Art, Culture

Searching For A Renaissance

By Sofiane Si Merabet
14 March 2019
The Arab world is craving a new cultural moment – and it’s gaining momentum

Every time I am introduced to someone and I say that I have been in Dubai for more than 10 years, I always get the same response: “Wow. You must like it here!”

Yes, I do. It has always been difficult to explain why. Not because I can’t name several reasons – but it took me some time to identify the specific one which keeps me here. The weather? The food? The quality of life? No. There’s definitely something more happening here.

Several friends with a similar diaspora background actually express it with the same word: Pride.

Being here, a lot of us feel a certain pride in our roots, of being Arabs.

The last 20 years have been hard on us. The September 11 aftermath, Al Qaida and Daesh left a dark image of Arabs and Muslims. That’s a deformity that some of us have also, wrongly, partially integrated into our own identities. The question “Is it cool to be Arab?” emerged, as if an identity had the ability to be in vogue.

Arab governments are still, in majority, investing their money in many sectors other than education and culture, but I do feel a change.

Operas and new museums are opening across the Arab world. Arab singers are on tour all over Europe and North America. A new cinema is blooming.
Do these signs allow us to speak of an Arab renaissance?

The term is not new and refers to “Al Nahda”: a movement at the end of the 19th century which aimed to culturally awaken the region, more specifically Egypt and the Levant. Writers such as Taha Hussein, Ahmed Shawqi and Khalil Gibran modernised classical Arabic literature, poetry – and even Arabic language itself.

Modern art, music and cinema are the pillars of this cultural renewal we are living in. In a mixed environment of private and public initiatives, culture and creative economies are progressively extending.

The Gulf countries are becoming the centre of the movement. Galleries like Hafez Gallery in Jeddah and Third Line in Dubai are helping local Arab talents to deliver new art with a strong resonance to both regional and international audiences. Institutions such as the Sharjah Art Foundation, Barjeel and Art Jameel Centre ensure a high level of contemporary and modern art programming.

The recent 21,39 event organised in Jeddah by the Saudi Art Council was a great demonstration of the new modern art scene. Artists Rashed Al Shashai, Ali Cha’aban, Khalid Zahid, Sarah Al Abdali and Maryam Beydoun displayed how they are each offering relevant personal memories and observations of their native societies.

Away from the Gulf, Beirut is waiting for the new Modern Art Museum to open in 2023, Algiers has its MAMA and, in Marrakech, MACAAL is positioning the city as a new central destination for Arab and African arts.

Every renaissance exists by its reference to a glorious past. Through the concept of the future of nostalgia, I have shown that our memories can be leveraged to build a better future. Nostalgia is a filter. We only remember and celebrate what we choose to.

Through the yearly event Art d’Egypte, curator Nadine Abdel Ghaffar exhibits modern artists in prestigious monuments around Cairo, mixing an emerging Egyptian scene with centuries-old landmarks.

The diaspora is also playing an important role in honouring past nostalgia, and creating new moments of it, too. French-Algerian artists like Kader Attia or Zineb Sedira are being collected by prestigious international museums including the Guggenheim and Tate Modern. Meanwhile, talents with duel identities, European and Arab, are rapidly becoming ambassadors of a new Arab story to tell.

Cinema is one of the most impactful ways of doing that. Photos of Nadine Labaki, Rami Malek, Talal Derki and Khaled Mouzanar at the Oscar luncheon showed a strong visual message: something that proves that worldwide cinema must now present a new narrative when it comes to how it represents Arabs.

The Saudi film Barakah Meets Barakah by Hisham Fageeh, released few years after Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda opened the way to reveal a never-before seen glimpse into everyday Saudi daily life. It’s fair to suggest those films likely influenced Saudi authorities to open new theatres for the first time in 2018. In Dubai, cinephiles have found a new home with Cinema Akil – the first independent picture house cinema anywhere in the Gulf.

Music is another way of tracing the cultural evolution of the Arab world. Mashrou’ Leila’s success showed that, aside from folklore and variety, there is room for well thought-out lyricism.

In Tunis, Berlin, Casablanca or Paris, dancefloors are also now new territories to express a proud Arab identity. Vintage music diggers like Habibi Funk and Toukadime are mixing old North African motifs with exciting newness. 

With more than a million views on YouTube for her Boiler room mix, Palestinian techno DJ Sama drives crowds wherever her name is on a party line-up. I found myself calling several friends last month to get a precious ticket to her gig.

All the artists quoted above rarely, if ever, benefited from support from the cultural authorities of their home countries. Aware of the richness of the creative potential, it’s now clear that Arab governments are integrating culture as a strong element of their own diplomatic growth. We’re seeing that, as these songs, films, exhibitions and platforms grow, a far-reaching Arab audience can be, truly, united.

We’ve dreamed over and over again of a renaissance of Arab culture – of a moment that we can mark and celebrate for decades. But it may already be here.