Today was my first full day at the World Culture Forum. The past two days I left early, much to my dismay, because I had to finish editing my presentation. Today I arrived for the first panel on Culture and Democracy. It was very interesting, especially the presentations of Haresh Sharma and Lamis Adony. Haresh is a playwright from Singapore who works with the Necessary Stage and the Singapore Fringe Festival. As with the Jordanian theatre company, he and his company are influenced by Augusto Boal as well as people like Anna Deveare Smith. He has created plays about a wide range of social issues from male chauvinism to mental health to HIV/AIDS, and to queer life in Singapore. For an American reader it may seem par for the course in terms of the art world, but in Singapore there are very tight government regulations about speech and art. Even when the government contacted him to write a play about mental illness, the Ministry of Culture critiqued his final product, which focused on schizophrenia and depression, because he focused on severe forms of mental illness and not something like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His play about HIV/AIDS featured the first out man with the disease in the play. (We saw visuals of some of these plays, but the audio was defunct so we couldn’t hear the dialogue.) He also has written a play about a group of gay people in Singapore putting on their first pride parade. Keep in mind that homosexuality is criminalized in Singapore, but nevertheless Haresh somehow managed to get them to allow a seven second kiss between two men on stage (it was ten seconds in the script, but the government cut three seconds off of it). The most interesting work are his recent projects, which resemble the reportage style of Smith. The first is a play called Mobile or The Asian Migrant Workers’ Project. Five artists are writing this play collaboratively from four countries. It will premiere this summer and it is about migrant workers in the region. And, finally, Haresh and his colleagues are producing a play about the Tsunami, after collecting interviews with people from around the region. Thai, Singaporean, and Malaysian actors will perform the verbatim interviews that are constructed into this performance piece.
Lamis Adony represented quite a different type of panelist as she works for Al Jazeera, and given all that is going on in the news related to this everyone in the audience, myself included, were delighted to have someone from the station to chat with. Indeed, on my drive down to the Dead Sea this morning I was thinking quite a bit about the media and terrorism as I listened to yesterday’s Democracy Now! on my iPod. To my horror I heard White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan say that the U.S. is the world leader in human rights. On any normal day I would, of course, find this both laughable and highly ironic. But given the reportage that would follow I found it especially alarming. The episode focused on the American practice of extraordinary rendition, a practice in which 1,200 CIA officials are working to kidnap people, take them to a prison in a country where they can torture these people as long as they want. How is it possible for a nation to claim they are leaders in human rights and they torture and terrorize people—regardless of whether they are innocent or not? The current issue with the British press silencing the Downing Street Memo, which has information about the U.S. plan to bomb Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha is not the only way in which U.S. policy is related to attacks on Al Jazeera. Five of Adony’s colleagues have been taken to Abu Ghraib and tortured. One has been taken to Guantánamo Bay, and one is in a Spanish jail for seven years. Finally, one colleague who was taken by the U.S. was forced to make a statement saying that Al Jazeera collaborates with Al Qaeda. Indeed, none of these Al Jazeera reporters are taken because the U.S. thinks they might be terrorists; rather, when they interrogate and torture them they only ask questions about Al Jazeera. In Fallujah U.S. forces bombed the house where Al Jazeera reporters were staying. It was amazing to hear more details about these episodes that confirm the deep, dangerous, and horrifying hypocrisy of the U.S.
The artistic pause for the day came from Rwanda. The Samputu Ingeli dance and music performance (see photo above) was an amazing piece that highlighted forgiveness and reconciliation. As a Tutsi Jean Paul Samputu, the leader of this fabulous group, sees forgiveness as key to moving forward as well as educating children. He is so amazingly committed to children that he has adopted twenty orphans! And he is not a rich man. He merely cares so deeply about the children of Rwanda and wants to make sure they are not only clothed and fed, but also nourished with education. Jean Paul uses the language of the drum and of the traditional Rwandan guitar to speak about peace and love in their performances. It was a really wonderful presentation and I strongly encourage people to email him (from the website link above) to invite him to dance and sing in your community.
My panel, “Cultural Diplomacy and the Culture of Peace” was in the afternoon and I spoke about Suheir Hammad, Def Jam Poetry, Palestinian hip-hop culture, and Jackie Salloum’s forthcoming film on that subject. I was floored by how excited everyone in the audience was about Suheir Hammad. I showed clips of her poetry reading on Def Jam and she stirred everyone. And, what was really wonderful is the fact that the room was filled with girls from a high school. Nothing like a fabulous feminist, political poet to move girls to act. In fact, I keep having people come up to me and ask if I have her DVDs or books for them to buy. They want her to come here to do a reading. They want to know more about what types of culture Arab Americans are producing. All very exciting. Even the translators in the back booth came up to ask me about her at the end of the panel.
My other panelists were interesting as well. One was from Denmark, a man who works for the Copenhagen International Theatre, but who is involved in a very interesting artistic project that involved changing perceptions of the Middle East in Denmark through arts and culture. Their project is called Images and they bring in artists from around the Middle East and in the diaspora. They bring in very cutting edge images to disrupt typical ideas about what the Middle East is like or looks like. The final panelist directs Bamboo Culture International in Taipei. She spoke about various initiatives for collaboration and dialogue for artists in Asia to communicate, share work, teach youth, work in public spaces, etc. She had so many amazing examples and images of the artwork and it was really powerful to see.
After the panel I had the wonderful opportunity of having Jean Paul join me for a cup of coffee. He told me about living in Rwanda during the genocide, and we talked about U.S. complicity in that (despite President Clinton’s belated and shallow apology). He has such visions for his country, especially creating schools and arts centers for children. When Abed joined us later they had a lot to discuss, in part because he runs such a program in Aida refugee camp in Palestine, and in part because there are some similarities between Rwanda and Palestine—especially the silence of people around the world who would rather quibble over whether or not there is ethnic cleansing or genocide rather than eradicate the problem (in this case, the occupation and the occupiers).
The evening ended with a film screening of Ibn Batuta, but I didn’t stay for entire film. Although I am fascinated by his story, the film was a bit strange. It wasn’t sure if it wanted to be a documentary or an epic drama. It’s a pity because the film was doing great showing Ibn Batuta’s historic travels across North Africa and Asia; but then these narratives are interrupted by talking heads who really don’t seem to bring very much to the story. The same information could have been conveyed through narration over the film’s visual images.