An ambitious Arab art festival in Washington hoped to change the all too familiar perception of the Arab world as a place of terror, religious extremism and constant struggle by offering a glimpse into the region’s rich artistic heritage in a fusion that defies cultural stereotypes.
Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World, the $10 million, three-week festival of art and culture representing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. that wrapped up Saturday was the largest Arab arts festival ever held in he U.S.
With 22 Arab countries represented including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Sudan and 800 Arab performers and artists, the festival may have been about arts but the timing was political.
Both festival organizers and artists said Arabesque could not have happened at a better time as the festival coincided with the change in government and the coming of the Obama administration.
"We wanted to do this festival for quite a while and have waited for the political situation to get better so that it would be easier for us to get Arab performers to come to the country," Alicia Adams, Kennedy Center vice president for international programming and dance, told AlArabiya.net, adding that many artists said they felt comfortable and welcomed in America.
A wonder that was in the making for five years, the festival finally launched on Feb. 23 after securing hundreds of visas, transporting sets, art and costumes, and locating talent, a task that took Adams two and half years of travel to 14 Arab countries searching for new and traditional art forms that reflected the various national and Arab artistic tastes across the region.
While offering a mosaic of Arab culture and art, the selection process also depended on the quality of artistic performance. "Artists selected for the festival were of the highest quality as that was the biggest indicator for us in terms of selection," Adams explained.
Known for its wide ranging festivals of international arts, the Kennedy Center had not tackled the Arab world till now. Political dynamics between the U.S. to the Arab world in the wake of the Iraq war, the "war on terror" and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, posed a challenge for organizers who want to focus on Arab arts rather than politics.
"To have a festival like Arabesque right after change in government and the coming of Obama, is certainly a breath of fresh air," Sawsan Qarawan, a Washington University undergraduate who attended the festival told AlArabiya.net. "Hopefully the Kennedy Center will continue to showcase such healthy cultural exchanges which are crucial to changing audience perspectives."
Arabesque's Arab artists
Arabesque featured an assortment of Arab artists who traveled vast distances to participate in this rare cultural event. Many made their first debut in the U.S.
Seventeen-year-old Tami Meekoo, a young Iraqi pianist, was one of them. Khalid Benghrib a Moroccan choreographer was another, whose male contemporary dance troupe Cie2k_far won an enthusiastic review in the New York Times for offering “a worldview that is eclectic, tolerant, good-humoured and large-spirited.”
Among other performances were the Syrian al-Farah Children’s Choir and Somali hip-hop artist K’NAAN as well as Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre, hailed by the Washington Post for its “heart-stealing style.”
Arabic literary and film series were also popular, attracting "huge audiences" and selling out in mere days, according to Adams.
"It was quite extraordinary. We did not know it would be that successful because we've never done this kind of festival before," she said.
"The festival surpassed our expectations in terms of audience response and media response."
Festival performances ran the gamut of artistic styles, from theatrical adaptations to classical drama, from traditional music ensembles to cutting edge fusion, from whirling dervishes to hip-hop and modern dance, bringing together musicians, dancers, singers, poets and painters, artists and craftsmen. And of course there was food and an eastern marketplace.
"We were looking for unique thematic material and ideas across disciplines in dance, theatre, music or visual arts quality and weighing all of these to ultimately make the final decision," Adams explained.
Changing audience perceptions
For its organizers, Arabesque was not only about showcasing art but more crucially creating cross-cultural dialogue. The variety of performances shored up the diversity of Arab peoples and cultures in ways that challenged audience perceptions.
"The festival shows that there isn't one monolithic Arab culture. That there are different kinds of Arab peoples and tastes," Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, told AlArabiya TV.
"I was not aware of how diverse Arab art and music is and attending the festival with friends and family was certainly a great educational experience for all of us," Matthew Burnham, who attended one week of the festival told AlArabiya.net.
And such efforts have certainly paid off with tens of thousands of people attending the festival. "Most of the performances were sold out and the few that were not had 85 percent capacity," said Adams.
"Americans who came to the festival walked away with a different perception of who the Arab peoples are and deeper appreciation for Arab cultures," she said, adding that the audience was as diverse as the festival artists.
"Audiences were very diverse. We had everything under the sun in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age."
The turnout was so enormous as people flowed to the Kennedy Center since the start of the festival that often enough the souk—the festival market—was jammed with visitors and audience members, "which is unusual retail activity at the Kennedy Center," said Adams.
Several Arabesque presentations will remain in the U.S. for performances scheduled elsewhere. The Arab adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III: An Arab Tragedy directed by Kuwait's Sulayman al-Bassam will be performed in New York City, and al-Farah choir will perform is several other major cities. As for the Kennedy Center, Adams says Arabesque is the first of many artistic collaborations to come.
"We have made a lot of new friends in the region and we will continue to bring Arab artists to Washington and Kennedy Center to participate in our ongoing series," said Adams.
To view video on Arabesque visit