The Problem With Arab Culture

I often get asked the question - "do you think Arab culture is having an international renaissance?"... Answering the question honestly, I would argue that contemporary Arab culture is in an incoherent and helpless state.

I often get asked the question - "do you think Arab culture is having an international renaissance?" This question is often a default position in response to the mixed bag of cross cultural events that has most recently developed to supposedly mirror or 'open up dialogue' around social conditions in the Arab world. Major film festivals such as Berlin, Rotterdam and Cannes, as well as cross-arts festivals such as the Mayor of London's Shubbak Festival (, have developed programming strands that are intended to encapsulate the feelings of a new generation of Arabs. Ebullience, nostalgia and frustration, as such, become the demarcating devices that curators seek to include in their programming.

Answering the question honestly, however, I would argue that contemporary Arab culture is in an incoherent and helpless state.

My pessimism is not directed at the artists or cultural producers who are working locally, but rather, is a response to the hopeless infrastructure in the region, from which culture can operate. At present, there seem to be two dominant strands for the contextualisation of culture outside of the region: the art market (for niche audiences) and identity politics (for mass audiences).

'The art market in the Arab world is hot' boasted a curatorial colleague recently, and without irony. While, for the international community, soaring auction house prices may suggest signs of 'progress' or a different kind of Western-friendly modernity, the reality is that the art market is a private game that isn't always accessible for the public to partake in. It baffles me that so many individuals will consider the sale of an Arab artist's work into a private and 'non visible' collection as an emblematic barometer of a supposed 'renaissance'. If anything, Arab culture is being commoditised and transformed into a form of private equity.

On a different note, there are large-scale international film festivals that attract global audiences, who gather together to indulge in the richness of world cinema. Still, take a look at the Arab-related programmes on these occasions, and the picture becomes fraught. Indeed, the films that circulate are ones that seem only to be tied to a current affairs news slant. Haphazardly constructed feature 'package' films such as 18 Days (2011), a film consisting of 10 short films by Egyptian filmmakers about the Arab spring, or Yousry Nasrallah's cringe worthy After the Battle (2012) find themselves quickly onto exalted platforms such as the Cannes film festival.

Whom do these projects serve? Some will argue that any profile is better than none, but my belief is that we are too often witness to microwave-ready programme development, which leaves the richer sedimentary work too often shielded from the international public's view.

It is for this very reason that I became interested in exploring Arab popular culture as a means by which to study and develop a different understanding of what constitutes Arab cultural production. Over the years, my research has evidenced that the mass medium of Arab cinema that we receive in Britain and in much of Europe, as well as the USA, does not reflect the authenticity of local tastes in Arabic-speaking countries.

The reasons for this are manifold, but the most explicit explanations relate to a poor system of archiving and distribution locally, and the highbrow snobbery of the purveyors who purport to construct the canon of 'world cinema'. In my experience of organising Arab film festivals in 2012 alone, my team and I have come up against numerous hurdles. I have found that some of the most popular Arab films of all time have been purchased by private firms such as the Saudi-owned broadcaster, ART, whom decided at the last minute to revoke its offer to loan us film prints, arguing that they were too busy during the Holy month of Ramadan to entertain the idea. One film print was detained due to contentious licensing rights issues, while one filmmaker was too terrified to send us his print in the fear of it getting lost or sabotaged - asserting that he could only afford to ever produce one version of the film print.

Unfortunately, the art house distribution labels that possess the skill set to alleviate these problems are much too concerned with acquiring faux European fare. Melodrama, comedy and culturally specific comedies are in turn sidelined for material that boasts a vérité or documentary aesthetic that can be marketed off the back of much broader socio-political issues.

The challenge of writing popular Arab cinema into world cinema's history therefore becomes more sophisticated. How do we encourage audiences and distributors to shift their entrenched viewing patterns? How do we encourage local filmmakers and distributors to value local cinema? Arguably, we require an international network of festivals, patrons, funders and filmmakers to come together to develop an infrastructure. This will develop a much more fluid state, whereby different forms of Arab cinema (and more broad cultural production) can come to the fore.

Part of my work has led to a new festival at the ICA; London called Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema, which seeks to offer a much more sincere representation of local popular culture. With this as a jumping point, I hope that there will be a much more nuanced engagement with popular Arab culture - with both its it's history and its future.

Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema runs at the ICA, London from the 21st of September to the 27th of September (


What's Hot