Immersed In Arab Culture

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009; Page WE23

The residents of Washington might not know it yet, but something extraordinary is about to take place on the banks of their Potomac.

Something that has never before happened here -- or anywhere really.

Starting Monday, 800 of the finest artists of the vast and varied Arab world will descend on the Kennedy Center for three weeks of unprecedented communion, celebration and cultural exposition.

Egyptian writers will mingle with Lebanese musicians. Moroccan dancers will perform alongside Iraqi singers. Palestinian filmmakers will dwell among Tunisian actors, Kuwaiti calligraphers and Jordanian painters.

Old will meet young, as tradition overlaps with modernity and shared compulsions toward beauty, creation and expression trump political sparring and religious divisions. The Kennedy Center's Arabesque festival will be the largest congregation of Arab artists the world has ever seen.

Production of the festival has been a herculean undertaking. Five years in the making and encompassing 22 countries, it entailed a level of logistical coordination far beyond anything the Kennedy Center has attempted. Forty performing groups, 800 visas, middle-of-the-night conversations across 10 time zones, two tons of cargo being tracked as it travels from the Middle East. Enough drama, decor and design to transform the white-walled Kennedy Center into a beautiful, bustling Arab universe.

It will be a momentous occasion for the artists.

Even more so for us.

Unshackling ourselves from blurry stereotypes and half-formed conceits, we will step into their world without leaving the borders of our city. We'll give ourselves over to the rare and precious opportunity to see, hear and taste the flavors of Arab culture through the intimate dialogue exchanged between artist and audience.

The veil is about to be lifted.

Planning for the Arabesque festival began at a moment when the United States was in the midst of two wars in the region. U.S. popularity in the Middle East was at a brutally low point, and strands of ugly stereotypes about Arab and Muslim people were snaking through pockets of our society.

The Kennedy Center has a long tradition of hosting international festivals to showcase foreign cultures: Last year Japan was in the spotlight, China the year before that.

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