable undertaking, a tribute to the foresight and vision of the Kennedy Center's Director, Michael Kaiser, and the determination and the commitment of his staff to see the project to fruition.

Five years in the making, the director and staff of Washington's prestigious Kennedy Center traveled across the Arab world to assemble a wide range of artists from all 22 Arab countries. Eight hundred performers in all have come to the US, from the traditional (Berber singers from Morocco) to the more avant-garde (Marcel Khalife or Debbie Allen's remarkable "Omani Dancers"). There were musicians, singers, dancers, poets, painters, storytellers, artists and craftsmen represented in the group.

"Arabesque" provides Americans and Arabs alike with a profound learning experience. As Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa noted, never before have artists from all 22 Arab countries been represented under one roof in one festival. As the festival unfolds over its three-week run, tens of thousands of Americans will see the richness and diversity of Arab culture, in all its many exquisite forms.

On each day of the program, there are multiple events taking place on the Kennedy Center's many stages. On one night, for example, there were Syrian dervish dancers, a performance by a Palestinian theater troupe and a Somali hip-hop group. At the same time, the Kennedy Center's interior has been transformed. There are exhibits of Arab bridal dresses and examples of Arabic architecture. And the basement of the Kennedy Center has become a veritable Arab souk, displaying crafts from Morocco to Iraq, for appreciation by and sale to the thousands of tourists who visit the Kennedy Center each day.

Arabs, too, will learn. As I have come to note, not only do Americans (and even Arab Americans) not know the richness and diversity of Arab culture, but Arabs, too, have not been exposed to the variety of cultural expression across their broad region. We "know of" each other, but do not always "know" each other. But, here we are, thanks to the Kennedy Center, all under one roof.

The experience of "Arabesque" will shatter stereotypes, and put new definition to the meaning of being Arab. For too many Americans, Arabs exist only as one-dimensional political beings, lacking hearts or souls.

I remember what was, for me, a profoundly hurtful moment: on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, hearing comments by then Prime Minister Golda Meir, who observed that she felt "so sad" for the "other side" (read: "Arabs"). We (read: "Israelis") are a joyful people, who laugh, make art and love beauty. They, on the other hand, know only how to be angry and make war. This, of course, was but an elaboration of a theme developed by Chaim Weizmann in the 1930s , when he characterized the conflict that was unfolding in the region as being between "the forces of civilization and the barbarism of the desert." This was later given artistic form in the book and film "Exodus," which portrayed Israelis as fully human, and Arabs as one-dimensional war-like figures, without value.

During the next three weeks, this caricature of Arabs will be destroyed.

And, so, when the curtain rose on the opening night of Arabesque, and I saw 140 Syrian children of the Al-Farah Choir, I was, in fact, overwhelmed. Thankful, that after 30 years of combating negative stereotypes and defending my heritage, I would see the day when, in my nation's premier cultural center, there would be a celebration of Arab arts and letters. The culture of my people was being recognized. I looked at the smiles and joyful movements of those youngsters and felt pride in their accomplishment. They are our little ambassadors. They, and the hundreds of others on the program who traveled thousands of miles to join the festival, were defining, better than any politicians, what it means to be an Arab, using the universal language of art.

There are lessons to be learned from "Arabesque." It should be repeated. The seeds that have been planted by this festival will grow on their own - but how much better if they are nurtured and cultivated? The lesson here is that, not only is the Arab past glorious, but that the present and future are as well. All of us owe thanks to the Kennedy Center for reminding us of that, and challenging us to do better at remembering it.


Dr. James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.


[05 March 2009]

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