Keep the lights on for Arab cultural capitals

The place which a capital occupies in cultural affairs is a valuable asset that should not be underestimated.

Friday 09/04/2021
Dancers in traditional Egyptian costumes participate in The International Festival for Drums and Traditional Arts in El-Moez street in historical Fatimid Cairo, Egypt. (AFP)
Dancers in traditional Egyptian costumes participate in The International Festival for Drums and Traditional Arts in El-Moez street in historical Fatimid Cairo, Egypt. (AFP)

The scene of the rise and fall of Arab cultural cities is repeated.

The reasons are numerous, but the result is the same, and it means a loss for the region, its intellectuals, and its people.

The place which a capital occupies in cultural affairs is a valuable asset that should not be underestimated. It takes a lot of time and effort to build, but the result is absolutely positive.

Since the exit of the Ottomans and the coming of Westerners into the Arab world, the capitals have prospered. Cairo preceded everyone. The “mother of the world”, par excellence, at the time. Cairo, and some major cities in Egypt, bustling with activity. Cultural creativity would not stop in one way or the other. Literature, art, cinema and theatre productions as well as interest in the plastic arts were probably better than some European-Mediterranean countries. Egyptian cinema used to produce hundreds of films each year. Where was the Greek film industry, for instance?

Cultural influence radiated from Cairo and spread warmth to many parts of the Arab world. The rival capitals, Baghdad and Damascus, then paid attention.

It was not long before the movement began to sweep through the public, as it acquired an artistic and cultural taste. The public clamoured for Iraqi and Syrian touches in all art genres. Beirut was the smartest among the emerging actors. It knew where the movement would stop in Baghdad and Damascus, and where political intervention would fail in the Egyptian cultural scene after the fifties.

The capitals were important for their people, first, and for the Arabs they attracted, second. At one point, these capitals were competing for cultural glory, and mixing artistic, literary and political themes. We were the beneficiaries.

Other capitals were starting to rise and quickly learning their lesson. In Kuwait of the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of roads in the new city ran parallel with the sponsorship of cultural projects, with the flourishing of theatre and drama, and with the tapping into heritage.

Then the political overpowered the cultural. The journey of atrophy then began. Songs became patriotic hymns. Statues were sculpted to glorify leaders. Paintings became pictures of battles and suffering, offering images of real and fake glories. You could find even a group called the “Military Theatre”. Is there worse than this name? Literature is the literature of conflicts and battles. Cinema fell between business films and dark experimental films that evaded reality. Woe to us from what the poets did.

This does not mean that the arena is devoid of intellectuals. They were sad witnesses to the scene of broken cultural capitals, waiting for a way out of the crisis. The wait has been long and things are still the same in these cities.

At an important historical juncture, the Gulf presented itself as an alternative. Arab intellectuals were welcomed. They had festivals, initiatives and projects. Most importantly, they had the money that could help instil the cultural landscape with movement. Abundant money was generously spent.

You go to any Gulf capital and you see the architectural and urban movement in full swing. Culturally sophisticated people were reassured because that was the normal state of affairs in the first place.

The political dimension was relatively absent. The Gulf people really wanted the cities of the Gulf to become the cities of alternative Arab culture.

The competition between the capitals was in full swing. And the most beautiful thing about the scene was its diversity. Some cities chose heritage. Others a mix between heritage and contemporary art. A third group of cities, used some of heritage-based  symbolism but admitted that there were limits to the results achieved and set to establish new cultural foundations premised on the dynamics of the changing world

The Gulf region was aware of the changes. It is difficult to imagine a country being able to emerge from the domination of the Salafists, for example, without the help of culture. The Islamists preceded the intellectuals to the Gulf, and it was necessary to dismantle their system there.

A politician can take a security measure banning the activities of individuals and groups. However, the real impact on society passes through its cultural reconfiguration with different tools, one of which is direct cultural activity, and the other indirect action through the media.

In this endeavour, the Gulf states leased cultural spaces in traditional capitals. Drama production took place in Syria and Egypt. Shows were produced in Lebanon. Historical drama was filmed in Morocco.

These countries have not forgotten their contribution to Gulf productions. Drama emerged so did demand for it. It is true that the faces were repetitious to the point of boredom, but they were present and demanded. Just had a touch of botox and fillers added to the faces.

The Gulf states borrowed from the Arab cultural heritage in the face of extremism as well, and there were remarkable breakthroughs in dealing with the takfiri, Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood mindsets in society. The calm now prevailing in the Gulf, the decline in the export of suicide bombers to neighbouring countries, and the curbs on jihadist funding are not only a result of the tightening of the security grip. Culture has been present. A TV series can change the minds of hundreds of thousands of people. A documentary film about the disasters of war in a neighbouring country gives pause to societies accustomed to peace, wealth and development.

But the trend is now receding. For financial and political reasons, the Gulf states are withdrawing their funding and sponsoring of intellectuals.

We do not say spend, but rather look at the past cities and make sure that nurturing the culture is no less important than acquiring the best advanced weapons. We need to keep the lights on for cultural cities.