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Arabesque Festival Brings Arab Arts to Kennedy Center

February 23, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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An ambitious, three-week festival called "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World" opens at the Kennedy Center in Washington Monday. Jeffrey Brown offers the first in a series of broadcast and online reports around the festival and the artists it is showcasing.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Most often, the Middle East conjures up images and sounds of war and terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and constant struggle. But here is another sight, another sound: These are the children of the Al-Farah Choir, or the “Choir of Joy,” more than 100 Muslim and Christian young people, who sing in a 30-year-old group founded by a Catholic priest in Damascus, Syria.

Yesterday, some of the children sang at mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., a tune-up of sorts for their performance tomorrow as part of an ambitious three-week festival called “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” that opens tonight at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

For Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, the festival is about art, certainly, but about something more, as well.

MICHAEL KAISER, President, Kennedy Center: Well, I believe that peace comes from understanding. And so if we know more about other people and have a rounder view of them and a more educated view of other people, then we can start to make peace.

I believe that this festival is going to help people to understand Arab people, to understand their aesthetic tastes, to understand their hospitality and their generosity and their passion, and we’ll start to understand them not just as political beings, but as human beings.

JEFFREY BROWN: How, though? I mean, how does watching a dance or theater or a musician, how does it do all that?

MICHAEL KAISER: Well, to start with, it comes from just showing another view of Arab people. All we see on television are people running around, escaping bombs or thrusting bombs, and we don’t see on television very much that has to do with the other side of the culture of the Arab people.

So just having a dance company here starts to make people question, “I didn’t know they had a dance company. I didn’t know they cared about dance.” That’s how it starts.

Organizers showcase Arab diversity

Michael Kaiser
President, Kennedy Center
We have to understand that there isn't one monolithic Arab person. There are many different kinds of Arab people within those 22 countries. And I think that's part of what we're trying to teach.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, they do dance. The Caracalla Dance Theater from Lebanon is part of this immense undertaking, which involves some 800 performers from 22 countries of the Arab world, stretching from North Africa to the Levant to the Persian Gulf, a region, the organizers want to make clear, of great diversity.

MICHAEL KAISER: We have to understand that there isn't one monolithic Arab person. There are many different kinds of Arab people within those 22 countries. And I think that's part of what we're trying to teach.

The culture from Morocco is very, very different from the culture of Syria, which is very, very different from the culture of Oman.

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent days, the Kennedy Center has been transforming itself for this $10 million festival, the most complex the center has ever presented.

Two tons of cargo have arrived from Arab countries. Massive arches and a mashrabiya, a window carved wood lattice work, constructed in Egypt, are part of an exhibition called "Breaking the Veils," featuring works by Arab women artists. And a gift shop has been made over into a souq, or marketplace.

There will be exhibitions of fashion, including wedding dresses from around the region, of art and photography, and an Exploratorium, including a film projecting ancient texts, that will highlight Arab contributions to society between the 8th and 15th centuries: advances in math, medicine, astronomy, and chemistry.

At the heart of the festival, five theaters will feature performances in music, dance and theater, from the traditional to a rapper from Somalia named K'naan.

The Kennedy Center is known for its festivals of international arts. But the politically charged Mideast -- from the post-9/11 talk of a clash of civilizations to the fallout from the Iraq war and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- combined to make this a special challenge.

Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center's head of international programming, was in charge of finding performers throughout the Arab world.

ALICIA ADAMS, Head of International Programming, Kennedy Center: When I started going to the region, it was at a time when certainly the popularity of this country was very, very low, and I wasn't sure whether the artists were going to say they were not interested because it was America, it was the Kennedy Center, which is, you know, a quasi-federal institution, that, you know, somehow this was a tool of the administration.

And that was a worry. Would they come? And I was just so pleased to learn on these trips, as I met artist after artist after artist, that they were very interested in coming here. They very much wanted to tell their stories, to be able to be seen in a different light, to be able to show the beauty and humanity that exists with them as a people and as a culture. I think they want people to know that they're not terrorists.

Cultural expressions through art

Azzy Fahmy
Jewelry maker
I love my culture, and I love jewelry, and I put everything together. So when I read a book about Gibran Khalil Gibran, I like to see it on a ring or I like to see it on a bracelet or I like to see it on a pendant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among those coming to the festival is Azzy Fahmy, an Egyptian jewelry-maker who documents the history of her craft and adorns her pieces with Arabic calligraphy and poetry.

AZZY FAHMY, Jewelry-Maker: I love my culture, and I love jewelry, and I put everything together. So when I read a book about Gibran Khalil Gibran, I like to see it on a ring or I like to see it on a bracelet or I like to see it on a pendant.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Kuwait, writer and theater director Sulayman al-Bassam explores issues of contemporary Gulf and Arab society with a twist, by adapting the works of William Shakespeare.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM, Theater Director: The society that he's describing is a society of power struggles, of individuals looking for and seeking new ways to be and to express themselves. So the work he makes kind of translates across different ages, different societies, different places.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife is a singer, master of the oud, or lute, and composer for small and large ensembles, who speaks of love in a part of the world that has been torn apart by strife.

MARCEL KHALIFE, Musician-Composer (through translator): As human beings, every day we need to learn how to love. We need to learn and to read poetry and listen to music every day. Perhaps if we do these things, people will discover beauty and happiness.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington yesterday, Al-Farah Choir members from Damascus said the festival creates a real opportunity to reach across barriers.

CLAUDIA TOUMA NAHLEH, Choir Director: We should touch hearts, touch other hearts, and we should communicate people to people, and this is the main idea.

CHOIR MEMBER: I always dreamed of coming to America, and now I didn't just come to America. I came to sing and spread peace. And music really does something, changes something in your mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Creating the space for that kind of change is a hope of Kennedy Center organizers, who've brought together young people from both Oman and the U.S. in a specially commissioned piece by choreographer Debbie Allen.

ALICIA ADAMS: It's probably the best thing that we will do in this festival, in terms of creating a dialogue, creating cultural exchange between the young people. And for me, more than the end product, it's the process.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Kennedy Center's festival, "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World," runs through March 15th.