Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The mecca of Arab culture is shifting south

Not too long ago, the greatest Arab thinkers and artists came from and resided in the Levant and north Africa. To Arabs today some names are instantly recognisable, such as Gibran Khalil Gibran, May Ziadé, Taha Hussein, Amin al Rihani, Mohammed Mahdi al Jawahri, Nizar Qabbani, Rose al Youssef, et al.

These were the shining lights of Arab intellectualism. They inspired music and movies, books and broadsheets, poems and paintings, and countless sleepless nights of passion. Today, the Arab world is witnessing a migration of Arab creative minds from these very countries to the relative calm and tranquillity of the Arabian peninsula. The warm Gulf waters and the peaceful desert nations are now attracting more than just tourists and American troops.

The Mediterranean Arabs are assisting their brethren in the Gulf in forging their very own renaissance. Most Egyptian and Syrian television series are financed by Gulf money, and many of them are now filmed here. Following in the footsteps of the all-national Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra that started in 1985, Doha introduced its 80-member strong Qatar Symphony Orchestra to the world, and although it is being led by the Iraqi Dr Salem Abdul Kareem, it will only be a matter of time before the younger generation of Qataris is inspired by these musicians, as is the case with its sister Gulf state.

This year alone witnesses the opening of two Islamic museums, one in Doha and the other in Sharjah. Incidentally, it was the relatively poor emirate of Sharjah that Unesco chose to honour as the very first Arab Cultural Capital in 1998, before Cairo, Beirut or Damascus, the traditional citadels of Arab intellectualism.

Dubai, the city of merchants, has launched several cultural initiatives including the redevelopment of its historic old Creek, with the promise of an opera house, the Prophet Mohammed Museum and several other initiatives on the way.

Abu Dhabi, by far the most ambitious of all the Gulf states, has already hosted such world class exhibitions as the priceless David Khalili collection of Islamic art as well as a Pablo Picasso exhibition that would feel as at home in the Tate Modern as it does in Gallery One of the Emirates Palace. These are small steps that will lead to realising the grand vision of hosting a Louvre, a Guggenheim and several other museums and cultural centres on Saadiyat Island.

The Gulf cultural festivals are slowly becoming fixtures in international events calendars; both Dubai and Abu Dhabi host world class film and jazz festivals, for example. Doha and Bahrain host world class cultural celebrations. Even Kuwait, which has as yet neglected to restore the National Museum that was looted during the 1990 invasion, boasts a Museum of Modern Art as well as several private collections that are open to the public.

It seems that the deficiencies of the Arab republics extend beyond issues of governance to maintaining the cultural treasures they have. More important than the pyramids, mosques, synagogues and churches that adorn their lands, the cultural treasures that are irreplaceable are human minds. Today, Arab minds from across the region have migrated to the Gulf.

Many Lebanese work in the peace of Dubai Media City and play their music in the concert halls of Abu Dhabi; Syrians sing in the cultural festivals of Bahrain and Qatar; Egyptians act in Kuwait, and Palestinians not only survive but flourish in all sectors in Saudi Arabia.

It’s true that many of these smart Arabs send money back to their countries, but the vital assets that remain here are their skills and talents. Such skills could have been transferred down to a younger generation living in their own countries. Instead, their expertise is being taught to natives and residents of the Gulf.

Today, Naseer Chamma, Asala Nasri, Azmi Bshara and Marwan Rahbani have decided to make the Gulf countries their homes and bases. Others such as Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish have an easier time visiting Abu Dhabi and Doha than Beirut and Algiers.

The mecca of Arab culture is indeed slowly shifting south-east away from the Mediterranean basin. What have the Gulf monarchies offered these individuals? Democracy is scarce and political representation is in short supply. What could be bringing them in a constant stream of emigration? It’s not just the money. Libya and Algeria are vastly wealthier than Bahrain and Oman, and yet who has ever heard of a Bahraini going to work in Benghazi, or an Omani working in Oran? The undemocratic, for better or for worse, royal families of the Gulf offer a simple magic ingredient: some desperately needed peace and tranquillity.

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do for some people.

This article appeared in The National on 15 June 08


Abhijit said...

Very thought provoking and interesting article. The intellectual traditions of the Arab culture in the mediterranean region are seeking a refuge from the ongoing political and security crisis of that region. They could have chosen Europe as their refuge, but with the current trends of xenophobia and religious intolerance being exhibited by European countries, the natural refuge would be the countries like UAE, Oman, Qatar et al.

In a way, this is also good because this intellectual tradition would help in forging a bridge between the GCC nations and rest of the world and helping them with, as you so rightly put, their "culural renaissance"

Gheed Al Ali said...

For the fear of being too repetitive I won’t wax lyrical - but it's a great piece of literature.

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