US: Arabesque festival featuring North Africa and Arab world dazzles

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On the lower level of Washington’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, where the complex’s gift shop usually is situated, a souk is in place, filled with garments and jewelry and other attractive wares from the Middle East.

The change is temporary, linked to Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World, the festival of culture from nearly two dozen Arab countries that is filling the center’s theaters and public spaces from late February through much of March.

Symbolism is at work here. Whereas the souk historically was the terminus for caravans and travelers who transported their products across the North African and Middle Eastern landscape, this souk in America’s capital city is the terminus for some 800 artists, many of whom have traveled vast distances to participate in this rare cultural event.

From theatrical monologues to musical ensembles, from adaptations of classical drama to cutting-edge dance, from whirling dervishes to hip-hop, and from the sound of the oud (an Arab stringed instrument) to fusion, plus fashion and food, the range is considerable.

“For me, these are all windows onto the culture of the region,” said Alicia Adams, Kennedy Center vice president for international programming and dance.

Adams spent most of the past 10 years planning the event, traveling to more than a dozen countries for first-hand research. From the outset, it was clear that potential festival performers had to meet the artistic standards of the center, and that the works themselves had to be authentic reflections of the national cultures of their creators.

In that light, the festival has a classical sensibility, bringing timeless traditions to American audiences that may not have been exposed to those perspectives. But new talent and new directions also are very much on view. One example of emerging talent is a young Iraqi pianist, Tami Meekoo, age 17, who performed at a free event in the center’s main foyer.


Another example is Moroccan choreographer Khalid Benghrib’s male contemporary dance troupe, Cie2k_far. Its performers were not trained as dancers, but Adams was determined to include the ensemble, even though it was, as she confessed, “totally unknown in this realm.” Her passion paid off; an enthusiastic review in The New York Times by that newspaper’s dance critic hailed the company for “a worldview that is eclectic, tolerant, good-humored and large-spirited.”

Among the attractions on view — from Syria’s Al-Farah Children’s Choir and Somali hip-hop artist K’NAAN to Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre (heralded by The Washington Post’s dance critic for its “heart-stealing style”) and the one-man stage show written by Algerian humorist Mourad Senouci and performed by Samir Bouanani — one of the more intriguing is “OMAN … O Man!”

Probing the narrowing of a cultural divide, this dance-driven piece created by American actress/choreographer Debbie Allen features a cast of 30 young performers, 15 of them Omani and the other 15 American. Even more than the composition itself, the actors’ experience visiting each others’ countries has been an eye-opener.

“It has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Adams. “What these Americans will have learned and shared with their Arab counterparts will go a long way to tell a story to their parents and friends and teachers and classmates in the future.”

In addition to its immersion in the performing arts, Arabesque includes a relatively unscripted component: the spoken word. Besides a roster of readings by Arab authors and tributes to artists such as the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and contemporary Egyptian-born novelist Ahdaf Soueif, the festival is sponsoring a series of dialogues among writers on a range of subjects — including the challenges of writing from the perspective of a different gender (“Women Writing Men, Men Writing Women”), as well as discussions of expatriate Arab literature and the role of writers as cultural bridge-builders.

This component “adds other voices to the festival,” said Adams. “Also, we hope to give our audiences a glimpse of who these people are and what they’re writing about, to create a thirst for more Arab literature to be available to us.”

As it draws capacity audiences to its “windows onto the culture,” Arabesque truly stands for culture in the broadest sense of the word. Perhaps no clearer evidence of this is the festival’s showing of Exploratorium, a film depicting Arab contributions to society and science during a “golden age” between the eighth and 15th centuries — many of which largely have been forgotten over the years.

Adams cited “the contributions to astronomy, to medicine, to mathematics — the fact that Baghdad had a ‘house of wisdom’ to which scholars from all over the region came to study” — as examples of Arab intellectual achievements. “Learning was the spirit of the times then,” she said. “Without that [golden] era, there wouldn’t have been a European Renaissance.”

A number of Arabesque presentations will have an extended life in the United States — other U.S. cities are planning engagements for K’NAAN and the Al-Farah choir, and an Arab adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic play Richard III is scheduled for New York City. Benghrib’s dance troupe also is expected to return in the near future.

Ultimately, Arabesque is the sum of its glittering parts. Music, dance, theater, fashion, food, science, literature — all of these, Adams said, “are cultural connects — ways in which we can relate to the people, to the humanity, to the beauty that exists in that region of the world.”

For more information on Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World, visit the Kennedy Center Web site.

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