‘The irony of it’
The political crisis in Bahrain has put culture on the back burner. In her office at the Ministry of Culture, Sheikha Mai flips through a book of building designs, evidence of the country’s once ambitious cultural agenda. But most of the projects are unlikely to break ground anytime soon, said one ministry official, who asked not to be identified because she wasn’t authorized to speak for the government.
The government’s repression of the opposition has touched even the small number of Shiites who are aspiring artists. Loyalty to the government is a precondition for participating in any ministry-funded projects, according to one young arts activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing funding.
A cultural policy that looks outward and is based on large, international trophy-events may no longer be tenable, some analysts say.
“This was not designed with the vast majority of Bahrainis and their interests in mind,” says Jones, of Rutgers.
The fact that Bahrain’s reputation and economy have suffered so much, so quickly, is also troubling to observers watching other gulf states.
“Bahrain is politically and culturally much more developed,” says an Arab analyst based in Bahrain, who spoke anonymously so as not to attract unwanted attention from the government. “It was the most liberal place in the region. That’s the irony of it.”
Marius Deeb, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes that countries such as Bahrain have little choice but to continue to pursue a cultural policy that links them to the international world and the West. The gulf states’ pursuit of high-profile cultural events isn’t superficial image-building but a genuine defense against Iranian government influence, which would drag “them backwards to the Middle Ages,” he says.
But others question the goals and accomplishment of the trophy-culture strategy. Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and a visiting fellow at SAIS, says that Western cultural leaders need to think more deeply about the essential purpose and ethical seriousness of art when engaging with authoritarian regimes.
“There is a spirit of art and literature, a spirit of subversiveness,” she says, which is easily compromised during collaboration with nondemocratic countries. When the political climate is sensitive, she says, art easily becomes “decorative” and loses meaning and power.
Sheikha Mai sees no choice but to go forward in the same way she always has. Real Bahraini artists, she says, are loyal to the government. And although Bahrain may be isolated from the international community at the moment, it can always look to its neighbors in the gulf, including Saudi Arabia, which currently has troops in Bahrain to enforce martial law.
“They care about Bahrain,” she says.