In this session, participants were asked to consider the roles that artists and patrons — public and private, religious and secular, domestic and international — play in generating “cultural capital.” How can cultural capital, including commercial output, be harnessed to support substantive dialogue and relationships among global populations? Moderator Farhan Nizami, Director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, opened by urging participants to focus on practical ways in which the arts can contribute to mutual understanding.
Nizami described diplomacy as “the art of providing ladders for people to climb down.” Cultural diplomacy can make these ladders stable and comfortable; perhaps more importantly, it can suggest a desire to understand the narrative of the other, without trying to influence or reinterpret it. Whereas diplomacy is what takes place between states, cultural diplomacy takes place between societies. It can build bridges between them, but the bridges’ strength depends on people appreciating the cultural variations that they experience.
Nizami concluded his introduction with two broad points. First, if the purpose of this project is to understand the narrative of “the other,” there are many positive potential results. If we could make Baghdad as familiar a cultural reference point as Venice, for example, it would put a face on human suffering and sensitize us to the Iraqis’ pain, which we all too often ignore. Second, we need to develop a new vocabulary that distinguishes between art and culture, makes authenticity a requirement for legitimacy, and prioritizes the examination of values that all understand but do not necessarily share.
The first speaker, Zarqa Nawaz, addressed the issue of how art and cultural capital can promote mutual understanding between Muslim and non–Muslim individuals, communities, and nation–states, taking into account her own experience as the creator and executive producer of the Canadian sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” Nawaz came to be a producer in a roundabout way: she is the child of immigrant parents who encouraged her to become a doctor, and she studied science in college. After not passing the medical school entrance exam, she turned to journalism, working for a while for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canada’s national television channel.
Eventually, Nawaz realized that she wanted to tell her own story, and decided to move into film. She made several short satirical films as well as a documentary, Me and the Mosque, which explored how Wahhabi imams affect the lives of Muslim men and women in the West. The film stemmed from Nawaz’s personal experience; after moving to western Canada with her husband, their small, liberal mosque was transformed when a Saudi Arabian imam imposed gender segregation.
Nawaz began to wonder what a mosque would be like if it grew organically within its community and was inspired to create “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” The show’s imam is a former big–city lawyer who has a calling to become an imam and is posted to a small mosque on the Canadian prairie. The show includes seven Muslim characters that play on different archetypes — for example, the stringent South Asian immigrant who doubts the new imam partly because he is beardless. CBC bought the show — initially ordering eight episodes, but increasing the order to twenty for the second season. “Little Mosque” is now the channel’s highest–rated sitcom; it revitalized the network at a time when the Canadian government was considering funding cuts. The show has been sold to 60 countries and can also be seen on YouTube.
Tahar ben Jelloun, poet and writer and recipient of numerous awards, including the Prix Goncourt, addressed how inequalities of power and money impact cultural exchanges, and how this impact might be minimized. As an illustration, Ben Jelloun read a selection from his latest novel, Au Pays (Gallimard éditions, 2009). The main character, Mohamed, is a Moroccan émigré in his 60s. Although illiterate, his most prized possession is his copy of the Quran. Ben Jelloun emphasized that illiteracy did not mean that Mohamed is without culture; the Quran is his culture, his identity, his passport, and his pride.
Ben Jelloun suggested that it is not an accident that increasing numbers of people are embracing Islam, even though it has come under suspicion in recent years. This increase is creating fear and jealousy in Americans, he said, who only see Islam as “poverty and bombs.” His character Mohamed would not have had the courage to respond to this jealousy and would have instead taken solace in the Quran. Indeed, at the end of Au Pays, Mohamed returns to Morocco, but his children remain in France. They are happy, but they have new problems — French problems. Mohamed does not resent the West, which was his home for 40 years; all along, the message of the Quran, the book he could not read, was in his heart, and comforted him.
The third speaker, Pennie Ojeda, Director of International Activities at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), presented her work with the NEA as a case study of how to manage the power equation in cultural exchanges. She focused on a current NEA project with the Pakistani government, in which the U.S. would publish an anthology of Pakistani poetry, and Pakistan would publish an anthology of American poetry.
Ojeda began by noting that, unlike many other countries, the United States has no “Ministry of Culture”; instead, it has several arts and culture–focused agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA supports domestic organizations engaged in cultural projects on a national scale, but it also supports some international projects, usually in coordination with private organizations. The NEA itself operates with a staff of 150 people; its annual budget of $155 million funds all government–supported art in the United States.
Ojeda described the international literary exchange between the NEA and Pakistan’s Ministry of Culture as a work in progress; the specific goal is to promote the availability, in Pakistan, of American poetry translated into Urdu. But publishing the counterpart anthology of Urdu poetry translated into English has presented several bureaucratic challenges. In order to select a publisher — Eastern Washington University Press — the NEA had to undertake a time–consuming grant competition. The government of Pakistan, on the other hand, was able to designate the Pakistani Academy of Letters. The “power equation,” in other words, does not always give the U.S. the advantage.
The translation process has also taken more time in the U.S., Ojeda explained, because it was difficult to find Urdu–English literary translators. Nor could the NEA underwrite the cost of publication, which meant that Eastern Washington University press had to be able to publish a marketable book. This made publishing a bilingual book, as will be done in Pakistan, impossible; in the United States, the poetry anthology will be published exclusively as a translation. It will not include the original Urdu text.
Ojeda said that although the project has created relationships between the NEA and the Parkistani Ministry of Culture, the true cultural exchange will begin once the anthologies are published. The next phase of the project will involve sending American poets to Pakistan and bringing Pakistani poets to the U.S. for a promotional book tour. Six American universities have committed to hosting events with students, as will the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. At this point, a cultural dialogue involving audiences will begin, hopefully leading to the establishment of substantive positive relationships.
In the United States, Ojeda explained, the Department of State is the agency generally responsible for cultural diplomacy, but cultural diplomacy is precisely where arts–driven government initiatives can take the lead. In the case of the poetry exchange with Pakistan, it may complement government objectives, but does not intend or expect to fulfill them. The interpersonal relationships created by this project will continue to develop over time, regardless of the status of the political relationship between the two governments.
Discussant Rachel Cooper, Director of Cultural Programs and Performing Arts at The Asia Society, began by observing that the speakers generally appeared wary or critical of government–initiated exchanges, but that this might reflect a problem of nomenclature. She asked that during the floor discussion, participants look at pragmatic ways of reaching people: what are the goals of each project, and what are the agendas of the organizations responsible for carrying them out.
Cooper suggested that one idea is to build relationships not just between artists and audiences, but between people who coordinate exhibits and performances in different countries. Exhibitors’ support can help foster a culture of listening — not only in the sense of experiencing different art forms — but, more broadly, a culture of curiosity. Real listening means being invested in what is being heard and curious to the point of seeking out more.
Cooper closed by stating that if globalization has indeed made the world “flat,” as Thomas Friedman has suggested, then it is time to use the arts to find ways to bring people together. This also means defining what kind of impact arts initiatives can have and how to measure it. Should the impact be visible immediately, or after ten years of work? How is it manifested?
Discussion began with one participant citing the example of state–initiated cultural exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Soviets sent a hundred–person dance company that performed on the popular Ed Sullivan Show and then live for ten weeks to sold–out shows. The dance troupe successfully changed Americans’ image of what Soviets were like, and the American government scrambled to put together a dance troupe of their own. Avoiding government co–optation is of paramount importance for cultural exchange projects to succeed, the participant cautioned.
Authenticity and legitimacy are also factors to consider when assessing the success of cultural exchanges. For example, in Nawaz’s mosque in western Canada, the foreign Wahhabi imam was granted legitimacy because the community saw him as authentic, even though there was a different local authenticity. How is authenticity viewed, and which authenticity is granted greater power? Understanding requires privileging local specificity as authentic, the participant suggested, while remaining cognizant of outside factors that are potentially legitimate as well.
Another participant noted that cultural diplomacy assumes that education will have a direct and immediate impact. However, evaluating changes in perception is difficult, particularly when judging from a community rather than individual level. How many people must an initiative reach in order to make change happen? For example, how many people will the NEA poetry exchange reach, and how does the organization determine what number is sufficient?
One participant reflected on the plot of ben Jelloun’s novel, describing the character Mohamed’s experience as a “missed cultural exchange.” Although this is a fictional example, it describes a very real problem. In the book, Mohamed lived in France for forty years; he benefited from many societal advantages but remained untouched and untouchable by French culture, never participating in any true exchange.
Several participants discussed the cultural dimension of the war in Iraq. One mentioned the pillaging of the Baghdad Museum and other cultural repositories in 2003 and 2004, in which cultural artifacts of inestimable value were stolen. Would it be possible to create legislation granting amnesty to those who return the objects to the Iraqi state? The legislation would be a major political act, and would acknowledge that the war was not only political, but also contributed to robbing a nation of its culture and patrimony.
Another participant pointed out that individual expression of culture can have huge impacts. For example, a concert at the Fes Festival in which one singer chanted in Arabic, Berber, and Hebrew became a three–page story in The New York Times. Although the Judeo–Arab tradition was familiar to Moroccans, it was completely surprising to Americans. This musical tradition, which emerged from a long history that remains largely unknown in the Western world, helped deconstruct American prejudices.
The session concluded with final comments from each speaker. Ben Jelloun commented that authors from the Muslim world who write in European languages are producing original works of “cultural transposition.” Through literature, these writers invite a new audience to enter the intimate life of a different society. Although literature in translation can play an important role as well, those who write directly in European languages should be considered true (non–political and non–ideological) cultural ambassadors.
Nawaz concluded by noting that patriarchy and sexism are not inherent to Islam — they are problematic tendencies of every organized religion. In her opinion, conservative foreign imams, such as the one who came to her mosque, mix patriarchy with theology and bring sexism into the Muslim faith. With respect to the challenges of distribution, Nawaz noted that the audience for “Little Mosque on the Prairie” is predominantly non–Muslim; they watch the show because they find it funny. Upon the show’s launch, it received an unexpected publicity boost from the media, which predicted controversial reactions in the wake of the 2006 Danish cartoon crisis. However, its long–term success resulted not just from the sensationalism that put the show on Canada’s cultural radar, but from creating accessible content that continues to attract viewers.
Cooper closed the session by observing that exhibitors, artists, and patrons do not work in isolation — their impact depends on the broader context. Today, that context is shifting: President Obama’s speech in Cairo frames the cultural exchange in a new, more positive way. Even Fox News, Cooper claimed, is reacting to this shift as commentators with narrow worldviews are finding fewer receptive listeners. She hoped that the practitioners of cultural diplomacy can capitalize on this trend, and turn this “stream of cultural understanding into a river.”Back to the top.