UNESCO and the Hariri Foundation join forces to harness the power of culture in the Arab world
© UNESCO/Landry Rukingamubiri
On 16 April, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and the President of the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Bahia Hariri signed an agreement to cooperate on a joint organization of events and activities relating to culture in the Arab world.
The first event held in Beirut in 2012 was the “International Arab Spring Festival”. This has provided a platform for cultural expression and intellectual debate stemming from the creativity, artistic expression and cultural diversity emerging from the Arab Spring across the Arab region. It will seek also to stimulate reflection on the role of arts and culture in building more inclusive societies and in fostering dialogue within and between states.“Protecting and promoting the arts and culture is about living and sharing the diversity of cultural expressions,” said the Director-General. “At a time of uncertainty, we must strengthen the contribution of culture to promoting respect for human rights, freedom of expression, democracy and pluralism,” she continued, stating that this festival is a chance to “address the challenges the region faces and to highlight the solutions that exist and can be developed, through intellectual exchange and debate.” “The Arab Spring peoples are trying to create a model for the freedom of expression, innovation and belief of modern and integrated cultural infrastructure,” said the President of the Hariri Foundation
Scholars revisit the Arab Left amid the Arab Spring
|Amid the sweeping Arab Spring, the Arab Left has become a crucial topic requiring further exploration, agreed a group of 12 scholars who presented their papers at a workshop hosted at AUB July 6 and 7, 2012.The “Intellectual History of the Arab Left” workshop, organized by the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES) and the University of Copenhagen, was open to the public for additional discussion and hosted scholars in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology and political science who presented their pre-circulated papers and received comments from their peers as well as the audience.The event was a follow-up to a 2011 conference on the Arab Left which took place at the Orient-Institut in Beirut.Among the contributors:Al-Hafiz’s autobiographical writings set the stage for the quest of a new self, amid the turbulent transformations of this era. The tragic character emerges from the impossibility of reconciliation between the two intertwined narratives of his biography: of gradual emancipation from the surroundings on one hand, and the repetition of thwarted political beginnings on the other. The conclusion of this twin trajectory is a disengagement from the history of Arab thought and politics.Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, associate professor of Middle East and world history at Northeastern University in Massachusetts in the United States, presented her paper, “Recasting the Intellectual History of the Arab Left: Global Radical Networks in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1870-1925.”“Arabic-writing publicists and intellectuals, many of them Syro-Lebanese, based in or around Beirut or in Egyptian cities, and who were part of a larger network linking Egypt, Syria, Brazil and North America, were generally important shapers of the Nahda,” she said.The Nahda was a cultural renaissance movement that started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Egypt, which then had spread to other Arabic countries such as Lebanon and Syria, bringing about modernization and reform.An Italian anarchist network active in Egypt also played an important role in the articulation and dissemination of leftist ideas within a predominantly Arab-Muslim society.Khuri-Makdisi argues that the presence and activities of such radical networks were central to the making of a globalized world and to the formation of visions of radicalism.”It is important to emphasize there was interest in the Arab left during this time period,” she said, referring to the late 19th early 20th centuries. “It was a global moment where ideas were circulating, and the world was connected through information, similar to now, the challenges being faced, the role of state, the Arab Spring.”Michaelle Browers, associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, the United States, presented her paper, “Mahmud Amin al-Alim: Pragmatic Commitment and the Legacy of the Critical Left from Egypt’s 1952 Generation.” “The aim of this paper is to say something more general about the transformations in what we deemed a ‘leftist intellectual’ in Egypt in the past century by looking at the life of Egyptian figure, Mahmud Amin al-Alim, editor of several newspapers and magazines, while exploring his work in academia, the arts and politics, and how he influenced the intellectual history,” said Bowers.Other papers included socialist Lebanon’s political and ideological imaginary, the Leftist critique of takhalluf: Revisiting Cultural and Psychological Approaches to the Study of Arab Societies, How Nationalism Hobbled Feminism and the Left in Egypt: Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, and some Caribbean and Arab thoughts on the post-colonial era of enlightenment.
London Halts Egyptian Artist’s Arab Spring-Themed Installation, Saying It’s “Too Soon”
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Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery
Moataz Nasr’s “The Maze,” 2011, green grass, approx. 709 x 551 in
|Art and the Arab Spring|
|Art should have a prominent position in revolutionary politics, but as “signposts, not as overt political manifestos”. Source:|
Qatar and the Arab world’s historic moment: the heightened and rapidly transforming Arab consciousness embodied in the Arab Spring.
Artistic Arab public sphere?
Unencumbered by the revolutionary sentiment presently engulfing the rest of the Arab world, and bolstered by enormous material wealth, Qatar is in a unique position to creatively channel the Arab world’s great historical moment into a vibrant arena of artistic expression. Such a forum, properly situated in the lived reality of this renewed Arab consciousness, could stand to inspire the entire region. But alas, one cannot simply buy a cultural public sphere, as Dabashi pointed out: opulent displays such as Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art – designed by none other than the renowned Chinese architect IM Pei – or the Doha Film Festival simply cannot stand on their price tags alone, but must respond to the region’s organic impulses in order to gain serious currency as part of an Arab public sphere.
That said, even in Doha, amid the nihilism Dabashi aptly inveighs against, there nonetheless exist nascent pockets of precisely the artistic Arab public sphere he clamours for. I refer in particular to an exhibit I recently visited in the Al Markhiya gallery in Doha’s Souq Waaqif aptly titled Isharat, or “Signposts”, featuring artists from around the region, whose work fully embodies the Arab Spring’s clarion call for liberation.
Al Markhiya is certainly a much smaller and boutique operation than the more glitzy and flamboyant Mathaf, but is nonetheless highly respected in Qatar and boasts a significant patronage. It is thus somewhat disappointing that a renowned intellectual and cultural critic such as Professor Dabashi was not informed about an exhibit in the city embodying the very aesthetic impulse he yearns for.
Especially in the Palestinian context, the artistic scene in the Arab world has all too often become obsessed with the lachrymose: emancipatory impulse is cast aside in favour of an inordinate focus on struggle, loss and dispossession – with Handala at least partially superimposed over the canvass.
Meanwhile, artists such as Abdulrahman Katanani, whose work was featured in the Isharat exhibit at the Al Markhiya gallery, receive scant attention in comparison. A Palestinian sculptor born and raised in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Katanani insists on using raw materials from the camps themselves in all his sculptures.
Only by doing so, he argues, can he keep the spirit of freedom and hope alive amid an environment that seems diametrically opposed to those impulses. Under this rubric, the artist can transform an otherwise desiccated piece of scrap metal into a captivating exhibit of camp children flying kites: the chain-linked fencing wire previously used to sequester and ensnare them has been reconstituted as the kite’s drawstring, inextricably connecting them to their soaring vessel and the limitless freedom it symbolises.
Katanani’s sculptures embody precisely the emancipatory potential Dabashi envisions, yet he is woefully underappreciated. Not only did a visiting critic such as Professor Dabashi not receive adequate word of the showing, but even the Palestinian ambassador in Doha, despite having gotten numerous invitations – in person, via phone and via SMS – has to date not attended any of Katanani’s exhibits.
The artists of the Arab Spring do not need to be found, as Dabashi suggests at the end of his essay: indeed, they are already among us, even in the Khalij. Their discovery is proving elusive, I submit, because of a misplaced expectation of art’s role in the revolutionary moment in the first place.
What distinguished the Isharat exhibit at the Al Markhiya gallery in particular was its decidedly non-political focus: each artist, while wholly committed to the Arab Spring, offered no specific political message in his or her aesthetic interpretation of that event. The patron in the Arab art scene, it seems, all too often expects to find explicit political messages in a piece of art, and judges the work on that basis. Artists such as Katanani, it follows, are neglected for failing to sufficiently inform our political impulses.
This is the cardinal mistake. It is beyond the purview of the artist to provide a detailed blueprint to guide a political movement to fruition, be it through the motif of exile or otherwise. Indeed, it would have been naive for the social movements of the 1960s to have expected Bob Dylan to offer a detailed understanding of how society operates at its most visceral level.
Art’s role, as Dabashi correctly describes, is to imagine the emancipatory politics of our impossibilities. To imagine is not to chronicle in minute detail. The artists of the Arab Spring are tasked with simply igniting a spark, of reinjecting the radical imagination into Arab society, through envisioning the utopian possibility of hope and a better life, undergirded by the basic dignity of the Arab people as non-negotiable and sacrosanct.
Their aesthetic impulses must lead our revolutionary politics, as Dabashi describes, but as signposts, not as overt political manifestos. Only under this rubric can the legions of brave Arab artists, painters and sculptors inspired by the Arab Spring truly make sense as purveyors of the region’s renewed collective consciousness, and the Arab public sphere Dabashi envisions finally come to fruition.
Creating Art as Witness to Arab Spring
By RANA F. SWEIS
Source: New York Times – Published: April 4, 2012
AMMAN — As scenes of Arab street protests fill his television set, Abu Saqer, a petty domestic tyrant, panics at the thought of losing control of his household. His daughter wants to wear a brighter shade of lipstick. His son wants to join the protests.
Abu Saqer is the main character of “Al’aan Fhmtekom” (Now I Understand You), a play by the Jordanian journalist and writer Ahmad al Zoubi, inspired by the Arab Spring.
The title of the play — which has been playing to full houses in an Amman theater since September, and had been seen by 75,000 people by the end of March — comes from a speech by former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, before he fled into exile in Saudi Arabia last year after weeks of increasingly violent protests against his regime.
Mr. Ben Ali’s statement resonated around the region, expressing as it did the immense disconnect between autocratic rulers and their citizens.
“The message of the play is, if Arab leaders and governments don’t change and move with the times they will be sacked,” said Musa Hijazeen, one of Jordan’s best-known comic actors who plays the role of Abu Saqer.
The Arab Spring has, at least momentarily, broken through decades of self-censorship and fear that plagued repressive societies. The regional revolutions have inspired forms of artistic expression.
“Art is usually prophetic; it predicts what will happen based on progress and the lack of it,” said Mohammed Abu Afefa, an artist living in Amman, as he showed some of his past work, including a cartoon from 2007 depicting riot police confronting protesters.
“The role of art also emerges after revolutions. It reflects, analyzes and records history,” Mr. Afefa added. Today his drawings are increasingly inspired by incidents and events from the Arab Spring.
From rap to photography exhibitions, art forms have been an integral part of the changing landscape of the Middle East. Libyan and Tunisian rappers were making headlines and encouraging their fans to speak out about their discontent in the weeks leading up to the Arab Spring.
One was Hamada Ben Amor, “El General” whose rap song “Rais Lebled” (President of the Republic), was posted online and went viral ahead of the Tunisian uprising that sparked revolutions across the Middle East.
In several countries across the region, debating clubs have emerged. Arguments go back and forth on political topics and human rights issues that were unmentionable in public before the Arab Spring.
Meanwhile, social media activists are keeping a tab, in real time, on activists who have been taken into detention or otherwise attacked by governments new or old.
For many, the flowering of new freedoms is worth the cost in economic suffering caused by the uprisings.
In Jordan, that battle is reflected in some reactions to Mr. al Zoubi’s play. Even though King Abdullah of Jordan has attended a performance in Amman — and personally thanked the actors afterward — some Jordanian government officials have criticized it.
In one scene that draws much laughter, Jordanian ministers, who are appointed by the King, are chosen by a lottery raffle instead of merit.
“During intermission, some of the government officials would go in the hallway and yell that we crossed the red lines and the play is a direct insult to them,” said Mr. Hijazeen, the actor. Still, he said, “people tell me the dialogue and dark sarcasm in the play reflects the conscience of our nation.”
“Many art forms born as a result of the Arab Spring, including this play, are an invitation for leaders and citizens to reflect and have an honest conversation between ourselves about where we are today and where we may be going.”
But there is a backlash, too: The revolutions have brought Islamic opposition movements into the forefront of politics, resulting in a rise of conservatism both in countries where the uprisings have toppled former rulers and in those where protestors have settled for more peaceful reform.
On Jan. 23, a Tunisian court announced that Nabil Karoui, director of Nessma TV, would go on trial this month for airing the French animated movie “Persepolis,” which Islamists say is blasphemous because it shows an image of God.
Mr. Karoui is accused of “offending decent morals and causing public unrest” in airing the film. Human Rights Watch has warned that the decision to bring him to court was “a disturbing turn for the nascent Tunisian democracy.”
Censorship and repressive laws on freedom of expression and publication still remain in many countries across the region. Lèse-majesté, an offense to the dignity of a ruler, is still in effect across much of the region including Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller kingdoms of the Gulf.
Last month, two paintings inspired by the Arab Spring were removed from the annual Dubai Art Fair, deemed by the Dubai authorities to be unacceptable.
One, a painting by the Moroccan artist Zakaria Ramhani, was based on the famous news photograph of a woman protester, widely referred to as the “girl in the blue bra,” half-stripped and beaten by the police in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
The other, by the Libyan artist Shadi Al Zaqzouq, depicted a figure holding up a pair of men’s underpants inscribed with the Arabic word “Irhal” (leave) — a war cry seen on the banners carried by street protesters across the region, demanding the ouster of their leaders.
Witness-art in the Arab Spring
In trying times, poetry can speak our silences and make sense of our pain, says Yahia Lababidi.
An excellent instance of such witness-art, a form of spiritual journalism, really, is Libyan American poet Khaled Mattawa’s poem on the aftermath of Muammar Qadafi’s death: ‘After 42 Years’.
More drawn out than the uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt, the human cost in Libya’s revolution was (and still is) sickening (not unlike the current carnage in Syria). Enough was too much, and there seemed no end in sight. Then, out of the blue, we learned of Qadafi’s capture. How to make sense of all the suffering, the waste of human lives, and to restore to the living their dignity, lost years and possibilities? This is the catharsis Mattawa’s masterful poem offers.
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American writer. He is the author of three collections: Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms), Trial by Ink (essays) and Fever Dreams (poetry).
Coline Milliard, ARTINFO UK
Published: October 3, 2011
As the powerful tide of the Arab Spring continues to wash over countries like Syria and Bahrain, the West has been cheering it along. But when the rhetoric of Mideast revolution appears at home it can be a different story.
London’s Westminster council abruptly called off Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr‘s plan to cut the Kufic inscription “The people want the fall of the regime” — a chant of Arab Spring demonstrators — into a grass lawn at Mayfair’s Hanover Square, claiming the protests were still too raw. Entitled “The Maze,” the piece was to supposed to remain for four weeks as part of a solo show of Nasr’s work at both Selma Feriani Gallery and the Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception.