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Promoting an alternative image of the Arab world

Awards recognize talent of artists, writers from region

Mona Hatoum, Suad Amiry, Mahmoud Darwish - these are names of just a few of the Arab world's most recognized writers and artists.

All three also happen to be Palestinian (although Hatoum has British citizenship) and significantly all three won important European art prizes for their work in 2004.

Hatoum, a modern installation artist whose work revolves around the theme of the vulnerability of the individual, won the Swiss Roswitha Haftman Foundation award worth over $100,000, which is given once every three years to a living artist whose work is of outstanding importance.

Amiry, an architect and founder-director of the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation, as well as an author, won the Italian Viareggio Literature Prize for International Writing in August for her book "Sharon and My Mother-in-Law: Diaries of War in Ramallah."

Last December, the renowned poet Darwish was given the Principal Prince Claus Award worth 100,000 euros in the Netherlands for his powerful and world-famous poetry that depicts his life as an exile and his desire for his native country.

The prizes are significant for two reasons. First, they recognize the exceptional work of people who for the most part have stuck their necks out and propagated culture through art and literature in either adverse circumstances or while in exile.

Second, and more negatively, at a crucial nexus for Palestinians and Israelis to make peace and for the former to gain their basic human rights and national citizenship, some critics in the Arab world argue that such prizes are merely an attempt to compensate the Palestinians for poor European attempts at forging peace.

Speaking to The Daily Star from The Hague, Christine Wagner, media spokesperson for the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, which awarded nine secondary prizes in 2004 including two awards to other artists from the Arab world (Iraqi experimental theater maker Jawad al-Assadi and Afghanistan's National Museum director Omara Khan Massoudi), digs holes in that argument.

"We do not give awards or finance projects in Palestine or other countries in the Arab World as 'a compensation,'" she explains. "A shortage of political attention and action can never be compensated through a Prince Claus Fund Award.

"Also, the Fund is focusing on and looking for quality, and because in the Arab World there is a lot of artistic/cultural quality it is on that criteria we decide to give an award or finance a project.

"Because of the political situations in some Arab countries, we consider them to be in a state of 'cultural emergency' so they deserve special attention from us. At the same time the Prince Claus Fund considers some parts of the Arab world as a 'zone of silence' in which we see the necessity to support cultural projects."

Of all the awards mentioned above, perhaps the Prince Claus Fund indeed is the most vital in bringing attention to the talent of Palestinian and Arab artists and the difficult circumstances under which many of them work.

The Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development was established to mark the 70th birthday of Prince Claus of the Netherlands on Sept. 6, 1996, with the purpose of "expanding insight into cultures and promoting interaction between culture and development."

2004 was the eighth year of the awards, which are chosen by a distinguished panel of judges and former laureates; and the theme was "The Positive Results of Asylum and Migration."

That theme led to countries where cultural activities are not automatic being sought out, and people like Darwish and Assadi being sought out, who live and work in regions often beyond the reach of media and cultural organizations.

What is undoubtable is that both Darwish and Assadi are worthy winners.

Darwish's poetry reflects his personal experiences as a writer who spent more than 26 years in exile and as he says, "Exile is not a geographic state. I carry it everywhere, as I carry my homeland."

He was born in 1942 in the village of Birwa in the Galilee, in the northern region of what was then Palestine but in 1948, the Darwish family left their hometown after the area was declared part of the new state of Israel, and settled in a town called Dayru I-Assad. Over the ensuing years, he was subject to house arrests and imprisonments for political activism. His poetry is reflective of the struggles he encountered living under occupation during this time. In 1970, Darwish spent one year of study at a university in Moscow, and made the decision to not return to his homeland. He spent the next 26 years living in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and Paris and finally returned to his native land for a visit in 1996.

The hard reality of Palestine and life as an exile are translated into universal emotions of loss, love and struggle in his poems. They focus on a longing for peace and his personal quest for identity and his native country. Darwish has brought out more than 30 books that have been published in over 35 languages.

For Lilian Goncalves-Ho Kang You, chairperson of the board of judges for the Prince Claus Award, Darwish is "the ultimate symbol of the migrant, and is not at home either in his native land or in the countries where he has lived. He resides in that country of words, his only fatherland and the sole place where he can dwell in peace."

Darwish himself explains: "We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. We have a country of words."

Assadi spent 25 years working and living outside Iraq in various Arab countries because he could not and would not work for Saddam Hussein. In those years, as an exile, he worked with theater and actors' groups and contributed heavily to the development of progressive thought and dialogue in the region.

His directing style is unique and innovative especially in the works he has directed by Arab playwrights such as Saadallah Wanoos, Moueen Bessissou and Mahmoud Diab.

The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury perhaps describes Assadi best by arguing that the Iraqi theater director has created himself while creating art.

"In Assadi one can meet this Iraq that emerges from the continent of exile and pain," Khoury writes in the Prince Claus Awards 2004 journal. "He is a man who incarnates in his work the myths of modern Iraqi poetry and the authenticity of Iraqi plastic arts, who combines the lamentations of Ashura and the rituals of fertility, creating from the theatrical experience a poetic approach and a kind of secular prayer."

Today Assadi has returned to Iraq and set up the Gilgamesh Arts Center in Baghdad to promote theater and the arts in his home country. Last November he presented his play, "Women in War," at the AZ Theater in London. Whether or not art and culture can rebuild the Iraqi spirit after so many decades of horror, repression and now civil war and occupation, Assadi deserves, as much as the winning Palestinian artists, help and recognition to try.

For the majority of the world today, Palestine and the Arab region are places of war and terror, propagated by negative media and movie images that highlight the relatively minor problem of honor crimes in Jordan for instance or the admittedly more problematic picture of brutal executions by masked gunmen.

Yet what the recognition of such awards as the Roswitha Haftman Foundation prize, the Viareggio Literature Prize for International Writing and the Prince Claus Fund Prize do, is promote the alternative image known to most citizens of the Arab world though not to those in the West as well as enable the winners to pursue their art further.

They highlight what people like Darwish, Amiry, Hatoum, Assadi and Massoudi achieve through their work. And that - apart from the work itself standing alone - is create a cultural transmission in the West and Europe where cultures meet and engage, thus enriching everyday life and helping to engender the emergence of a world of peace.

Beirut,01 31 2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star
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