Arabesque Celebrates the Arts and Culture of the Arab World 

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I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Bob Doughty with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we visit the Arabesque festival at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. This three-week event brings eight hundred artists to the city to celebrate the arts and culture of the Arab world.  The festival is presenting theater, dance, music, film, literature and art from twenty-two countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Organizers say this is the biggest Arab arts event ever held in the United States.


That was a traditional song performed by the Children of Al-Farah Choir from Syria. It was one of many performances that were offered free of cost to the public. Visitors to the Kennedy Center could also enjoy many free exhibits of art, jewelry and photography.

An exhibit called "Brides of the Arab World" is in the two main halls of the Kennedy Center. The exhibit includes over forty examples of women's wedding clothing from all twenty-two countries in the League of Arab States. Some examples are very old, while others are modern.

One wedding dress from Egypt is made of red material covered in designs of gold thread. Four examples from different areas of Palestine show cloth that is richly embroidered with many different colors.

The Arabesque festival cost about ten million dollars. Major donors to the festival include the Helen Ruth Henderson Foundation, the states of Kuwait and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington D.C.

The name of this festival was inspired by the meaning of the word "Arabesque." The word comes from the word "Arab" and is a design term used to describe flowing lines and geometric patterns. Festival organizers say "Arabesque" was a good word to describe dance, theater or musical styles that are marked by an Arab influence.

Several modern art exhibits are on the top floor of the Kennedy Center.  One exhibit, called "Breaking the Veils," shows works by women artists from the Islamic world. The art is part of the permanent collection of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman.

A watercolor by the Saudi artist Fahda Bint Saud shows three women sitting in the desert. They are completely covered by their blue head scarves. One woman covers her eyes with her hands, the other covers her ears and the third woman covers her mouth.

One of the most striking exhibits is called "Roba Vecchia" by the Lebanese artist Lara Baladi. The art installation is in a large, dark room. It is a life-size version of a kaleidoscope. In the middle of the room is a tall triangular tunnel that is covered in mirrors. At the end of the tunnel is a wall of brightly colored moving video images.

As you stand inside the tunnel, you see the video images reflected many times in the mirrors. You too are reflected in the mirrors. The work is both surreal and beautiful. Lara Baladi's work is influenced by the many different sights on the streets of Cairo, Egypt.

That was music by the Somali-born rapper K'naan who also performed at the festival. His poetic songs have a political message. K'naan's latest album, "Troubadour," came out last month.

Another exhibit at the Arabesque festival features two calligraphy artists. The Iraqi artist Hassan Massoudy makes colorful paintings using Arabic writing. The Kuwaiti artist Farah Behbehani uses different traditions of Arabic writing to illustrate "The Conference of the Birds," a poem by a twelfth century Persian writer.

One room shows the jewelry of Egyptian designer Azza Fahmy.  Her jewelry combines traditional designs from Arabic, Bedouin and Egyptian cultures. The golden jewelry was creatively displayed in a collection of clay pots on a large table.

A room called the "Exploratorium" has soft chairs arranged in a circle. The chairs tilt back so that it is easy to look up and watch a movie projected on the ceiling.

MOVIE: "Observe, measure, calculate, experiment, classify, debate and teach are key words in the lexicon of Arabic science"

The movie tells about the advances in mathematics, astronomy and medicine in the Arab world from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.

The Caracalla Dance Theatre from Lebanon gave two sold out performances at the Arabesque festival. The group combines theater and dance to create colorful and dramatic performances. One critic said the Kennedy Center stage has never sparkled as brightly as it did the night of the group's "Knights of the Moon" performance. The critic praised the extraordinary energy of the dancers who combine traditional dance with ballet and modern dance.

The Arabesque festival also presented several plays.  One was "Richard the Third: An Arab Tragedy." Kuwaiti director Sulayman Al-Bassam recreated Shakespeare's famous play in a modern Arab setting. The performance also included live music.

Another play was "Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation."  It was written by Palestinian artists as a way to tell personal stories about the conflict in their homeland. The performers are part of the Al-Kasaba Theater and Cinematheque in Ramallah.  Both of these plays were performed in Arabic.

That was music by Nawal, another performer at the Arabesque festival. Nawal is from the Comoros Islands but now lives in France. She has been singing professionally for over twenty years. Nawal sings in Comorian as well as in French, Arabic and English. She plays musical instruments including the gambusi, the daf and the guitar.

Several of the festival events featured literature. For example, one afternoon a group of writers and critics gathered to discuss book sales in the Arab world. Another day, a group of poets from Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt discussed the future of poetry in Arab countries.

Several new and old movies are being shown at the festival. For example, "The One Man Village" will be shown in the United States for the first time. This Lebanese movie was directed by Simon El Habre. It is about a man who lives alone in a village from which everyone fled during Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war.

The Palestinian movie "Wedding in Galilee" will also be shown. The movie was released in nineteen eighty-seven and became the first Palestinian film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France.

Food from the Arab world was also part of the festival. Ambassadors from countries including Lebanon, Syria, and Morocco welcomed visitors to their homes to try traditional foods from these countries.

Michael Kaiser is the president of the Kennedy Center. He says he believes the arts create peace by providing a way to understand other people. Mr. Kaiser says he hopes the Arabesque festival will bring such understanding between the Arab and Western worlds.

We leave you with music by another group that performed at the Arabesque Festival. B'net Houariyat is made up of five women from Marrakech. These musicians sing and dance to traditional music from different areas of Morocco.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. You can see pictures of the Arabesque festival events on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.  Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: Arabesque Celebrates the Arts and Culture of the Arab World 
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