Culture, the state, and the culture of the state

I thought it appropriate to start this article with an excerpt from a poem by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The title of the poem (left) is The Grey.

The grey spans from sea to sea

And the interval guards are back.

Your eyes stand before me like two points

While the mirage is the light in this standstill

Crawling time between two long farewells.

Now we are caught between two farewells,

A lasting farewell.

You are the mirage, the light,

The mirage-light.

Whoever saw us slid the dagger from his chest,

Or hid the dagger in his chest

Making you my blood that rains,

Or rises, in any direction,

Like primal plants.

Be my wall, or my time,

Let me mount the grey horizon

And slash the color of ‘the phase.’

Whoever saw us slipped from our grasp

Dressed as killers.

Go into the phase.


And explode with the phase.

The reason I open with this poem is that Darwish mentions the “mirage-light” and “the phase” — two ideas that I have been thinking about a lot during the past two years. But of more significance to me is the title and subject of the poem itself: The Grey. As I interpret it, “the grey” refers to people, “the people,” the silent majority — or the screaming majority — in our Arab world.

It refers to the citizens, or more appropriately “the subject peoples,” whether for or opposed to a government, and who neither govern their own countries or their own futures. Whether they are exploited, imprisoned or killed, or are pro- or anti-regime makes no difference. They are always separate and separated from power.

But today, we find the grey moving all around us. Also, there is a mirage light that might be the freedom we aspire to. And there is a “phase” that is exploding inside us and with us.

Let us bear in mind this eloquent passage by Darwish as I proceed to the subject at hand, for it is impossible to speak of cultural policies in the Arab world and, in particular, in those countries that are in the midst of profound and sweeping political and social changes, without considering the phase through which our countries are passing.

What has happened exactly during the past three years?

Since late 2010, waves of anger and protest have surged through many countries in the Arab world: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Morocco, and Sudan. Some of these waves were high and tumultuous, and overthrew the heads of ruling regimes. Others were slow and deep, shifting the sands beneath the seas. Their results are not yet apparent. They came in tides, surging in, subsiding and surging in again.

Their driving force is the same; two simple demands — justice and freedom. One is a political demand: Justice in the distribution of wealth and power in societies which, for decades, have seen power, money, arms and the keys to international and regional relations concentrated in the hands of a small ruling minority that controlled all.

The other is a social demand: Freedom for individuals and groups to express the ideas and faiths they believe in and to practice their lifestyles of choice without surveillance or repression in societies in which customs, traditions and religious practices impose a uniform way of life on the vast majority of the people, and in which the state promotes such conformism through legislation enforced by institutions that turn it into an official state culture.

Where do we stand today after almost three years of intermittent upheavals? Has any progress been made toward the fulfillment of the demands for justice and freedom? Is the distribution of wealth and power in our societies more equitable? Has repression ceased and have our societies become more free, open and accepting of difference?

The answer to the first question is easy. In a word, no. The rich and powerful are as rich and powerful as ever. The poor and underprivileged, on the other hand, have grown poorer and weaker. In Egypt, for example, until the middle of 2011, it seemed as though a redistribution of wealth and power was possible. The old regime was reeling from debilitating blows.

However, in the absence of a strong coalition of revolutionary forces, the rising Islamist trends gained momentum and allied with a still powerful segment of the old regime against the young revolutionary forces, which were excluded from the new power alliances. As a result, all possibility for a redistribution of wealth and power was put on hold.

The alliance between the Islamists and the old regime, which continued for two years in Egypt (and still continues in Tunisia and Yemen), succeeded in distorting the image of the revolutionary forces by means of systematic smear campaigns in the media, which, in turn, severely undermined these forces’ ability to muster popular support for the revolution’s proposals for change.

The regime-Islamist alliance also managed to minimize the participation of these forces in the democratic processes that followed the first wave of the revolution. Thus, every proposal these forces advocated — for reform of the police, the judiciary, the education system, the healthcare system and cultural services — was greeted by various accusations; that these forces were bent on “sabotaging the economy,” “dismantling the state,” or, at best, they were called “unrealistic.”

Eventually the alliance between the Islamists and the old regime in Egypt crumbled, in favor of the latter, of course. Old regime forces opted for a very bloody way to terminate the pact and then, within the next few months, pushed through a series of measures intended to re-establish the system that had ruled Egypt for 60 years, with the same military infrastructure and economic networks, even if the names at the top have changed.

The Arab revolutions’ demand for freedom is an even more difficult goal to obtain. Not only does it clash with the interests of the political regimes that had entrenched themselves following independence from colonial rule. It also runs up against an almost insurmountable mountain of religious beliefs, social customs and modes of behavior that have combined to produce values that have virtually come to define Arab culture: The patriarchal domination of the elderly, subordination of women, discrimination against non-Muslims, contempt for the poor, distrust of foreigners. These values were ingrained over many centuries.

However, they have become an integral part of the culture of the state during the past 60 years. In spite of its ostensible secularism, the state authorities, through the patronage and support of a conservative religious rhetoric that is antagonistic towards women’s freedoms and full equality between citizens, promoted paternalistic modes of political and social interaction and encouraged ultra-chauvinist sentiments and beliefs that simultaneously contained a strong xenophobic element.

Needless to say, such values were accompanied by, if they did not actually produce, seemingly contradictory forms of behavior that have become increasingly widespread in Arab societies, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and other forms of social violence.

In societies in which people under the age of 35 make up the majority of the population (around 60 percent) and in which nearly half of society is poor ( particularly in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Morocco and Sudan), such values are no longer acceptable.

Perhaps not all youth in the Arab world would subscribe to a value system that grants the same degree of freedom that exists in the West, for example.

Nevertheless, there does exist a majority among Arab youth that vocally insists that the existing margin of freedom in their societies is far from sufficient and that substantial change in the prevailing value systems is a precondition to broadening that margin of freedom.

In fact, a close look at Arab societies three years after the revolutionary waves began clearly reveals that the traditional value system has been shaken and that the old values and their impact on societies are being discussed with a degree of candor and openness that many find shocking. There have been widespread debates at the grassroots level on, for example, the role of women in society. Axiomatic truths are being questioned, such as the notion that men merit more privileges than women because the former bear heavier responsibilities in family and society.

Indeed, we encounter discussions over the question of women’s rights to their own bodies, a phenomenon inconceivable three years ago. In addition, people are now gradually more outspoken on questions related to personal freedoms, the rejection of patriarchal modes of control over the political and economic spheres, and in their denunciation of different types of racism and bigotry.

Unthinkable three years ago, some people now openly speak of their atheism or their belief in religions that the state and society regard as heretic. Such discussions and debates did not exist before the Arab revolutions, or at least never with such openness and on such a broad scale.

Most of the discussion takes place across social media, which is to say primarily among urban youth, although it should be borne in mind that Internet users in the Arab world are increasing by the day and currently number around 103 million. Meanwhile, however, more conventional media such as the television and the press, which remain controlled by the state, continue to promote and defend the traditional value system, most likely because ruling regimes see any change in that system as a potential threat to their own power and perpetuity.

In light of the foregoing assessment, it appears that social change — the most difficult to attain of the revolutionary demands — may in fact precede and influence political change. Although political change may seem to occur more quickly, given the succession of elections and the trouble-plagued constitutional drafting processes, accorded extensive media coverage. In my opinion such democratic processes do not by themselves engender positive and sustainable change in our societies.

It is not elections and constitutions that bring the political and social change that the people seek, namely justice (the equitable redistribution of wealth and power) and freedom (civic and personal liberties), but rather changes in the value system that props up both the old regimes and the Islamists.

Once this change in value system comes about, democratic processes will then be able to legitimize and codify new egalitarian values, which would make up a new culture of governance.

How do artists and intellectuals stand with respect to all the above?

From day one of the Arab revolutions, artists and intellectuals were out there in force in Tahrir Square, Bourguiba Street, Sahat al-Taghyir (“Transformation Square”), Al-Midan district, and other such iconic sites featured in all the video footage and photographic documentation of those events. Most of these artists, intellectuals and other cultural figures had previously been unknown to the general public. They were not, apart from the rare exception, stars of the commercial film industries or official luminaries promoted by the state media machine. They were not familiar faces in the conferences and seminars organized by the ministries of culture.

Most of the artists who took part in the revolution had been excluded from the opportunities for employment, media appearances and travel that Arab ministries of culture had monopolized for so long. In Egypt, for example, Farouq Hosni, minister of culture for 24 years under former President Hosni Mubarak, had created what he termed “the barn,” a system of patronage and support that housed artists and intellectuals who supported the regime and played a part in enhancing its authority and image.

Excluded from the “the barn” were the artists and intellectuals openly opposed to, or severely critical of, the regime.

The situation was very similar in Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, although the margin of freedom and prerogatives afforded to the artists and intellectuals allied with the regime differed from one country to the next.

In the old regimes, which are still fighting for their survival, the state — primarily through its Ministry of Culture — acted as legislator, patron, producer, distributor and controller of culture. In other words, the state set and enforced the rules for cultural activity, operated cultural facilities, produced or financed cultural and artistic works (books, plays, concerts, art exhibitions, etc.). It promoted and disseminated these works, screened and censored them to ensure that they did not fundamentally contradict the state’s value system, and selected those that it deemed suited for serving its interests by ensuring that they are made available at home and abroad.

The state’s approach to independent cultural activity ranged from a total ban (in Syria, for example), to a policy of ignoring it or restricting its access to funding in addition to close policing (as in Egypt) to assimilate it under the state umbrella while simultaneously policing it (which was the case in Tunisia.)

Ministries of culture were crucial to the old regimes. They provided the means to keep intellectuals and artists within the established boundaries of artistic and intellectual freedom. They additionally controlled the sanctioned channels for communicating with the public, and contouring the regime’s image abroad.

Ironically, however, these ministries generally remained at the lower end of the regimes’ scale of priorities when it came to budgetary allocations. The allocations earmarked for ministries of culture in the Arab region rarely exceeded 0.3 percent of the national budget, with the exception of Tunisia where it sometimes reached the one percent mark.

This central role played by ministries of culture was riddled with problems. Perhaps the first and foremost was the inability of the state’s cultural agencies to deliver cultural services and products to the majority of the people. The consequence of this failure — which some believe was deliberate — was that large segments of the poor in these societies were deprived of all cultural knowledge and experience altogether. In Egypt, for example, most of those below the age of 40 have never been in a theater or an art gallery in their lives.

The second problem was that the state’s drive to co-opt and recruit a large number of intellectuals and artists into an exclusive elite to ensure their support, in exchange for granting them a number of privileges, prevented their ideas from reaching the broader public. These two problems, together with the deterioration in educational services, worked to perpetuate the old value system that formed the mainstay of the status quo.

In fact, these problems amounted to the blocking of cultural production from the publicly provided fertile ground for the spread of values instead that were even more conservative and inimical to change than the state’s value system; this is epitomized by the ideas and attitudes advocated by Salafist trends.

The two problems also combined to generate the widely held impression that culture was a governmental preserve in which ideas and activities were expressed and carried out by intellectuals who used complicated and inaccessibly boring language. In that view, arts were confined solely to those those commercial entertainment works that had no connection to serious modern and contemporary arts. This manufactured elitism created an ever growing gap between the populace and culture.

This is in a nutshell the state (of) culture as we have come to know it in the Arab world. It is highly centralized, its activities are monopolized by the state, and artists and intellectuals are kept within the embrace of the regime and their works and activities are used for promoting the regime. So far, this modality has not undergone any substantial change. The many proposals that have been aired for reshaping the state of culture in Egypt and Tunisia in particular, have not been put to serious discussion, let alone implemented.

The arrival of the Islamists to power fundamentally obstructed all efforts to substantially change or even reform the ministries of culture. Many artists and intellectuals felt compelled to stand behind old regime figures for fear of the danger that they believed the Islamists posed to even the small margin of freedom they had under the old regimes.

To most artists and intellectuals, the Islamists’ focus on the Islamic identity of the state and society had to be opposed as it threatened to undermine the relative secularism of the state which had prevailed under the regimes that came into being following national independence.

The mounting polarization, fed by the media, followed by the perceived need to side with the old regime in face of what was regarded as a greater threat, hampered any attempt to reconsider in a critical manner the role of the ministries of culture and, indeed, the relationship between culture and society as a whole.

However, this was not the position of all artists and intellectuals. There is a segment of the cultural circles that has remained independent since the 1990s — artists and cultural workers, some organized institutionally, others as individual or collective initiatives, but all maintaining a definitive distance between themselves and the ruling regimes.

This sector, in spite of its deep opposition to the “Islamic identity” dogma of Islamist forces, is equally, if not sometimes, more opposed to the state culture. Most of the members of the independent sector refused to side with the old regime against the Islamist trends. Instead, they chose to sustain their opposition to both the Islamists and the old regime, even though they were aware that they were not strong enough, numerically and in terms of influence, to clash openly with either side.

The individuals and groups in the independent cultural sector are highly creative, dynamic and generally free of artistic as well as social and political conventions and restrictions. Most of the most outstanding, innovative and daring works that have emerged in recent times come from this sector. Of particular note are the politically inspired creations of graffiti artists who are being constantly chased by police in Tunisia and Egypt, and the new “mahraganat” (festival) music that has emerged in the poorer urban quarters of Egypt.

That such independent artists visibly participated in the Arab revolutions helped improve the image of the artist among the general public. At the same time, various political forces suddenly realized the mobilization capacities of artists and performers. Both of these factors strengthened the position of the artists who supported the revolutions and opposed both the old regimes and the Islamist trends.

This said, these independent artists continue to face a host of problems. They lack access to sources of public funding, to cultural spaces and to local press coverage, all of which have always been allocated to the promotion of artists and intellectuals who serve the regime. They have few alternative sources of funding and are therefore forced to rely on the intermittent and generally insufficient assistance of foreign donor agencies. They lack the needed caliber to lead this sector and they desperately lack opportunities. They are in dire need of training and education to cultivate tools, to communicate with the broader pubic at home, and to interact and exchange with artists and culture workers abroad.

However, the greatest problem this sector faces at this moment is the knowledge of how not to be dragged into the polarized mess between the old regimes and the Islamist trends, at a time when both sides are trying to recruit it and, simultaneously charge it with being “in the pay of western powers,” “traitors,” “agents” and other such labels drawn from the familiar arsenal of accusations.

In general, artists and intellectuals in the Arab world, whether those in the orbit of the state or the independents, face three major challenges:

1. Establishing and remaining at a safe distance from the ruling regime to ensure the greatest possible degree of freedom and independence. This is extremely difficult because the state holds a monopoly on the available financial resources for culture, and other reliable funding sources are meager or absent.

2. Engaging with society — a third to half of which lives below the poverty line, and which subscribes to strongly conservative values that are inimical to liberalism and innovation. Artists need mediators, whether individuals or organizations, to facilitate and open channels of communication with the public.  Disconnection from the greater part of society can only lead to the marginalization of art and artists, and further weakens their position with respect to their relationship to the state. Obviously, society, itself, is mostly harmed by the disconnection with art and artists, evident in how the overwhelming majority of the people are left deprived of the instruments of imagination, creativity, criticism and joy that art provides.

3. The third challenge is the managerial frailty of the cultural sector (both governmental and independent) due to the shortages in sound governance, effective administrative structures and appropriately qualified human resources.

The official cultural sector in a country such as Egypt has thousands of government employees on its payroll, yet they lack the necessary skills and know how to carry out their jobs effectively, not to mention the ardor and commitment that should be dedicated to cultural work.

In the independent cultural sector only a relative handful are involved in administration, and most of these are artists and writers at the same time. In fact, in addition to having to perform two roles, many are also forced to take on another job that has no connection with culture simply in order to make ends meet.

Clearly, there is a need to radically overhaul the cultural policies of Arab countries; however, this need is intrinsically linked to the process of political change. At present, in Egypt at least, there is a strong push to restore the old regime. It has not succeeded yet and, most likely, won’t. But this counter-revolutionary force obviates the possibility of an agreement over a cultural policy that is radically different to the one that existed under the old regime.

Still, until there is a political will to push for a new cultural policy, there is much we can do. We can try to organize artists and intellectuals around a common ground of shared interests and concerns. We can promote dialog among the cultural community on the role of culture and art, particularly with regards to processes of political change, and we can raise awareness among those involved in politics and the larger public on the concept of cultural policy, its importance to society and how to reach an agreement over it.

In addition, we should strive to obtain as much detailed information as possible on public financial resources available for culture and review and propose amendments to the laws that affect cultural work.

Most importantly at this stage, we should work to raise public awareness on the necessity of art and how it relates to social and political change. For decades, the majority of the people have been prey to the conviction that art is a luxury meant exclusively for the upper and middle classes.

That conviction is extremely detrimental to the poor, for they need art more than others as it gives them the ability to analyze and criticize their difficult realities, the power to imagine a better future, and constructive ways to handle the tension and violence that derives from the sense of injustice and insecurity.

In 2009, the Culture Resource Foundation, which I direct, initiated a survey of culture policies in eight Arab countries. Over the following years, it created the cores of national groups dedicated to the development of cultural policies in nine Arab countries: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and Jordan.

These national groups conduct studies on how culture is managed and funded in their countries, and hold seminars and conferences to discuss ways to develop their national cultural policies. In Egypt, the national group launched a grassroots campaign to raise popular awareness on the right to culture.

We hope this work continues and develops until ultimately it produces new cultural policies that can be put to public discussion in the Arab world. Our belief is that the new national cultural policies should support cultural work in all forms and for all classes of society. They should guarantee the freedom and independence of cultural work from ruling regimes, protect the right of every citizen to experience and practice all forms of artistic and cultural activity, and they should safeguard cultural diversity in Arab societies.

The road ahead is long and difficult. It is laden with mines and labyrinths. In this respect, at least, it is similar to the roads forged by other peoples in their quests for justice and freedom. Some of these peoples attained these goals, as I believe is the case for many peoples in Europe. Other are still midway or at the beginning of the path, as is our case. Our only choice is to move forward.


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