Washington gets insight into Arab art


June 18, 2010 Updated Feb 23, 2009 at 1:10 PM EDT

The largest ever Arab arts festival to be hosted in the US lifts the veil this week on war, traditions and the role of women, just as President Barack Obama has vowed to reach out to the Muslim world.

From North Africa to the Levant and the Arabian Gulf, more than 800 musicians, actors, dancers, poets and other artists from the 22-member Arab League will descend on Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts for the three-week Arabesque festival, many making their US debut.

Artists old and young, traditional and modern, span the region's cultural, religious and political divides, as they seek to challenge prevailing stereotypes of Arab and Muslim people.

"The arts are the best tool we have to change how people feel and think about countries and people and the world," said Arabesque curator Alicia Adams, who spent the past three years visiting 15 Arab countries to seek out the artists.

"I wanted to do a festival focusing on this region for quite some time. We presented many international festivals throughout the years, and from this region, I wanted to showcase its beauty and humanity."

The 10-million-dollar festival celebrates tradition with performances like those of the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble or the Sufi trances of the Whirling Dervishes of Aleppo, Syria.

But modernity also has its place, with Moroccan choreographer Khalid Benghrib's all-male contemporary dance company Cie2k_far or Somalia's hip hop artist K'NAAN.

Writers from the Arab cultural hub of Egypt will join Tunisian actors, Jordanian painters, Kuwaiti calligraphers and Bahraini oud players for the event, which runs from Monday to March 15.

One of the more highly anticipated performances is "Alive from Palestine" by Al-Kasaba Theater & Cinematheque from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The series of skits and monologues was inspired by the start of the second Palestinian "intifada" (uprising) in 2000 and provides a mosaic of Palestinian daily life under the occupation.

Despite the strong gender divisions in North Africa and the Middle East, women here will have a major voice.

The festival gives a multifaceted glimpse of women's condition in the region, from the traditional Berber songs of women singers from Marrakesh to Nawal, the first Comoran female musician to perform in public.

Egyptian dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour's "Temporament" duet with percussionist Ahmad Compaore focuses on women's struggles to break free from tradition, a role she is well suited to take on having founded the first independent modern dance troupe in Cairo.

"I believe the arts create peace and provide a window onto understanding people," Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser said in a statement.

"I hope this festival will act as a catalyst toward achieving both between the Arab and Western world."

Such direct exchanges are evident in an already sold-out Arabic adaptation of Shakespeare's "Richard III" by Kuwaiti director and writer Sulayman al-Bassam. In a modern twist, the story revolves around an eerily familiar world of Arab dictators, oil riches and the CIA.

Festival organizers shipped two tons of cargo for exhibits and performances, including over 40 elaborate wedding dresses, some dating back to the 19th century.

Egyptian jeweler Azza Fahmy, whose pieces have adorned clients from Queen Noor to French actress Catherine Deneuve, also has an exhibit of her own.

There are also tributes to major Arab figures, such as a "Salute to Mahmud Darwish," the celebrated Palestinian poet who died last year, performed by renowned Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife.

Adams said the timing of the festival was fortuitous.

"It is coincidental that it happens as Obama comes to be the president of the United States," she said.

"It will give the event much more resonance and positive outlook than if it would have been under the Bush administration."

US popularity in the Middle East fell to an all-time low in the aftermath of the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and former president George W. Bush's staunch support of Israel.

But Obama has vowed the United States is "ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest" with Arab and Muslim countries.

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