Arabesque and Us

BY Arts Desk  February 23, 2009 at 11:56 AM EST

Regular visitors to Art Beat will remember that I was in the Middle East a few weeks back, talking to artists (and, as it turned out, reporting on the Gaza conflict’s fallout) for a series of profiles tied to “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World,” a three-week festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Well, the festival is finally upon us, beginning Monday, and so is our series. As to the festival, it’s an immense undertaking, with some 800 performers coming from 22 countries. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser told me it’s the most complicated event the organization has ever mounted, when you consider the process of finding the artists, getting them visas, scheduling, travel arrangements and so on.

And our series? It’s our own ambitious mix of television and online contributions. On the NewsHour on Monday we’ll air a scene-setter on the festival, capturing the scale and goals of its organizers. On Tuesday, we profile Kuwaiti writer and theater director Sulayman al-Bassam, who adapts Shakespeare to explore contemporary culture and politics in the Persian Gulf. On Wednesday will be a report on three artists from Cairo, with their own perspectives on that fascinating, overwhelming city: jewelry maker Azza Fahmy, dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour and conceptual artist Lara Baladi. On Thursday we look at the work and life of Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife, one of the most renowned performers and composers in the region. The series concludes Friday with Egyptian jazz musician Fathy Salama, who has spent his career blending Arabic music from the East with jazz from the West. Art Beat will offer additional material on each of these artists, including video clips of performances. In the following weeks we’ll have more interviews and performance excerpts from other artists participating in the festival. (As always, all scheduling for our series is subject to other news developments.)

For us, this is an unusual opportunity to look at this volatile and often violent region in a different way, to hear voices we don’t usually hear, to meet people we don’t usually meet in our normal coverage, which tends to focus on politics and war. Nothing here will change the world, of course, but perhaps it will offer some new insights and understanding. We hope you’ll join us.

I want to thank my many colleagues who’ve been so much a part of all this, especially producers Mary Jo Brooks and Anne Davenport, as well as all the regular contributors to Art Beat who continue to provide stimulating daily fare.