Calling to promote Saudi Arabian culture

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Updated 13 December 2012

Calling to promote Saudi Arabian culture

It is known internationally that Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest producers of black gold, petrol, however what remains an enigma to many is our culture. To introduce the public to Saudi culture, a group of Saudi volunteers started an initiative called “Call of Culture” to encourage individuals to reach out to other parts of the world to promote the real Saudi culture. 
The goal of Call of Culture is to promote intercultural communication between different societies and advance a common understanding, for a better world. There are six Saudi volunteers behind this initiative; among them is Mohammed Bakhraiba, the Goodwill Ambassador and the force behind the project.
Bakhraiba has been volunteering with the World Health Organization for seven years now, and this entails a lot of traveling around the world. “Typical questions are always raised up during my visits to these conferences, people ask me about my culture and what our lifestyle is like. This is what inspired me to start the initiative, to spread the word about the values of our culture and our heritage,” he said. 
Call of Culture’s initiative started in September 2011 when Bakhraiba did a survey among Saudi youth and asked them about their own culture. He was surprised that many of them showed a limited understanding about their culture and most of them did not even know what the word culture means. “We started this project to articulate the Saudi culture to the youth and mobilize them to travel the world and spread the word,” he said. “This is how we managed to bring more people to join this initiative and work on raising awareness about Saudi culture,” he added. 
In 2011, Bakhraiba attended the International Conference for Social Innovation in Naples, in which the European social committee developed a project to invite people from around the globe to see the social problem in Naples and suggest solutions. “It’s like a social gathering of people from all around the world to discuss solutions and our part involved helping the committee spread the word. As a token of appreciation, they gave us the opportunity to speak in front of 200 international organizations,” he said. “The day we addressed the delegates happened to be our national day (Sept. 23). We dressed in our national attire and spoke to the attendees about cultural dialogue, and provided insight into our culture,” he added.  
According to Bakhraiba, the Saudi media is not promoting Saudi culture adequately enough, and that is why Call of Culture aims to fill the void. “We talked about this idea in Ted Ex Arabia at Effat College in Jeddah hoping this initiative will receive greater attention and more people would join,” he said. “We also received an e-mail from someone in Hollywood, which made us realize our project has great international potential and people need to know more about our closed society,” he added. Call of Culture’s team met with the Hollywood team in Dubai to discuss further collaboration. 
Call of Culture also attended a conference of the 360 most active individuals. “The committee dedicated three professors to help us find a way to sustain our project. Later on we registered the project in Washington DC because we wanted to have an intentional platform and follow international law,” said Bakhraiba. “We have three different lines of work which include, raising awareness through events; developing short videos that we broadcast on the Internet; and various other projects that aim to enlighten people about the Saudi culture,” he added. 
The initiative has acknowledged that long-term commitment to volunteering projects is difficult; therefore they have developed a scheme in which people can join for the duration of a single project and then be free to leave. 
There are six committed people to this initiative, who pitch out ideas and help in the execution. These are: Fadi Eisa, Hani Bajar, Manal Felemban, Ali Al-Qahtani, Wesal Aseeri and of course Bakhraiba. “We have developed a business plan called the six circles and we are going to talk about it in Ted Ex. This business plan is a model for social projects to help them sustain and develop their initiatives,” he said. “Many social projects stop, due to lack of funding. Call of Culture however, has signed a contract with a company that will help us sustain the project,” he added. 
Social media is one of Call of Culture’s biggest sources as they utilize it to reach the largest number of people through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. “Our Facebook page has already 12,000 fans from 20 countries and they actively engage in the dialogue and discussions,” said Bakhraiba. Call of Culture calls upon every individual, institute and organization in Saudi Arabia to partake and help promote the rich Saudi culture to the world. 

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‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”