Bridging the culture gap: The use (and misuse) of art to build peace

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Using art for intercultural understanding requires sustained one-to-one engagements and not just a display of positive images. By Tasnim Qutait.

(Image: Fotolia)
Sometimes the gulf between hands is too wide to reach. (Image: Fotolia)

Responding to a question on the potential of art to transform at Jewish Book Week in 2013, Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua commented, “Sometimes people talk about culture and literature and art as something that can connect people together…to bridge between cultures. I hate bridging between cultures. It should be tunnels.”

I was reminded of his undercutting of too-easy attempts to celebrate the transformative potential of art by the recent revelation of a 3D cartoon which hopes to ease ethnic tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese.[i] The cartoon tells the story of the Fragrant Concubine, a Uighur princess who married an 18th-century Chinese emperor. James Millward, professor of Chinese and Central Asian History at Georgetown University, has this to say about the cartoon:

“From a Westerner’s point of view, trying to patch over extreme ethnic tensions with a cutesy cartoon portrayal of a minority woman might seem problematic – like screening Disney’s Pocahontas after Wounded Knee.”

I’m not so sure what to do about that “from a Westerner’s point of view”. It seems to me that Muslim Uighurs would maybe share the sentiment that a “cutesy cartoon portrayal” doesn’t do much to change their actual situation. But Professor Millward thinks we should give credit to those “making an effort at this time to be culturally sensitive and to present a positive image of Uighurs to the majority Han Chinese audience.”

There seems to be a “positive image” at the end of every culturally-connecting bridge. And that’s the problem. All the warm, feel-good talk of honouring diversity and understanding one another can often seem very distant from the wrenchingly violent, confusing reality – in particular in the context of the Middle East.

Take for example, the two-year event series THIS Bridge in collaboration with the University of South Florida, spearheaded by Lebanese-American theatre artist Andrea Assaf, founder of the Art2Action artist collective. Public events will be taking place throughout 2014-15 at the university as part of “a series that speaks to what it means to be Arabic or Islamic in today’s society – with an emphasis on women who are either or both.”

Photo Courtesy of Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communication Company
Image courtesy of Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communication Company

According to Arab America, “THIS Bridge will explore such issues around repression, misrepresentation and other injustices by collaborating with other academics, developing a new, cross-listed Special Topics course; stage plays and literature by Arab and Muslim writers, and facilitate ongoing workshops for Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim student associations.”

Although the programme inevitably includes the go-to staple of the Middle East cultural bridging menu – dancing in semi-Orientalist gear – the article notes that the university will be “undergoing a socio-cultural immersion that goes beyond language, food choices and taboos.” “Immersion” in the hopes that this will lead to increased understanding is what Andrea seems to be aiming for.

“Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism certainly existed long before 9/11, but in the years since, it has been particularly acute…Now we have an entire generation whose political formation has taken place post-9/11. And this is what makes it urgent to increase understanding of Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim cultures, and to build bridges across identities.”

Andrea doesn’t resort to trotting out the line about the mainstream media focusing on the bad and the need for good alternative images, but at some point we need to come to terms with just how far the horrific conflict embroiling the region overshadows everything.

Bridging between cultures doesn’t do much to actually connect them

Doing a Google search just now on “Muslim women,” I found two interrelated stories. There is the story of the ISIS brides – young women of the 9/11 generation who are joining the so-called the Islamic State – and then there is the story of Muslim women activists in New York being chased and threatened with beheading. It seems self-evident, but we can’t just point to one issue and complain about Islamophobia without dealing with the other.

The series attempts to deal with these complex predicaments through having a longer timeframe rather than a frantic burst of positive images that are soon forgotten. Iranian-American stand-up comedian Negin Farsad, who performed as part of THIS Bridge, makes this point.

“What’s really smart about THIS Bridge…is that it’s two years long – it’s consistent, it’s frequent and it’s a focused effort…I think with that kind of ferocious programming you can really move the needle.”

Another aspect supporting this kind of engagement is that the event planners haven’t limited the series to rah rah-ing art and culture. Throughout the series, performances will be followed by “opportunities for academic discourse and community discussions about gender, including contemporary Arab and Muslim feminisms, identity and US policy.”

All of this sounds amazing – I know I would love to attend many of the events planned, despite the need for realistic expectations of how far any of this can transform anything.

Returning to Sayed Kashua’s comments, I find them all the more poignant in the wake of this summer’s one-sided war against Gaza. Sayed’s very successful sitcom Arab Labour – getting the Israeli public to laugh and connect with Arab characters – doesn’t seem to have had much effect on Israeli public opinion.

This perfectly demonstrates that sometimes, bridging between cultures doesn’t do much to actually connect them. We need sustained one-to-one engagements to be affected personally, not rainbow bridges delivering positive image pots of gold.

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[i] Massoud Hayoun, ‘China aims to win Uighur “hearts and minds” with concubine cartoon’, Al Jazeera, 25 Aug 2014, available here

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