Arab World: Culture, Culture Everywhere

Across the Gulf various cultural festivals and literary events have been taking place in recent weeks, and in this post we hear from some of the region's bloggers who have attended them. However culture is not a politics-free zone; even a book fair or a cultural festival can be a source of tension…

We start with the United Arab Emirates. The Dubai In Vogue blog writes about the busy cultural scene in Abu Dhabi, saying it is “one of the most interesting places of all seven emirates.” A major occasion in the book events calendar is the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which will be taking place from 17 to 22 March.

Still in the Emirates, Dubai has been hosting a number of literary events recently. Existential Al Ain recorded Saudi author Rajaa al-Sanea when she was speaking at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature held in Dubai from 26 February to 1 March (the festival was also mentioned at the English PEN World Atlas blog). It was followed by the Dubai International Poetry Festival from 4 to 10 March.

Also in Dubai, Osama writes about attending a performance to remember:

ليلة البارحة خضت تجربة رائعة ومثيرة في نفس الوقت، وذلك بعد أن أتيحت لي الفرصة لحضور العرض المثير من CIRQUE DU SOLEIL وهي مجموعة استعراضية عالمية حلت رحالها في دبي بدءا من الخامس من شهر مارس الجاري على أن تستمر عروضها حتى الخامس من شهر أبريل القادم.[…] تذاكر الدخول مرتفعة الثمن بعض الشيء حيث يترواح سعر التذكرة ما بين ٣٠٠ دهم بالنسبة للدرجة الثالثة ويصل إلي ١٠٠٠ دهم بالنسبة لمقاعد الVIP لكنها من وجهة نظري مغامرة تستحق التجربة…
Last night, I experienced something exciting and amazing at the same time. I got the opportunity to attend an exciting show by the international Cirque du Soleil, whose performances in Dubai started on March 5 and will continue until April 5. […] The entry tickets are a bit expensive as they range from 300 dirhams [81 USD] for the third class to 1,000 dirhams [272 USD] for the VIP section. However, in my opinion it is an adventure that is worth experiencing.

In Bahrain, the Spring of Culture has just started, a cultural festival that will run throughout March and April. Mohammed Marhoon attended a concert by young Palestinian and German musicians called Celebrating Jerusalem, and describes the experience here [Ar].

In Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh Book Fair is currently taking place (3-13 March), and a number of bloggers have attended. Ahmed at Saudi Jeans says:

While I sincerely hope that the Ministry of Culture and Information would drop the word ‘International’ from the name of what has become the most important cultural event in the Saudi calendar, I’m glad that the Riyadh Book Fair is back again. Seeing the crowds celebrate books and reading is heartwarming, regardless of whatever gripes I might have about the organizers and their approach.

He adds:

I think the book fair this year is better than the previous ones, except, of course, for the usual kerfuffles by the religious police. […] They made another scene last night when they decided that saleswomen are not allowed to be there on men’s days. All saleswomen were kicked out. I really don’t see the point of having the religious police in the book fair, but it is obviously part of the compromise deal the Ministry of Culture and Information had to make with the conservatives in order for the book fair to go on.

John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia picks up on Ahmed's point about a compromise, and says:

I recommend that next year, there be no compromise. The Commission [the religious police] clearly doesn’t understand what book fairs are about and thus have nothing useful to add. Perhaps if they publish a book or two, they might have reason to be there. They could certainly benefit by reading more about Islam, however…

In fact the Commission had their own stall this year, which Ruhsa mentions:

The recent change of the Commission leadership by King Abdullah was noted by many. The new head has since then made several statements about the new role of the commission, and the need to tone down the tension. A noteworthy attempt is the Commission PR booth at the Riyadh Book Fair. […] It features examples of items that they have confiscated, photos of items found in raids and also the reasons WHY they are banned. There were also several Commission members explaining things at this fairly popular booth! […] Judging by the number of people that thronged the booth, it was clearly a hit! Perhaps the [Commission] needs to further reach out through such toned down and educational means. It would certainly give them an opportunity to develop a friendlier relationship with the population.

Saudiwoman mentions the Commission as well:

They did have one of the biggest stalls though and not a book in sight. What they did have on display is all the witchcraft that they have confiscated over the years and a huge flat screen TV with a video running showing how they reverse spells.

She also says:

Of all the stalls, I saw only one manned by a woman. She told me that she only comes when the book fair is open to women. She came on the first day and it was open to men only and she found it extremely awkward. So whenever it’s men only, she gets a guy to come in her place. She came all the way from France for this lame book fair.

Two other recent posts at Crossroads Arabia concern culture. One post comments on two American newspaper articles about cultural life in Saudi Arabia today, while the other mentions a change in policy:

For the first time, the annual Janadriyah Festival—a government-sponsored celebration of all things Saudi—is being opened to women as parts of families. In the past, there had been special days on which women could attend the festival, but women and only women were allowed on those days; adult male family members were excluded. This is, truly, a tiny step, but it’s an important one.

Honey vendor at Janadriya Festival in Saudi Arabia by Ashraf Osman

Honey vendor at Janadriya Festival in Saudi Arabia by Ashraf Osman

We end in Iraq, where Salam Pax writes about the politics of culture:

Around two weeks ago I heard in passing a news item on TV saying that an Iranian Arts and Culture festival is going to be held at the National Theatre and The Arts Palace (formerly Saddam Modern Arts Centre). This happened around the time our officials and Iranian officials were working hard to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the most flights clocked between Iraq and Iran in a fifteen-day period. This unprecedented public display of affection between the leaders of the two countries was making a lot of Sunnis here very nervous.

Soon after he saw a poster with the following slogans:

“Iranian (art) exhibitions are aimed to distort Iraq’s identity”. and below it in yellow: “Iranian (culture) is an axe poised to crush Iraq’s cultural identity”. And the images are of the national theatre and the arts palace.


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