For Art’s Sake: the Arabesque Arts Festival

by Guest Contributor Yusra Tekbali 

All week, all I and my Arab and Arab-friendly friends (fellow Near Eastern studies graduates) have been talking about is Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World, being held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  It is the largest congregation of Arab artists ever.

As a new Washington, D.C. resident, my status as an expatriate is two-fold: I’m not only an Arab outside ancestral terrain, but I’m far away from my niche, far away from the Arab household I was raised in and the community I grew up around. Needless to say I’m starving for some Libyan couscous (without the Parmesan) some falafel-flavored conversations (spicy) and Kunafah-esque affirmations. Give me some Arabesque!

Shukrun, Kennedy Center!

The three-week festival, presented in cooperation with The League of Arab States,   features 800 artists from around the Arab world: actors, dancers, musicians, writers, filmmakers, etc. Finally,  a diverse representation  of Arab culture! Finally, Arab women celebrating their own talent! Finally, Arabs in America as artists boasting their rich, splendid, unique traditions, the classical good stuff, not the plastic dolls and imitation pop stars, but the ‘oud, the whirling dervishes, the dabke. No western imitations and American idolizing here. No, this is purely Arab art–our own. These are our poets reciting our Diwan, our calligraphy; these are our own Arab men and women succeeding together. As this Washington Post editorial points out, this is huge!

Shayma & Amina, the Bahraini 'oud musiciansLocal Washington, D.C. papers like The Washington City Paper gave some love. Check out their very short profile of two Bahraini girls playing the ‘oud (pictured left). It’s short, but sometimes shorter is sweeter–and more effective. The headline reads, “Arabesque Festival Starts off with Grrl Power.” Without even reading the article, you’ve already connected the words Arab and Girl Power. It gets  better. Right underneath the headline is a photo of the artists, traditionally clad in headscarves and abayas, playing a traditionally male-dominated instrument.

The Examiner, another local paper, calls the art a cultural treasure, which shows that, contrary to other media accounts of death and destruction and intolerance in the Middle East, its people really do value art, and are concerned with preserving its significance in their culture.

To my surprise and disappointment, I found nothing at The New York Times. My Google search only returned a Times article from 2008, which only mentions the festival in general terms of the Kennedy Center’s upcoming season. Nothing from The LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, or the BBC. I thought for sure Al Jazeera would have a full-length preview at least, but I found no reports even mentioning the festival. Only IslamOnline did. One of the most detailed articles was a press release from The Jordan Embassy.

This Associated Press article was circulated in a couple papers. It’s good, but I was expecting more articles previewing the individual artists. Afterall, this is the largest congregation of Arab artists the world has ever seen, ever. There are 800 of them, instead of lumping their work together under the scope of the festival, I would have preferred to see a few individual profile pieces. Like the piece with the female Bahraini ‘oud musicians, only longer.

Like this detailed interview with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser from The Online News Hour at PBS. Mr. Kaiser says it’s not just about the art:

“I believe that this festival is going to help people to understand Arab people, to understand their aesthetic tastes, to understand their hospitality and their generosity and their passion, and we’ll start to understand them not just as political beings, but as human beings.”

Amen to that!