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The Wall Street Journal
Arts & Entertainment

Muslim Voices, Western Ears

By MELIK KAYLAN
June 17, 2009

There’s no doubt that the 10–day Muslim Voices festival staged around New York City that ended on Sunday featured some highly superior expressions of Muslim culture past and present — or, one should say, expressions of culture from Islamic countries, because the organizers did not intend the festival to provide a coherent impression of what constitutes Muslim culture. Indeed, they explicitly intended the reverse. Americans have a monolithic, negative and superficial view of Islam that the festival was meant to correct, the organizers repeatedly said and wrote.

As a result, theirs was a scattershot approach, offering what the program called “kaleidoscopic richness“ from 20 countries and presenting everything from calligraphy to music, movies, video, theater, film, interviews and the like produced by more than 100 artists and performers. The festival took three years to produce, cost $2.5 million and was a collaborative effort of three main organizers: the Asia Society, Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York University’s Center for Dialogues, a post–9/11 think tank dedicated to fostering understanding between Islam and the West.

Muslim Voices, Western EarsRichard Termine

Muslim Voices, Western EarsFayez Kazak and Amal Omran in “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.”

In the opening two–day conference, the organizers laid out their agenda with the recurrent mantras that such occasions produce. Diversity: good. Clash of Civilizations: bad. And it’s usually the U.S. that gets tainted with responsibility for the “bad“ side. Sure enough, Mustapha Tlili, director of the Center for Dialogues, noted that cultural exchange could do only so much when real policies caused real problems. He cited, among other items, the “the pain of three million displaced Pakistanis, the exertions of Iraqis longing for peace, the frustration of Iran in the nuclear arena“ as “acutely felt grievances in the Muslim world.“ He added that “these are not issues that can be addressed in this event.”

Nevertheless, the seemingly unexceptionable nature of the festival’s premise — to enhance mutual understanding between cultures — had its own problems. For one thing, such painstakingly well–meaning projects often produce achingly dull results, more earnest than entertaining. The festival offered several such examples, among them the Youssou N’Dour documentary “I Bring What I Love,” a portrait of the Senegalese performer as he made his Grammy–winning album “Egypt” that proved dismayingly inchoate and overworshipful. And, as always, there was a musical–fusion event offering painful why–can’t–we–all–get–along music. This time it was an “evening of musical exchange between Christian/African–American gospel music and qawwali, the 700–year–old tradition of Sufi praise music.”

The festival did bring to audiences several examples of true cultural artistry for which the organizers should be warmly congratulated. Only, one doubted that many Muslims attended events like these in their home countries. How typical of broader Islamic culture were such events and how much should they alter American impressions of prevailing cultural standards in Islam? In the area of theater, for example, BAM featured “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,” an outstanding cultural achievement by any standards — but how many in the Muslim world would be affected by it?

The “Richard” project was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and is the creation of renowned Kuwaiti dramatist Sulayman Al–Bassam. In Arabic with English subtitles, it’s a startlingly original retooling — at times kitsch and macabre; at others, farcical — of the Richard III story around a Saddam–like figure. In the program, Mr. Al–Bassam points out that Iraq under Saddam was a Republic, whereas this story is set in a kingdom not unlike one of the Gulf states. It came as a surprise to me to learn that the play had been publicly performed in Kuwait and Syria, altering my view of what was possible in such countries. But did it alter the views of many citizens or their rulers in those countries? And what about Yemen or Somalia, where no one would see it? How many Muslims world–wide go to the theater as opposed to fundamentalist mosques?

To take another example: At the Asia Society, “Dastangoi: The Adventures of Amir Hamza” was performed simply by two storytellers in white silk outfits sitting on a low wood platform with cushions. They were joined by Naseeruddin Shah, an Indian film actor and celebrity, who provided the evening’s star turn. As they explained with fluent poise in perfect English in the introduction, these were centuries–old oral tales derived from Persian epics that relate the near–occult adventures of Amir Hamza, a purported uncle of the Prophet. The traditions attained a peak in 19th–century Lucknow, India, when thousands would turn up for days to hear the verse–epics of love, war, betrayal and sorcery. The last old–time Dastangoi, or practitioner of the art, died in Delhi in 1920.

Faced with two hours of nonstop Urdu, I expected the worst. But the performance proved riveting. The perfectly pitched musicality of the voices, by turns lyrical and humorous; the astonishing plasticity of facial expressions; the infinitely varied hand–gestures — suddenly, I was staring down the centuries at a civilization’s golden moment. This, I thought, is how all those figures in miniatures would sound and act if they came to life.

Unquestionably, Islam produced great culture — and if Americans don’t know that, they should. But how many Muslims are exposed to this art form today, and therefore why should it change anyone’s “monolithic” view of contemporary Islamic culture?

I had similar thoughts about the extraordinary new IMAX film “Journey to Mecca” at the American Museum of Natural History. The visually magnificent movie features a dramatization of 14th–century Muslim savant Ibn Battuta’s religious pilgrimage, bookended by vistas of the hajj in progress, for which the (Western) filmmakers got special permission to shoot footage in and around the holy site. The museum’s 800–seat auditorium was sold out — and, indeed, the film sells out wherever it gets shown, even in the West. As a form of cultural diplomacy, “Journey to Mecca” can hardly be bettered — it comes closest to plugging some of the holes in the festival’s premise: Here is the heart of Muslim culture; this is a glimpse of what all Muslims share, highbrow or low, African, Arab, Asian or European.

Yet nothing in the festival could ultimately fulfill the organizers’ agenda, because they presented as examples of Muslim–culture artforms that mostly Western or Westernized Muslims consume. How many Americans will believe — and why should they? — that any of this reveals the prevailing culture of the vast majority of today’s practicing Muslims? That monolith, rather than the one of American preconceptions, would most benefit from exposure to the festival’s finest offerings.

Mr. Kaylan writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.
( Read this article online > )

 

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