1st Conference on Cultural Policies in the Arab World


“Two years ago, when we suggested the idea of this conference to some of our Arab partners, they all started shouting: “Impossible! Independent cultural actors cannot speak to their governments!” The mere fact that we are all gathered here for this “next year’s impossible discussion” is already a very good start, considers Philippe Dietchmeir, Programme Co-ordinator at the European Cultural Foundation and convenor of the conference together with the Al Mawred al Thaqafy.
1st Conference on Cultural Policies in the Arab World
The first conference on Cultural Policies in the Arab region, held in Beirut on the 7th and 8th June 2010, is the result of a regional initiative meant to survey the main features of cultural policies in the Arab region launched in March 2009 by Al Mawred Al Thaqafy in co-operation with the European Cultural Foundation, DOEN Foundation and the British Council. It gave birth to an exhaustive research edited by Hannane Hajj Ali and entitled “Al Siassya al Thaqafy fi alam al arabi”(1).

It aimed at building a knowledge base to support planning and cultural cooperation in the region, as well as to propose mechanisms that vitalise cultural action in the Arab region. The initiative involved 8 countries in its first phase and represents an important stepping stone in Al Mawred’s efforts to support cultural action in the Arab region, as an extension of the cultural management programme they launched in 2005 with Arabic training programs for professionals in the cultural management field and the publication of four key reference books on cultural management in Arabic(2).

Dialogue with the “Islamic mainstream discourse”
Besides gathering Academics, cultural operators and institutional representatives, the conference also tackled the burning issues linked to the region’s political context. The debates all started with Samar Dudin, Director of Fakhween Open Spaces, who questioned the relationship between “independent culture” and the “Central Islamic discourse” (Merkez Islamy), i.e the mainstream Islamic discourse. Inspired from her work in small localities where sometimes the only public space is the mosque, she argued that cultural policies should “promote a daily contact between culture and schools, and in this, the Islamic discourse has to be involved”.

This viewpoint was confirmed by the Jordanian novelist Hazzaa El Barary who explained that the importance of the religious discourse in the cultural field is clearly visible in various book fairs throughout the region: religious books are by far the best sellers. This testifies, like it or not, that there is a real request for “religious culture”. However, the Algerian writer Amine Zaoui does not share this perspective. On the contrary, he wonders if there are intellectuals to be found in this so-called “Central Islamic discourse”. Culture cannot be Islamic or Christian, he added, while Neeme theatre writer from Beirut warned against one of the traps in which cultural actors often fall in. “We, Lebanese independent actors clash against Islamists while our politicians sit behind us and watch”.

Whose Authority is it?
Another fundamental question is related to the source of Authority (Sulta): Who has the Authority to speak about cultural policies today in the Arab world? Perhaps governments? The representatives of the “Central Islamic discourse”? Foreign Foundations? This was the introduction to the issue related to Ccultural policies and the position of culture in society. Watfa Hamadi, a Lebanese researcher in cultural policies, insisted on another prerequisite: “modern cultural policies are absolutely part of human rights” and this finds many obstacles in the region. Fatima Azzahrae Chaabani, from Morocco carried on this same track: the Moroccan case shows the need for a democratic struggle in the field of culture. In Morocco, few people decide upon assigning a lot funding to world music festivals for instance without thinking the least about funding instead folk music or public spaces for youth to express itself through music: “Moroccan festivals are a quest for entertainment, but there is above all a need to empower society”. Nadime Douma from Lebanon underlines another drawback of civil society’s involvement in cultural policies: “civil society under many aspects is taking over the role of governments: this way our governments are becoming lazy”.

Culture and Development
Case studies from outside the Arab world, from Africa and Turkey in particular, brought a more historical perspective about cultural policies. From 1966 onwards in Africa, quotes Youma Fall from Senegal, “we stopped being consumers and became producers of civilisation” (Senghor). The favourable climate of the 80’s created a positive environment for African artists and today a new cultural policy approach is emerging that is much more linked to development: “for a long time African artists worked in Europe and the USA and were hardly visible in Africa. The artists were therefore seen as marginal and of no importance for their societies: now it is largely felt that the time has come for reconciliation between the artists and their environment”.
A similar need for a historical reflection is underlined by Bilgi University Professor Serhan Ada: “there are no documents about cultural policies in Turkey” since 1923 there has been a process of cancellation of the past. It is crucial to reconstruct this past and give a national appraisal of the current situation(3).

Right time for the Arab world
Lyne Sneige Keyrouz, from the British council was fully optimistic and estimated that it is definitively the “right moment for the Arab world”. There has been a great accumulation of cultural productions, there is a critical mass and globally several models have failed (both in the US and in Europe) which can therefore be taken into account in order to look for new ways. She concluded by saying that constructive dialogue between Arab governments, people and the independent sector could actually “change the face of the Arab world”.

New global challenge for cultural policies
Robert Palmer, the keynote speaker of the Council of Europe for the session regarding the challenges facing culture in the national and international context (prerequisites and legal conditions for cultural policy making), insisted on the fact that the very concept of cultural policy is changing since new technologies and internet communities have entered the field: “there is no doubt that global music is more important than all the cultural policies decided by our institutions”. The interventions of Egyptian theatre critic Menha El Batraoui and Zeyneb Farhat, a cultural expert from El Teatro in Tunisia show the disparities of cultural realities in the “Arab world” regarding the legal context: only three theatre companies are registered as such in Egypt while Tunisia has an extremely advanced legal corpus concerning cultural policies.
Zeyneb Farhat also reminded the imperfection of the “Arab world” etiquette that does not reflect the cultural diversity in the region: “50 per cent of Maghreb people are not linked to Arab culture but to Amazigh or Berber culture”.

The director of the Middle East office of the Open Society Institute in Amman, Gregor Meiering, also questioned the concept of the legal context: the law by definition forbids, encourages, encompasses, regulates and protects: “in the Middle East though, I see a lot of laws that forbid culture but I cannot see laws that promote it”. Both governments and civil society should therefore start by protecting individual and intellectual freedom. Another urgent need is the importance of cultural data that is dramatically missing in the Arab world: more studies and observatories are needed in the cultural field. Provokingly, Andreas Wiesand from Ericarts, the publisher of the “Cultural Policies Compendium” wrapped up the session stating that sometimes laws in the cultural field can be extremely counter productive: last year the German government approved a law on libraries protection while it was cutting down on the financing of libraries.

Financing cultural policies
With the third session, one got to the “nerf de la guerre”, i.e. the financing of cultural policies from fund development to creative economy and cultural entrepreneurship. English representatives Sara Selwood and Shelagh Wright explained the principle of the British mixed economy, a model that is widely taken into consideration in the rest of Europe: “the government proves that it is fully aware of the fact that culture is what helps to understand how the world is, while cultural organisations are also expected to produce money”. In the same vein Tunisian cultural operator Wafe Belgacem insisted on the need for fundraising training which is completely absent in the region.

Syrian cultural operator Rana Yazaji spoke of the big change in Syrian cultural policies since Damascus was Arab Cultural Capital. After more than 50 years of the socialist model that considered culture as a means of resistance, a pan Arab tool or a vector to raise awareness about Arab causes, Damascus Arab cultural capital has been a stepping stone: the government created a special body that gained freedom of action: “this special year not only led to a greater and still visible dynamism within the country, but also to the increased interest of international bodies that now want to play a role in Syria”.

Representative governments: the big elephant in the room
The Ford foundation has been active in funding culture in the region in the past 60 years. As a veteran funder, the organisation is also the target of a “great deal of frustration, anger and conspiracy theories” notes programme officer for Media, Arts and Culture Moukhtar Kocache who considers that this frustration is largely due to the lack of information and distinction that cultural operators make between funders. Fortunately, one can also note that the last 10 years have witnessed an important increase in funding and dynamism in the region, stresses Kocache. “New people are entering the sector giving new impetus” and “private foundations have done very well in building infrastructures”. This does not mean, obviously, that cultural NGOs are all doing well, in fact, no organisation in the region has a stable financial system and the situation is therefore quite delicate.
“The budget system based on the list of expenses is another restriction, explains Kocache. Recipient organisations only spend what they are given, cutting on other interesting developments”. But he also identifies the “big elephant in the room”: Good governance is important both at macro and micro level: and the region has a very bad record in terms of governance but the big elephant in the room is not governance but representative governments”.

Corporate financing
In Turkey, private companies are financing cultural activities but, as Osman Kavala from Anadolu Kültür reports, they are also heavily criticised for this: the Biennale of Istanbul was largely condemned as IKSV was funded by a big Turkish corporate conglomerate. Several institutions like the Open Society Institute are ready to grant funds to creative projects leading to democratisation. According to Kavala, this is also questionable: to what extent should Artists do what funders say? It is good to ask for corporate money but frankly the competition is completely unfair, adds Professor Milena Dragicevic-Sesic from Serbia. “In Serbia corporate money goes to Museums and Opera Houses. Business is more attracted by prestigious and fancy institutions. Who would give money to a genocide project?”

How should one lobby for better cultural policies in non-democratic contexts? Who should have the authority to develop cultural policies? The first conference on cultural policies started with the right questions and the right modesty: much is still to be done.

1st Conference on Cultural Policies in the Arab World

1) (“Cultural Policies in the Arab World” English translation available from next September).
2) “The Guide to Cultural Management”, “Arts Management in Turbulent Times”, “Strategic Planning in the Arts” and “Arts Management Entrepreneurial Style”.
3) Together with a group of independent cultural actors, Ada is actually producing an “alternative cultural policy report” opposed to the official report compiled by Turkish authorities upon request of the Council of Europe.



Catherine Cornet


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