Arab Culture Builds Bridges to South Africa

Arab Culture Builds Bridges to South Africa

Photos: Hussein Lari

At an unprecedented Arab cultural event Arab at joint action level, and a crucial turning point in Arab-African relations, the Arabs built bridges of cultural communication to a region which is still in the process of openness on the world after decades of international isolation: Republic of South Africa, through the first Arab Cultural Week organized in Pretoria, the political capital, in the period 25-29 October 2010.

Right from the start, it was clear that diversity and coordination would play a key role in the success of this event. Arab participation took a vriety of forms: old and modern songs, folkloric dance, art and photo exhibitions, handicrafts, fashion shows, traditional dishes, etc. In addition, the activities included lectures on Arab-African relations given by such prominent figures as Dr Nancy Bakir, former Jordanian Minister of Culture in her capacity as the Arab League Civil Society High Commissioner; Dr Inas Makkawi, representing the Arab League Secretary General; Dr Hassan Wadaat Allah, representing the Direcctor General of the Arab Economic Development Bank; Dr Muhammad Abmuqadam, Head of History Department, Sultan Qaboos University, and Dr Hassan Makki.

Diversity was also represented in terms of geographical distribution: Morcocco, Algeria and Tunisia representing north west Africa; Egypt and Sudan, north-east and central Africa; Palestine, the Levant; Kuwait, UAE and Oman, the Arabian Gulf. Such diversity gave those interested in Arab culture a variety of options.

Palestine, the Arabs first cause, was not absent from the activities of the Week. Dr Nabil Shaath, Fateh International Relations Commissioner, gave a lecture about the latest developments in the peace process and the Palestinian stance on it.

The idea and ingredients for success

The idea for the Week originated with the council of Arab ambassadors in Pretoria who contemplated joint Arab cooperation to present Arab culture, popular arts and traditional handicrafts to the African peoples and foreign communities in South Africa. To put this idea into action a higher committee of Arab ambassadors was set up to draw up the main plans in conjunction with the parties concerned in South African, such as the Department of Arts and Culture. A coordination sub-committee was tasked with implementing all relevant decisions and directions. It consisted of Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia, Kuwait, and officials of the South African Department of Arts and Culture who undertook to offer the necessary facilities to render the activities successful, such as providing lecture halls and national theatres for musical and dance performances. An adequate budget was allocated and contributed by the Arab participating countries, in addition to contributions from a number of Arab and South African organizations and companies and businessmen.

Folkoric songs and a variety of arts

The Week s activities took place at Pretoria Municipality theatre and was attended by members of the Arab diplomatic community, South African officials and a large audience from the Arab community in South Africa. Doyen of the Arab diplomatic corps in Pretoria, the Libyan Ambassador Dr Abdullah Abdul Salam Alzubaidi, gave the opening speech in which he praised this Arab initiative to organize this event which is the first of its kind in Africa designed to reinforce Afro-Asian relations, particularly in view of the fact that two thirds of the Arabs live in Africa. On behalf of the Deputy Culture Minister, Mrs Filiswa Batusa welcomed the first Arab event in South Africa, the second gathering of Arabs and Africans after the Surt summit, and stressed the role of culture in breaking borders and language barriers through cultural interaction and exchange.

The opening ceremony included a musical performance in which each troupe was allowed not more than half an hour in order to let as many participants as possible perform.

The first performance was given by the Tunisian music troupe, followed by the Egyptian Tanura folkloric arts troupe of Culture Palaces Authority founded in 1988 to preserve this type of art which is on the verge of extinction. Consisting of a dancer and a singer, the troupe gave its performance to the accompaniment of a pipe and a drum which drew loud applause from the audience who was fascinated by the dander s non-stop spinning. That was followed by a fashion show by the Moroccan fashion designer Amina Albusairi whose beautiful models presented a wide variety of colourful traditional caftans.

The Kuwaiti Maayuf Mejali popular arts troupe gave a performance of heritage sea art which attracted the attention of the South African audience who found considerable similarities between some musical instruments, such as drums, and popular African music, causing strong interaction between the troupe and the audience. The Algerian Sidi Belabbas troupe, equally divided between men and women, performed a number of folkloric dances in traditional costume.

Through the Sudanese musical performance, the musician Dr Alfateh Hussein proved that a large number of instruments is not necessarily an ingredient for success, as his guitar solo, especially the Zenooba piece, made the Sudanese ambassador Dr Ali Yusuf rise and greet Hussein, provoking a strong reaction from the Sudanese community who gathered in the court opposite the theatre in traditional Sudanese dance in which African and other guests shared.

The Gulf atmosphere was back when the UAE troupe gave a number of music and fast dance shows which the audience enjoyed very much. Finally, the Egyptian jazz troupe led by Yahya Khalil gave an impressive importance.

On the second day an art and handicrafts exhibition was opened in the African Window Museum. Most Arab countries shared in the exhibition, including A Hundred Years of the History of Palestine exhibition displaying 32 historical pictures of different areas in Palestine. There was another exhibition of Palestinian handicrafts and clothes, such as the Palestinian kaffiyeh and shirts decorated with Hanzalah , the character created by the late Palestinian caricaturist Naji Alali.

Kuwait s participation that day was marked with diversity. The Kuwaiti Arabic calligrapher Waleed Alfarhood did a workshop at which he creatively drew the names of those around him. The shipwright Abdullah Alostaz made a miniature dhow in front of exhibition visitors. An exhibition of traditional Kuwaiti handicrafts, such as Sadw (weaving), and heritage and popular paintings were on display in a special pavilion.

History of Arab-African relations

The third day was divided into two sessions : morning and evening. The former was devoted to an important symposium on Arab-African relations at Pretoria Unviersity. The latter included a music and song performance given by the Kuwaiti Maayuf Mejali troupe and the Algerian Sidi Belabbas troupe, in addition to a Moroccan fashion show, at Unisa University. Dr Hassan Makki, President of Africa International University (Khartoum) was the first speaker at the symposium. He stressed the profound relations between the Arabs and Africans giving as evidence the fact that Hagar, mother of Prophet Ismail, the Arabs father, was an African from Egypt. He talked about Arab-Nubian interaction and the use of Arabic on a wide scale by many African tribes. He also referred to the fact that the peoples of north Africa are Arabic-speaking Africans.

The next speaker was Dr Muhammad Almuqadam of Oman, who denied that the Omani presence in east Africa had a colonial nature; on the contrary, he said, it had the nature of trade exchanges and the spread of education and Arabic and religious culture. He drew evidence from history which didn t record a single act of violence or uprising against the Omani presence there.

Dr Nabil Shaath, Fateh International Relations Commissioner, gave a lecture at Fites University about the Palestinian current situation in which he pointed out that no progress could be achieved in the peace process because a party is working for peace while the other is engaged in military action. Agreement must be made by all parties on the steps which lead to the creation of a Palestinian state to the satisfaction of the Palestinian people first, and the international community and Israel, second, because they are partners, he added.

A finale to the Week s events: Arab cuisine

The closing ceremony included a sport festival at the African Window Museum at which the most delicious popular and traditional dishes were offered on one Arab table, reflecting Arab hospitality and variety of Arab cuisine. The festival attracted a wide South African audience who enjoyed dishes of Egyptian koshari , Kuwaiti kabsa and Maroccan couscous .

Culture unites rather than divides

Interestingly, the Arab League ministerial council 134 of 16 September 2010 praised the efforts of Arab ambassadors in South Africa in promoting Arab-African cooperation and called on all member states to share in the Week and organize similar weeks in the African continent.

Have the Arabs at last found out that culture unites them first before it combines them with the world s other peoples and civilizations? Have they realized that what politics divides, culture can unite, however long that may take.

The Kuwaiti Ambassador to South Africa Hassan Aloqab to Al-Arabi : Culture has united us

In an interview with Al-Arabi, Ambassador Hassan Badr Aloqab outlined the preparations for organizing the first Arab Cultural Week in Pretoria. He first gave credit to former Arab ambassadors for originating the idea of the Week and praised the efforts of current ambassadors who put the idea into practice. There was enough time for discussion as there were different views regarding representation and the volume of participation, but we finally agreed to give each participating country an equal share as it was impossible, e.g., to hold an eight-hour opening ceremony, but we cut it short, making the Week a success right from the start.

Aloqab pointed out how the Arab ambassadors convinced their governments to share in one activity in South Africa. Each ambassador addressed his relevant authorities, and consents were obtained in due course as the idea was worthwhile. The Arab League office in Pretoria is worth praising for unifying our efforts. Afterwards a committee was set up with the Egyptian ambassador as chairman and participating countries as members. Regarding Kuwait s participation, Aloqab said the Kuwaiti cabinet on 8 July 2010 agreed to contribute US$ 30,000 to this forum which includes a number of cultural activities which introduce Arab culture and heritage and highlight Kuwait s role in joint Arab cooperation efforts.

After the budget was guaranteed, we addressed the authorities concerned in South Africa which offered us many facilities, Aloqab said, adding that this type of joint effort would create a kind of mutual political and touristic cooperation in the future.

In conclusion, Ambassador Aloqab hoped future Arab cultural weeks in South Africa would succeed and grow and expand its activities.

(Translated by Dr Shaaban Afifi)


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


Guests at the Arab-African Relations symposium held at Pretoria University on the fringes of the Arab Cultural Week

Strong interaction between Maayuf Mejali troupe (Kuwait) and the South African audience

The sea drum performance by Maayuf Mejali troupe showed considerable similarities with popular African music

Moroccan fashion shows attracted a wide audience, particularly women

Moroccan fashion shows attracted a wide audience, particularly women

Arab diplomats, prominent guests at the opening of the Arab Cultural Week

The Tunisian music troupe plays beautiful Arab and Tunisian songs

The Algerian Sidi Belabbas troupe, equally divided between men and women, was distinguished in terms of a variety of shows and costumes

The Egyptian artist Yahya Khalil and his jazz band breaking language barriers and differences

Oman shared in the painting exhibition at the African Window Museum. Pictured is an Omani painter explaining one of his paintings

UAE troupe gave a number of music and song and fast dance shows

The Egyptian "Tanura” troupe, with their non-stop spinning, fascinated the audience

An Algerian dancer from Sidi Belabbas troupe gives a one-woman show wearing traditional clothes

Moroccan fashion designer Amina Albosairi’s models at a big show of her collection

The Heritage Arts exhibition, in which Kuwait, Algeria and Palestine, attracted a wide audience

HE Hassan Aoqab, the Kuwaiti Ambassador to South Africa

Dr Nabil Shaath, gives the opening speech in the first activity of the Arab Cultural Week

HE the Saudi Ambassador Muhammad Bin Mahmoud Alali

The Moroccan caftan at its best, challenging modernity and preserving its national identity

Dr Muhammad Almuqadam speaking at the Arab-African Relations symposium. Dr Hassan Makki, President of Africa International University (L)

Arab cuisine festival offering a variety of dishes to the South African public

Members of the Sudanese community dance to the music played by Alfateh Hussein

Part of the Palestinian handicrafts exhibition with clothes and shirts marked "We shall come back” on display

The Arabic calligrapher Waleed Alfarhood doing a workshop at which he drew the names of those round him

The Kuwaiti Traditional Weaving (Sadw) exhibition, part of the Heritage Arts exhibition, at the African Window Museum

A painting by an Algerian artist portraying armed cavalrymen on horseback

Part of the Sudanese participation in the Heritage Arts exhibition

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