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French Version

Cultural exchange: a relationship with life and history

Dialogue between East and West needs nurturing

Lebanese poet and cultural editor of Arabic daily As-Safir, Abbas Beydoun compares Berlin to the heart attack he had a couple of years ago - life changing

German writer Michael Kleeberg says Beirut put all his senses on edge - as if the city gave him a few more eyes and ears and a finer nose.

The pair were speaking in front of an attentive audience at the Lebanese American University at the beginning of February when Beydoun read poems from his book "A Season in Berlin" in Arabic and Kleeberg from his travelogue of Lebanon "The Crying Animal" in German.

The two writers befriended each other three years ago while participating in a cultural exchange program to promote knowledge of literature between Germany and the Middle East, organized by the German Goethe Institute. Beydoun and Kleeberg accompanied each other and wrote about their experiences in and with one another's culture and have now met up again to continue discussing the meaning of cultural dialogue.

Beydoun is convinced his personal friendship with Kleeberg translates to a wider cultural dialogue between the East and the West.

"When the dialogue becomes a personal relationship and friendship between two people, the dialogue between two cultures becomes capable of turning into a relationship with life and history," he says.

Beydoun has a point. The East and the West have been linked for hundreds of years through trade, exchange of goods, ideas, values, art - in other words cultural experience and dialogue. In a modern world where instability sometimes breeds fear and hate, it is more necessary than ever to nurture that dialogue. For several decades European cultural institutes have been firmly based in Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East, such as Egypt and Jordan, to do just that - get people talking to each other though cultural exchange.

Beirut alone has one of the biggest French Cultural Missions and Spanish Cervantes Institutes in the world. It also has a strong arm of the British Council and Goethe Institute. All provide funding for local artists and musicians, local cultural projects by young and old alike, they print publications, help young Lebanese to go abroad to study and learn European languages and most relevant here they promote exchanges between European artists and local creative figures, thus creating dialogue, respect and understanding.

Rolf Stehle, head of the Goethe Institute in Beirut, explains that, "dialogue has become more vital in the last two years - in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 - because it showed that there are big gaps between cultures and that people are prejudiced."

He adds, however, that there are "many different powers in society that do want to have dialogue and do want our programs" - particularly referring to a forum on violence against women organized by the institute last March, where a Catholic and a Protestant priest, a representative from the Shiite Council and another from an NGO discussed together. That meeting was covered in the German press - raising awareness and informing people that open discussion is going on in Lebanon, something which is not so widely known.

At the Cervantes Institute, director Adrian Rodriguez Junco thinks of culture as the "language of understanding and bringing together" arguing that, "culture is more developed than politics, more developed than anything. Culture is communication and connection, especially when culture is used as exchange."

An example of this cultural exchange is taking place this spring when the Cervantes Institute will invite world-famous guitarists from Spain and Latin America to hold concerts in Lebanon and give lessons to those who want to learn.

Another example of positive exchange is the UK-based Kneehigh Theater Company which was brought to Lebanon by the British Council to put on an avant-garde performance at the old Madina Theater in Hamra and which also held workshops on body language techniques and group dynamics for Lebanese and Syrian drama students.

Kenneth Churchill, director of the British Council in Lebanon, says the project invoked "real and genuine interchange, not only between British and Middle Eastern actors but between Lebanese and Syrian actors as well."

Making lasting connections through interaction, partnerships and sponsoring of local projects is all part of keeping the cultural dialogue stable and yet varied. "We need each other. Our local partners need us and we need them. It is our task to support them," Stehle says.

The Goethe Institute funds local festivals, dance and theatre groups and wants to help establish permanent cultural structures - such as an opera house - in Beirut and Lebanon.

According to one of Beirut's more active cultural figures, Mustafa Yamout - who goes by the name of Zico - who runs the cultural and artistic foundation Zico House providing a platform for local artists and musicians of all types and organizes the annual Beirut Street Festival, the cultural structure is in crisis because it cannot support local artists who end up leaving Lebanon to gain better recognition abroad.

The crisis has more explanations. First, the cultural scene is becoming increasingly superficial because of commercialization says Asaad Khairallah, professor at the Arabic and Near Eastern Languages Department at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Second, Lebanese culture is in a deadlock because memories of the civil war have never been analyzed.

"The closed wound has to be opened - otherwise we are going to have another civil war in 20 years," Khairallah says.

These different explanations show that Beirut's young cultural scene is in process of defining itself and though European cultural influences surely keep dialogue between the foreign and the local open and help healing the wounds of Lebanon's past, they are perhaps influencing the future cultural identity of Lebanon too much.

Is the cultural dialogue being dictated by the European presence and is the local cultural scene being diluted because of it?

Yamout is convinced the Lebanese always welcome new cultural influences but says, "Our Arabic norm is influencing this city while it is cosmopolitan at the same time. We bring culture here from all over the world - Europe, America, Asia - and then put the Lebanese touch upon it."

But Joelle Rached, a 25-year-old medical student at AUB thinks differently. Though mentally and culturally educated as European and therefore able to keep an open dialogue with the West, politically she is an Arab.

"We seem more liberal than we really are," she says and explains that cultural dialogue is missing in Lebanon because the different sects stick to themselves.

But the British Council, for one, is trying to reach more people to change that - and the Lebanese youth is a primary focus. Churchill argues that, "Nowadays, younger people are getting a bigger and bigger voice in the world and we simply can't go on running offices which ignore that."

It is a point well made. According to a survey called "The Arab Street Revisited: Research from within" published in The Daily Star on Feb. 5, 2005, there is striking evidence of increasing extremist anti-American and anti-British views among the Arab youth. The survey was conducted in mid-2004 in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) under the aegis of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan and included - among other samples - one sample of 500 university students in each country.

The data shows that young Arabs are more radical than their parents - 84 percent of 16-24-year-olds had a negative view of the U.S. compared to 73 percent of people aged 45 and up. Though the findings clearly state the negative view concerns politics and not culture or religion, it could cut short future cultural dialogue between the East and the West - particularly as 50 percent of the Arab's world population of 250 million is under the age of 25.

Despite the worrying trend of increasing radicalism among the Arab youth and the fact that internal Lebanese divisions can undermine cultural exchange, now more than ever before with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Monday, the Lebanese experience of welcoming cultural influences from all over the world and then localizing them shows that the cultural dialogue is working and is doing so with the help of the European cultural presence here.

Each country - whether Middle Eastern or European - has its own complexities to offer but the long tradition of communication between the East and the West explains the fact that cultural dialogue is part of human nature and so can easily be kept alive.

Beirut,21February2005
Liv Lewtischnik
The Daily Star


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