The Middle East’s New Renaissance
It’s time to let go of outmoded — and parochial — ideas about what “culture” and “civilization” in the Arab world is supposed to look like.
Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia once defined civilization as “the collective effort of human genius built on cumulative contributions from many cultures.” The two key words here are “collective” and “cultures.” The crucial truth in that definition of civilization is the understanding that no single culture has a monopoly on human experience and that civilizations are not competing products in a marketplace of global ideas. The way civilizations evolve is through a collection of many contrapuntal voices that drive ever forward for the sake of common human progress. This is the first step toward understanding that humanity is currently embroiled in a struggle for civilization rather than a clash between civilizations.
Building a renaissance is characterized by the breaking down of walls and the free interchange of ideas. The most important light toward this path is to discover the contents of these many cultures. Meeting people face to face, reading their poetry, listening to their songs, and experiencing one another’s stories are prime reasons why both artists and diplomats alike will never be replaced by computers. As long as human beings remain human, personal interactions will remain irreplaceable. And that is why cultural diplomacy is so important and why it is damaging when it is underappreciated.
The power of love has repeatedly shown itself to be more potent than the power of intimidation in terms of long-term civilization building. The capacity to inspire construction and creativity is the force needed in order to lead and inspire a positive change in the world. And when it comes to the perceived irreconcilable differences between the Western world and its Arab allies in the Gulf, this is especially true. As a composer who has worked extensively in the cultural establishments of the Gulf, Europe, and the United States, I have experienced that the potential for true liberality (which must be characterized by open, and open-minded, respectful dialogue) could not be greater.
Which is precisely why the West needs to adopt a more two-sided and less chauvinistic dialogue with its Arab allies. This is not limited to the people-in-glass-houses irony of British and American commentators calling out the United Arab Emirates as a “surveillance state” or describing Emiratis as having “quite high self-regard,” as Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article. America and Britain both believe that they are exceptional nations and they are not exceptional in this regard. Most nations that have accomplished considerable successes will naturally and rightly be proud of these successes.
But this chauvinism, tinged with remnants of old imperialism in the language, is most disturbing when it gallivants as liberalism. Organizations like Human Rights Watch talk about social issues, including LGBT rights (the West often talks about sex as though it invented it) and the various roles held by women in several diverse societies, with a sweeping tone of counterproductive condescension. One of the saddest aspects of this is that these NGOs could serve a productive, important purpose if they took a page out of the cultural diplomacy book: open conversations with people on equal footing rather than talking at others.
Sexuality and gender identity, like everything else in society, evolve differently in different cultures. The idea that everybody from Japan to Turkey has to subscribe to a Western view of homosexual and heterosexual relationships smacks of colonial arrogance. And when the same organizations diminish the key roles that women play in top positions in Emirati society, they are not helping the advancement of women in the broader Middle East. They’re demeaning the accomplishments of fiercely talented women such as Lubna Al Qasimi; Minister of Youth Shamma al-Mazrui; high-ranking diplomat and United Nations ambassador Lana Nusseibeh; Razan al-Mubarak, secretary-general of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency; Amal al-Qubaisi, president of the Federal National Council; Hoda Kanoo, artistic director of the Abu Dhabi Festival; and Noura al-Kaabi, minister of state for Federal National Council affairs and key businesswoman, among others. These women have worked hard to earn their positions as leaders in a society where women are regularly outperforming men. To say otherwise is to deny them their accomplishments, and the UAE has every right to be proud of them.
Societies will evolve in such a way that is informed by their own histories and circumstances, and that doesn’t necessarily mean adopting a Western idea of feminism or Western attitudes about what it means to identify as LGBT (“Q,” “I,” and additional letters presumably to be readily embraced by all the world’s societies as soon as they are adopted in the West). A much better way to measure cultural attitudes about social issues would be to listen to the songs composed by songwriters of that place, by reading stories from that nation’s authors, and by absorbing the poetry of that country’s poets. If so much of 21st-century statecraft is about collecting intelligence, then reading the ancient poems of Abu Nawwas or Al-Khansa as a way of throwing light on topics including sexuality and women in Arab societies would prove an indispensable diplomatic tool.
Some key examples currently at play in the region illuminate success stories that can have global ramifications. The Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, is currently in its fifth season and has had cultural diplomacy as one of its explicitly stated goals since day one. Aside from bringing global productions that inspire global debates on creativity and culture to the Omani capital, its educational and outreach initiatives have tackled subjects including the music of Iraq, Italian opera, and, this year, a survey of 30 years of the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra’s activities. In Saudi Arabia, too, the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies has built the first public, nongovernmental library in the kingdom starting with a bibliographic database of more than 1.2 million subject headings. This is in addition to the vital initiatives that the center sponsors from the discussion of topics including the music and poetry of the Muslim world and the restoration of more than a thousand rare Persian, Arab, and Ottoman manuscripts. The result of this cultural discourse is useful in counteracting the narrative of extremist ideologies by both educating people about the cultures at hand and counteracting the loud voices of terrorists as they exact their agenda of destruction.
The internationalism of the UAE (where people of more than 202 nationalities live) provides a veritable laboratory for exploring cultural interchange and learning. In such a diverse society, the task of intercultural connectivity is not just a fascinating question or a way to build understanding; it is also a catalyst for engendering community. At such cultural centers including the Abu Dhabi Festival, the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, and the neighboring Dubai Opera, artists representing more than 60 nationalities cumulatively have brought their voices to the UAE, while the Guggenheim has seen curators in both Abu Dhabi and New York City work together to develop a collection for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi that includes a significant representation (some 70 percent of the collection) of non-Euro/American artists and works. Meanwhile, also paying attention to indie operations like Cinema Akil and the galleries of Alserkal Avenue featuring independent artists from across the world with an emphasis on local and Arab works can help us gauge the pulse of societal priorities on a grassroots level.
The value of these microcosmic experiments might be eye-opening if we see their replication on a global scale as a way to diffuse tensions and turn down the volume in an increasingly interconnected world.
The thing about concert halls, museums, opera houses, theaters, and libraries is that they are designed as places of listening and meditation where people can discover more about one another. We need more of these houses of wisdom that illuminate the collective genius of humanity and engender conversation. Lecturing people on how they should run their lives doesn’t work. Cultural dialogue and diplomacy do.
Some in the West seem to want the entire world to conform to a second-rate replica of Canada or some (nonexistent) Nordic standard. That seems more like fascism than liberalism. Rather, let’s embrace what makes this planet so awesome — its dizzying diversity and infinite variety.
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