Arab intellectuals: investing in culture is a necessity, not a luxury

Many are critical of current cultural policies

Wednesday 15/07/2020
People look at books at the 40th Legacy Exhibition in Cairo International Film Festival at the Opera House in Cairo. (Reuters)
People look at books at the 40th Legacy Exhibition in Cairo International Film Festival at the Opera House in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO- Government policies and studies have often focused on economic and political issues while neglecting the cultural sphere, which is critical to enriching societies and shielding against the dangers of extremist ideologies.

The Arab Weekly asked a number of intellectuals for their opinions on what the lack of investment in culture means for Arab societies. Have Arab states lost confidence in the role of culture and intellectuals, or is the economy simply more of a priority?

The intellectuals all said that Arab governments do not invest enough resources in culture and that Arab societies need to move away from viewing cultural activities as simply a form of entertainment.

Egyptian Professor of Theater Sciences Nabil Bahgat said Arab countries often lack adequate cultural management.

“Culture is an economic product, and if we don’t deal with it in this sense, we will lose the product and the market, and our markets will be dominated by imported models and ideas,” Bahgat told The Arab Weekly.

Egyptian critic Mahmoud Al-Dabaa said that throughout the history, renaissance movements have been bolstered by a clear, defined strategic vision supported by three basic pillars: “economic and military power, internal and external policy, and the development of education, culture, and awareness.”

Unfortunately, he added, “the concept of culture has been narrowed and reduced to a modality of thought that consider culture as activities of entertainment, which is not true.” He said that “facing the current major issues will not be solved without culture, especially dealing with extremism, terrorism and the failure of values.”

Egyptian writer Nasser Iraq warned that Arab societies will pay a heavy price for neglecting culture. “Unfortunately, many Arab governments imagine that culture is just an entertainment activity, which is false. Culture is a necessary not a dispensable tool,” he said.

Members of Egypt’s Wamda troupe manipulate puppets during a Aragoz puppets show in Beit al-Sehemi, in Cairo’s Gamaliya district. (AFP)
Members of Egypt’s Wamda troupe manipulate puppets during a Aragoz puppets show in Beit al-Sehemi, in Cairo’s Gamaliya district. (AFP)

Egyptian poet and translator Abdul Wahab Al-Sheikh recalled how cultural works, such as magazines, helped develop newly independent counties in the sixties and seventies.

“Economy without a cultural dimension will take us back to the dystopia of George Orwell in his novel 1984,” Sheikh said. “Therefore, we find the eagerness of the developed countries to allocate large budgets for cultural activities.”

Sheikh criticised how the cultural sector in some Arab countries is under government control, which limits intellectuals.

Egyptian writer Zeinab Afifi pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic has severely set back cultural activities throughout the world.

Afifi emphasised the necessity of providing financial support to cultural sectors, including by allocating budgets to help mitigate losses and developing new strategies that will help the field move forward given the new circumstances.

“It has become imperative to look for appropriate alternatives to allow societies to pursue cultural initiatives, and to activate the use of cyberspace to enhance cultural life,” she said.

Egyptian writer Nahid Rahil agreed with Afifi, noting that state institutions should start coming up with strategies to help the cultural sector revive after the pandemic.

Just as the “Black Death” plague helped spark a renaissance, the coronavirus pandemic may help the world open a new chapter in cultural advancement.