Arab culture 2015: Hopes despite harsh realities
Cairo - Armed conflicts, bloodshed and political failures had a tragic toll on Arab culture in 2015 but vibrant cultural activities in non-war contexts signal opportunities for an Arab cultural reawakening.
Political developments, violence and wars in Arab countries, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, created grim realities for Arab artists, writers and poets. Many were displaced, uprooted and forced to flee conflicts, relocating in foreign countries, in a cascade of events that adversely affected their works.
Ahmed Darwish, an Egyptian professor of literature and writing critic, argued that culture should not necessarily be the by-product of political and economic conditions in society. “Arab culture can very well influence politics positively by changing public attitudes,” Darwish said.
However, this is easier said than done. In 2015, politics and violence affected cultural output in most Arab countries.
Documentaries depicting the harsh living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees were produced. Songs dwelling on the bitterness of the destruction wreaked on Arab countries by war emerged and melodies reflecting the feelings of estrangement by migrant artists uprooted from their homes by war and violence hit the airwaves.
Painters and photographers captured the ravages of wars in their work, all reflecting the bitter realities of the Arab world.
In Cairo, a kind of revolutionary documentary cinema has emerged, one that put the spotlight on the frustrations and disappointment of the “Tahrir Square revolutionaries” in making their political dreams reality.
Several painting and photo exhibitions, depicting the revolution as a lost dream, were curated. The movement, largely driven by youth many of whom were behind the January 2011 revolution, called for democratic rule, end of corruption and dismantling of the police state but those are still far-fetched objectives.
Egyptian cultural critics, however, see in these manifestations, the signs of a vibrant cultural life — although a bitter one — that cannot be seen in other “Arab spring” states.
But apart from the revolutionary documentary productions, Egypt’s mainstream cinema industry, the oldest in the Arab world, is seeing its demise amid an unprecedented exodus of talents in scriptwriting, directing and acting.
Veteran actor Mahmoud Yassine says the “commercialisation of everything” in this industry is “forcing everything good out”.
“This industry is now dominated by a group of movie-makers who care only about money,” Yassine said. “Quality is the least element they cared for, which explains why good actors, directors and writers are stepping out.”
A more positive outlook was aired in art circles in Lebanon. “Economic conditions are harsh, and times are difficult in the Arab world, but this has made Arab men of culture more aware and concerned about beefing up culture which is probably the best option for salvation,” commented Saleh Barakat, an art expert and owner of the renowned Agial art galleries in Beirut and Dubai.
For Barakat, Arab cultural standing has not slipped. “In fact, there is a kind of reawakening in theatre, music and visual arts in Lebanon and part of the Arab world,” he said, referring to the opening of new museums, art galleries and arts institutions in Lebanon over the past year.
“It is true that in war countries conditions are harsh but in other places there is improvement in art which is becoming more global and compliant with international standards,” Barakat said.
In Libya, Iraq and Syria, writers, artists and poets have been migrating in droves to escape war and lawlessness. In Yemen, a poetic and cultural life that thrived, even without state support, is being ravaged by almost a year of civil war.
Kuwaiti thinker Frieh al-Anzi bemoaned the ugly image that jihadi terrorism has branded Islam and Arabs. “Arabs should go back to their cultural roots and focus on their cultural heritage to show the world that they have things other than venomous jihad and killing to offer,” Anzi said.
The challenges for Arab culture in 2016 are formidable, according to Syrian scholar Faisal al-Hafian, who stressed that the real test will be for Arab people of culture “to prevent a further degradation, disintegration and collapse of Arab culture”.
“While more economic, social and political failures cannot be ruled out in the Arab world, these failures should encourage, not discourage, culture and inspire its reawakening,” he said.
“We have been witnessing the collapse of one good value after another in the Arab world for years now… the real challenge for us all is to bring this collapse to an end,” added Hafian, who is director of the Arabic Manuscripts Institute in Cairo, an Arab League institute for protecting rare Arabic manuscripts.