I’ve spent years attending academic conferences in the U.S. and abroad, but I’ve never been to a cultural/international conference like the World Culture Forum, which is being held at the Dead Sea in Jordan this week. This conference includes academic panels that one might expect at such an event as well as art, dance, music, and theater. Its theme is “investing in culture for social justice and development.” It is telling what the conference’s Opening Ceremony included. It began with a poem by Samer Raimouny called “Green Palms…Ode to the Land.” This was instructive as it sent the tone and tenor for the conference by introducing the participants—people from all over the globe—to Jordan as in its first stanza:
Some say it’s the Holyland
Others say it is the Middle East’s lifeline.
The paragon of achievable expanses…While
Others remain in doubt of all its realistic stances.
Others not really forming an opinion…
Not hot-spotted enough to be given their glances.
It was wonderful to see poetry taking such a prominent place in the event’s structure. Indeed Raimouny appeared first—even before the royalty in attendance. I was impressed by most of the opening speakers’ remarks. Iman Al-Hindawi, who is the Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Culture and Development, which organized the event in Jordan (last year it was in Brazil and next year it will be in India). She talked about the ways in which culture is a system of development in a global context. Her vision for the ways in which culture can and should be used is to help contribute to a world in which the role of culture is widely recognized. One way this is implemented at the conference is by inviting school children and university students from Jordan to attend. It was wonderful seeing the uniform-clad children watching performances and even listening to academic papers today.
Her Royal Highness Princess Wijdan Ali was the keynote lecturer who talked about the ways in which our work in the arena of culture is not divided between east and west, north and south, but between acceptance and refusal, tolerance and hate, peace and terrorism. In her world vision peace can be achieved through cultural understanding, which would eradicate a “cultural apartheid.” This cultural separation is most pronounced in the ways in which a culture of fear keeps people from seeing the Other in an objective light. As with Iman, she envisions the dividends of cultural investment will come to fruition through the symbolic and actual attendance of the youth at the conference.
I was impressed, too, by the welcome address given by His Excellency Senator Akel Biltaji who opened by stating, “Senators do care and get involved in culture.” If only this were true in the U.S.
The morning’s ceremony concluded with the artistic drumming performance of the Xi’an Ancient Drum Music Society from China. The drumming was quite powerful, which makes sense because it is inspired by both Buddhism and Taoism. There was an other cultural exhibit from China of calligraphy by Professor Shih-I Wang and Mr. Chao-ming Wu. This exhibit was fascinating because alongside traditional calligraphy paintings one could see a special series entitled the Iraqi War Series by Wu. He selected some of the most disturbing reports about the U.S. occupation of Iraq from Chinese newspapers and painted his comments on the scenes, ostensibly blending editorialized comments and artistic expression. You can see two of his pieces of art in the image above.
Lunch was very interesting. Never before have I attended a conference where I could eat with someone from Bulgaria, Bangladesh, India, Jordan, Azerbaijan, and Palestine. This wasn’t just my table. This is the conference—and so much more than this. There are people from Rwanda, Australia, Egypt, Algeria. Everywhere.
I only had the opportunity to attend one panel today because I’m still finalizing my paper, which I’ll be giving on Tuesday. But the panel I chose to attend was fantastic. The panel was on Theater and Development. I learned a lot there, especially from two panelists. The first one, Lina Attel Batayneh, works with the Performing Arts Center of the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation. They are doing really interesting things by applying both Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed as well as the British project of Theater in Education. They create plays out of contemporary issues. They take these plays to villages—they perform in Bedouin tents to people who have never seen a movie let alone a play—and they take their work into the schools. Following the traditions that inform their work, their theater is interactive. That is, it asks the audience to engage with the actors and to ask questions about the roles they play. The actors stay in character during this phase of the performance, which enables the students to have interesting debates. They will be performing their play “Memoirs of a Woman” tomorrow night which deals with domestic violence.
The other fantastic speaker was Abed who is the director of the Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center in the Aida refugee camp just outside Bethlehem. I had recently seen a performance of theirs on the Electronic Intifada website, which took place at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. I encourage you to check it out—it’s a brief film, but it’s a wonderful sense of what they do. It’s sort of like the Ibdaa’ performances, but rather than limiting their work to dance they theater as well. Like Ibdaa’, Al Rowwad tours Europe and the U.S. with their performances as a way to create cross-cultural understanding. Tomorrow I’ll get to see a DVD of one of their performances which I’m very excited about.