Kennedy Center Plans Festival As Olive Branch To Arab CultureOrganizers of 2009 Event See Performing Arts as Means To Foster Understanding
By Jacqueline Trescott The Kennedy Center said yesterday that it will stage a festival of Arab culture in 2009 to bring many little-known artists onto an international stage and provide a counterpoint to the reality of war and violence that many Americans associate with the region.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006; C01
Buoyed by the success of the China Festival, during which hundreds of artists played to sold-out audiences last fall, Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president, said he was looking for the next challenge. He said he was searching for a way to drive home the point that arts are a window onto understanding people:
"We don't know enough about what other people are about. We read about government and politics. That doesn't say anything about what they like, what they find beautiful. Also, the idea starts from my rather naive belief that arts create peace."
Kaiser said such a festival could be a good way to start breaking prevalent stereotypes. The League of Arab States is helping introduce the center to various performing groups, but the center will make the selections and have curatorial control, Kaiser said. "The countries want you to be encyclopedic, but the audience doesn't want that," he added.
Ambassador Hussein Hassouna, the Arab League's representative in Washington, said the festival "is very much needed at this time. In our world of today, and we all agree that it is very sad, all we hear is bad news. In the U.S., they only hear about conflict in the region, about violence, about problems, but they don't hear enough about the bright things that are happening."
The programming will be built around performing arts from the 22 countries that belong to the Arab League, from the founders, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen, to Bahrain, Somalia and Djibouti. The United States has been at war in Iraq since March 2003.
The events will probably take place over three to four weeks, and include film, visual arts and literature. "With this festival, we are going to explore the heritage, also. What the countries did in early centuries -- with maps, science and astronomy," said Alicia Adams, the center's vice president for international programs and dance.
Festivals anywhere in the non-Arab world that focus on Arab culture are very rare, Hassouna said. When Arab groups have performed in Washington, he said, it becomes an occasion for the Arab American and diplomatic communities. Last year, the Syrian band Hewar performed on the center's Millennium Stage [following a first performance the previous year]. In February, the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble -- a group of musicians from the United States, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Israel and France -- performed the work of Egyptian composer Sayyed Daweesh, also on the Millennium Stage [following a first performance the previous year].
Last year, for the first time in 39 years, the Smithsonian Institution spotlighted an Arab country, Oman, in the annual Folklife Festival.
"An Arab festival is a huge challenge. Every culture is political, and the representation [raises] issues of politics and religion," said Richard Kennedy, deputy director of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The plans drew praise from Rochelle Davis, an anthropologist at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "There's a vibrant production of dance and arts, and culture from high culture to the folkloric song and dance," Davis said. She introduces her students to the music of the Egyptian legend Oum Kalthoum and the Lebanese singer Fayrouz, as well as the contemporary Rai music of Algeria in her classes. "We have so many stereotypes -- seeing people performing dances and songs breaks down our ideas about how they are all evil," she said.
The planning will include a symposium next spring in Cairo to discuss the needs of arts organizations in the Arab world, Kaiser said. "It is very important for the Kennedy Center not to lose touch with the groups that come to the festivals. We are not doing our job if they come here and then go home without an ongoing relationship," he said.
For the China festival, Adams made nine trips in four years and saw performances throughout the country. Her office eventually coordinated the travel of 900 people. Logistics for this event will be more difficult, she predicted, and "war will limit where I travel. But we have not had a festival where we haven't been able to get the artists into the country."
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