May 17th, 2009
NEW YORK: “As a man of culture, it is my view that we often neglect culture as a bridge between civilizations and people,” says Mustapha Tlili, the Tunisian scholar and novelist who is one of the principle organizers of a new cultural festival, Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas, which runs from June 5-14 in New York City.
Muslim Voices promises 25 different events encompassing art, theater, music and film. Highlights include a concert with Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, an Arabic language production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, an oral dramatization of the adventures of the Prophet Muhammed’s uncle, Amir Hamza, and a conversation between author Reza Aslan and Asia Society President Vishakha Desai. There will even be an authentic souk erected on the grounds of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“When we first conceived of this Festival, things were going badly between the US and the Islamic world,” said Tlili. “But the political agenda and cycle in the United States worked in our favor.”
In fact the timing couldn’t be better: Just a week before the Festival, BEA will have focused a day of programming on Arabic publishing (see our article from earlier this week), and the day before the Festival opens, President Barack Obama is planning a major Middle East policy speech, which he plans to deliver while visiting Cairo.
Tlili has worked as a diplomat at the UN and as an academic, most recently as founder of the Center for Dialogues at New York University, a think tank to consider opportunities for exchange between the US, the West and the Middle East. A knight of the French Order of Arts and Letters, he has written six novels, the most recent of which is 2008s Un après-mini dans le desert, published by Gallimard in France and Sud Editions in Tunis. The book depicts the final days of domination by a European community in an unnamed North African country as it is liberated from colonial rule by a war of independence.
“The theme of all my novels has been the fate of individuals caught between historical forces beyond their control,” says Tlili. “When the powerful become weak, the weak become powerful. Compassion is the one thing that binds us, the thing that defines us as human.”
His hope is that the Muslim Voices Festival will help establish a better — there is no word for it — dialogue between the West and the Muslim world.
“The divide is rooted in hard political issues such as the question of Palestine, the war in Iraq, relations with Iran, and other points of contention,” said Tlili. “Maybe this festival and its diversity of artistic expression will put a human face on their Muslim neighbors, one of dignity, respect and mutual understanding. It could be a new paradigm for the relationship between America and the Muslim world.”