Q1: Scholar Samuel Huntington coined the term ‘clash of civilizations’, which proposes that cultural and religious identity would be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. Given this theory, how would you assess the role of cultural diplomacy in promoting mutual understanding between nations? Apart from that, what role can arts and culture play in conflict resolution?
First of all, I don’t really believe in the clash of civilizations or clashes of ideologies, just governments promoting misunderstanding for political purposes, like we’ve seen during the Bush era, or even now among the more conservative elements in the United States. It’s easy to get the idea that there’s a clash of civilizations from watching CNN, but when I do my work, instead I see a reservoir of good will – we never really experience a clash of nations. In that sense, this question is a little hard to answer, because I don’t really believe in the premise of it. I also don’t like the word ‘diplomacy’ as much as the word ‘engagement’, so I think what’s important is to go into other countries and have them come into your own, and discover those reservoirs of good will that are there and tap into them. Out of that will grow the understanding and awareness that we’re looking for. I think it’s all a question of engagement, especially with young people, through training, exchanges – a chance to spend time together, especially in a disciplined learning and working environment, and to present that to the public through the media and live performance. There’s nothing to be won or lost through engagement, but only the chance to magnify the potential relationship.
Q2: In today’s global civilization, where we share music, television and art, can there still be a question of ‘us versus them’? Or do we not in general share a common culture?
Well, I can tell you what I see. For example, we have a program called Yes Academy, and the first place we held this program was in Iraq. What we were surprised to see was how much organized Western culture there was. First of all, there was a burgeoning hip hop scene. This was in 2007, and in four years, it has mushroomed and grown incredibly, not due to anything we did, but to the energy already there that was coming through media and culture. There are also thousands of string players playing in all these symphony orchestras. A lot of people know about the orchestra in Baghdad, but people don’t know that there are also orchestras in Kirkuk, Mosul, and in other cities. So again, there is a lot of overlap in Iraq between our cultural life and theirs. When we go into the country, we’re bringing our own cultural background and baggage – our pop culture, our celebrities, our television shows. And they carry around similar baggage, but there is a middle ground. In our jazz programs, we work with Arabic traditional songs and instruments. We use Arabic and Kurdish rap in our hip-hop dance programs. We try to find this middle ground, but what I find is that a lot of people don’t want to hear this. There are a lot of young people who aspire to know more about these Western genres, such as hip-hop or even Broadway musicals. I was shocked to see in Pakistan – in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, hundreds of kids learning how to sing, act and dance, local companies doing productions of “Mamma Mia” and “The Producers”. When we came there, they were so excited, because they had been putting on all these shows on their own, without really having the training to put on a Broadway musical. It wasn’t bad, what is for Western culture, and that’s not a two-way street. If people from the United States were to listen to traditional Pakistani music, there would be very little interest, concentrated within a small segment of the educated population that is interested in world music. However, we’re not going into Pakistan to say that Broadway is better than traditional music and culture. We see the desire to learn Broadway, and we go there to help them. In some cases, there is a two-way exchange of culture, mostly in countries such as India, China or Cuba – countries Americans can wrap their heads around. However, once you get into Muslim countries, people have this unconscious fear of Islam, and they often just shut out the culture in favour of something that interests them.
Q3: You’ve been quoted as saying that American culture is powerful, and that your work with American voices has presented cultural programming to people and institutions that have not had much positive contact with American culture. How powerful do you find this culture to be in changing the American image abroad?
Well the popular culture is certainly powerful – kids all over the world want to know about jazz and hip hop. I’m not saying that it’s better; I’m saying there are simply these underserved populations who want to know more about it. As for changing attitudes towards the United States – I would first of all have to divide that into two parts; attitudes toward Americans as a people, and attitudes toward American foreign policy. What I see is that, virtually everywhere we go, except in some Western European countries, people are very good at separating the policy from the people. The Lebanese don’t agree with the United States’ support of Israel, and the fact that it’s so difficult for them to go to the United States. But they still appreciate visits from Americans. If you go to Lebanon, you can find Burger King, Starbucks – all of these iconic American brands. So it’s not the culture they’re rejecting. It’s the same in Saudi Arabia, and any other country that is generally viewed as being hard-core anti-American. It’s more about the policy than about American people and their culture. However, in Europe, I’ve met a lot of young people who dislike American policy so much that they cannot see past that. But in general, we don’t have any difficulty working with people in any of the places we go.
19.02.2011 – Interviewed conducted by Moushumi Bhadra