Arabs Go All Out


Massive Cross-Cultural Showcase Brings Arab Arts to America

Now that media mogul Oprah Winfrey has decamped from the Kennedy Center, where she taped her talk show the day before President Barack Obama’s Inauguration, the performing arts center is preparing for one of the biggest cultural festivals it has ever held.

“Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” involves more than 800 artists from 22 Arab countries that belong to the League of Arab States. The three-week festival will represent a range of disciplines from music, dance and theater to visual arts, literature, fashion and film — not to mention a wide range of cultures, from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia and Djibouti, among many others.

“We have a long tradition of doing international festivals,” said Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center for the past 18 years. “It’s probably the largest festival that we’ve ever done because it involves 22 countries participating, so in terms of just numbers of countries that makes it the largest. When we did China, we brought over some 900 artists, but it was from one country.”

“Arabesque” will also serve as an important cross-cultural tool — introducing many little-known Arab artists to American audiences — at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares in Gaza and the Middle East anxiously awaits how the Obama administration will act toward the region.

“I believe the arts create peace and provide a window onto understanding people,” Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said in a press release. “I hope this festival will act as a catalyst towards achieving [that] both between the Arab and Western worlds. This festival will showcase the rich heritage and beauty of the Arab world through its extraordinary artists on the Kennedy Center’s stages.”

To select those artists, festival organizers did their homework. Adams herself visited 15 of the countries to learn more about their cultures.

“A lot of these artists are well known in Europe,” she said. “Many of them have not been to the United States before, so it’s our goal, certainly, to introduce these artists and to have people experience the beauty and humanity that come from this part of the world.”

Among the better-known performers coming to Washington is Marcel Khalifé, a musician and composer who will play the oud, a string instrument, with the Al Mayadine Ensemble in a tribute to the late contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Another familiar face is Fadhel Jaibi, one of the best-known directors in Arab theater. He will direct “Khamsoun,” a play written by Jalila Bakar that spans 50 years of Tunisia’s history, focusing on the daughter of two leftist militants arrested after a suicide bombing to examine the larger ideological shifts taking place in the country since its independence.

Other pieces will tackle similarly controversial subject matter, such as the timely “Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation” by Ramallah’s Al-Kasaba Theater & Cinematheque, “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,” which sets the Shakespearean classic in the oil-rich feudal Arabian Gulf, as well as “Remedies for an Injured Iraqi Soul,” a poignant musical program by 16-year-old Iraqi classical pianist Tami Meekoo.

There will be lighter fare as well, some tinged with Arab-American collaboration. For instance, the Kennedy Center commissioned American choreographer Debbie Allen to work with young dancers from both the United States and Oman. “It will be an exchange program in that the American dancers will actually go to Oman for three weeks to work, and then they all — the Americans and the Omanis — come back here to the United States,” Adams explained. “So these young people will get to spend some six to eight weeks with each other, working on this piece with Debbie. I think it will be certainly a life-changing and a very enriching piece for the young people that are participating in this.”

The results can be seen in “Oman…O Man!,” which the dancers will perform from March 12 to 15 and which will feature music composed exclusively by Grammy-winning trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Other dance offerings include Syria’s Whirling Dervishes of Aleppo, Lebanon’s renowned Caracalla Dance Theatre and France’s “Cie La BARAKA,” which fuses hip hop, contemporary dance and multimedia visuals.

And to properly showcase all these eclectic performers, all the Kennedy Center will be a stage in this cultural extravaganza. “Some of the building will be transformed with some of the work by various artists from the region,” Adams said. “There will be an exhibition of wedding dresses from the 22 countries that will be both in the Hall of Nations and in the Hall of States. There will be a photographic exhibition with Youssef Nabil. There will be an extraordinary exhibition of some of the jewelry by one of the most famous jewelers of the region, Azza Fahmy.”

In addition, a multimedia “Exploratorium” will let visitors learn about the “golden age of enlightenment” in the Arab world, which lasted from the eighth century to the 15th century. This will cover Arab contributions to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and chemistry — and by extension the larger contributions to culture and society that endure to this day, said Adams, who pointed out that the numerals we use today are Arabic numerals and that at one point all of science was in Arabic.

Visitors can also take a piece of Arab culture home with them. The souk, or marketplace, will sell traditional crafts, furniture, jewelry and pottery. “It will be a very well-stocked market with things that are representative of all of the countries in terms of their crafts and other goods,” Adams noted.

And to provide a full taste of Arab culture, the Kennedy Center worked with its in-house caterers to recreate the region’s cuisine, such as falafel, grape leaves, hummus and pita bread.

But Adams hopes people leave the festival with more than a trinket or a full belly. “This is an extraordinary region of the world that we need to know a lot more about.”

Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World from Feb. 23 to March John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2700 F St., NW, at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway Ticket prices vary and many events are free of charge. For more information, please call (202) 467-4600 or visit festivals/08-09/arabesque/.

About the Author

Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.