I hope you are all enjoying our heartfelt series on being thankful for art during times of conflict and turmoil, what cultural diplomacy can do to bridge cultures and help find peace, and soon how art can be used for healing.
Before I fell in love with the Middle East, I loved France. I love France and Paris in a way that can only be expressed through a chick flick or an Adele song. As a pre-teen, I wanted to be the Ambassador to France after watching the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen film, Passport to Paris. I briefly lived in Paris while studying abroad and have visited more times than is appropriate to list. When I learned of the Paris attacks and reflected on the worldwide series of violent attacks and natural disasters that happened in just a matter of days, my heart broke multiple times over. It was in this moment that my secret (unrealistic) dream job, to be PR rep for Islam and the Middle East, seemed even more necessary in this world.
I found my calling over a decade ago during my sophomore year of high school. In my non-western civilization course, I had a teacher who pushed us until we realized who we were at our core, not who we were according to society, our family, or our friends. Simultaneously I was learning the history of the Middle East which captured my sense of belonging to the past from growing up Greek; I had now found my new focus for my life.
While living in Cairo in spring 2008, there were a few things that stuck out to me in my exchanges with Egyptians outside of my program. One was the repeated thanks for visiting Egypt. They were so grateful that we did not let the wars with Israel, the Gulf Wars, or the anti-American rhetoric out of Iran stop us from seeing the rest of the region. Egypt is not Iraq or the West Bank. They know that; Westerners don’t. By the end of my trip, these locals told me that I was now Egyptian after living there a few months. To me, this meant that I understood who they were at their core. It also showed their large hearts and how warm and inviting they are. I still feel a little Egyptian, even though the Egypt I knew has vastly changed. So when Daesh (or the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL) attacks us where we feel safe, I know they are not the Egyptians, or Syrians, or Saudis I have met. Moreover, through my studies, I know they are not Muslims. They should not be taken as representatives of the whole. It is with that in mind that I proceed with my own PR campaign for the region.
Since my dream job isn’t an actual job (I can’t be the PR rep for Islam), I look to the arts to serve as a means for cross-cultural understanding. As you will see in a few weeks (new blog post coming!), my thesis focuses on success and sustainability of museums in the Middle East. Through my research, I have uncovered how the arts are being used by Middle Eastern countries to prove that they are not what you see in the news, that they have culture beyond antiquities, that they have value, and that they belong at the table to discuss their fate. They are trying to achieve this through soft power, or the use of culture and the arts or even economics to exert power and control (opposite to Sarah’s hard power definition).
In nearly every country that is embarking on multiple museum construction projects, there is a national museum being built. While the goal of these museums is to create for locals a united history of their country, which has regularly traded hands since the beginning of time, they are also being used as a way to enlighten visitors from outside the region on the true essence of each country and its people. Qatar has dared to capture the history of Islamic art with a delicate touch on religious concepts. They are trying to change the conversation about the region, establishing themselves as “not Daesh” and changing perceptions along the way.
As much as I stand up for Islam and even all of the Middle East, the arts and the cultural initiatives of the region are making it so I can stand down. The world is seeing who makes up the region and its relatives abroad. You can see that with the reactions to the Muslims standing in a crowd of French mourners, proclaiming their faith and their hatred of Daesh’s actions and asking for a hug. The French hugged them. Because these French know as former colonizers (dark spot in European history), as neighbors to French people of all backgrounds, and as humans, that Daesh is not the Middle East and is not Islam. They know that the region is much more than what you see on the news, and it cannot wait for you to come visit, see its new museums and cultural centers, and meet its locals. I mostly cannot wait to say thank you for coming.
Written by EALS Director of Finance Helene Genetos