Algiers Cultural Capital of the Arab World 2007
Wednesday, December 12th, 2007
Algiers is the 12th Cultural Capital after Cairo, Tunis, Sharjah, Beirut, Riyadh, Kuwait City, Amman, Rabat, Sana’a, Khartoum and Muscat since 1996 when the ALECSO (Arab League Education, Cultural and Scientific Organization) in Cairo began determining the Cultural Capital of the Arab world. Will the metropolis, culturally marked by Arab, European and Berber influences and often considered to be Mediterranean, become the new magnet in the Maghreb and the cultural attraction of the Arab world?
Hopes and Expectations
The president of Algeria, who had promised his country a cultural Renaissance, referred in his speech opening the Cultural Year to the important role of the creative forces in Algeria. The intellectuals, writers and artists are the wealth of the Arab nation and they are the ones who recognize and describe social realities as “normal” citizens are unable to do. They help to build the future on a democratic basis. The role of the intellectuals and creative is not only limited to an event like this Cultural Year, but rather they have an on-going role expressed in the philosophy of cultural heritage and that has special significance, particularly in difficult times. The country has the declared will, possibilities and financial means – we are speaking here of 70 million euros – to bring young talent, traditions, and emotions together in this Cultural Year. It has to do here with Arab-Andalusian, Berber and Arab-Islamic influences in culturally rich Algeria that is often termed the catalyst of interaction between Machrek and Maghreb.
With regards to Algerian literature, prominence is given to the works of the world famous writer Assia Djebar, who expresses herself in the language of Voltaire – she is a member of the Académie Francaise – but who has “Algeria in her soul.” Assia Djebar was born in Algeria in 1936. The main subjects of the committed writer, women’s rights activist and film director are heroic, revolutionary Algerian women in their fight for liberation from colonial rule to the gaining of independence. Assia Djebar received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt am Main in 2000 for her services to the democratic renewal of Algeria, domestic tranquility in her homeland, and understanding between cultures. She had another spectacular appearance in Germany at the Frankfurt Book Fair when the Arab world was the host in 2004. Her first novella, La Soif (The Thirst), was published in 1957, followed by a wealth of books, some of which have been translated into English (Seven Stories Press and others). Appropriately enough, the Arab League founded an Arab translation center at the beginning of Cultural Year 2007 with its seat in Algeria. Naturally, hopes are attached to the Cultural Year that the cultural exchange, especially prestigious publications by academics, writers and artists, will go beyond Algeria’s borders. Algeria is hosting an encounter with African culture in November 200.
The Development of the Art and Cultural Scene
After Algeria gained independence in 1962, art and cultural developed into a lively scene. No country in North Africa had, for example, more movie theaters. Writers, painters and sculptors were able to develop, especially in the capital Algiers. When the 10-year-long civil war began in 1991, the country fell into a cultural coma. Everything that had anything to do with art and culture, from film colleges to art galleries, was closed. There was no more cultural life. The choice of Algiers as Cultural Capital may make it possible to further develop the re-blooming cultural life. The events of Cultural Year began on January 12, 2007, the day the Berbers celebrate new years; one of those appreciated gestures that support Algeria’s consciousness of cultural diversity – Tamazight, a Berber dialect, was recognized as national language on May 2, 2002.
Activities in the Cultural Year
The Cultural Year’s programs and projects cover the subjects of books, art (painting, design, photography), music, theater, film, cultural heritage and the capital itself. There are not only events in Algiers, but also in the other cities of the country. The existing museums are tied into the activities during the Cultural Year. Algiers offers the visitor interested in art and culture the Bardo Museum, for example, housed in a palace from the 18th century with exhibits to see of pre and early history, as well as ethnography. Particularly worth mentioning are the costumes and jewelry from the various regions of the country. There is the Museum of Classic Antiquities and Islamic Art, the Military Museum with exhibits from the time of the beginning of French colonization in 1830 up to 1962, the Museum for the Decorative Arts in Palais Khadoudja from the year 1570 with carpets and jewelry, the Palais des Rais Art and Culture Center and the Museum of Fine Arts with the works of famous orientalists. Whoever visits the city should take the time to visit Algiers’ old city, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992, with the famous Casbah, the 11th century Grand Mosque, a further mosque from the 17th century and the 16th century castle.
The Ministry of Culture announced the publication of 1,000 books for the Cultural Year – novels, poetry, essays – mainly from the greats of Arab literature and poetry. The target market is primarily the youth of the country. Other activities are aimed at the youth, such as the planned youth camp with young people from all over the Arab world. The idea is certainly praiseworthy because particularly Algeria’s youth is searching for goals worth living for and the fostering of a reading and discussion orientated culture, which until now has only been weakly discernable, can help. Picture books have also been conceived on Algeria’s cities, the Sahara, art and cultural heritage, old mosques and mausoleums, etc. Algerian und Maghrebian authors will be translated into Arabic and up and coming authors will be particularly promoted. The monthly magazine Thaqafa regularly reports on the activities if the Cultural Year. The program includes book exhibitions, conferences, conference of writers, literary festivals, a night of poets, colloquiums on various poets and the fight for liberation in the Arab and foreign literature and a reading competition. A bus named “Book Caravan” is traveling through the country and literary prizes are offered for writers. In the area of painting, there are exhibitions running of contemporary and modern Arab art. Special subjects are the Algerian Revolution in Art, Algerian art over generations, Les Boumehdi, an Algerian artist family, Nasreddine Dinet and the orientalists of the 18th-20th centuries. The exhibits on design are limited to Alergian designers, while photography is to be seen from all the Arab countries.
Music lovers are looking forward to the tours of the three national orchestras; there will be concerts, seminars, festivals and memorial events for famous Algerian musicians, folklore dance festivals in Sidi Bel Abbes and Tizi Ouzou, as well as numerous music festivals featuring Gnaoua, Andalusian and Bedouin music. There are 45 plays that have been restaged and numerous events about Arab theater on the program for theater buffs. For film fans there are 22 new films, 44 documentary films, and 11 TV films are planned to be produced at the end of the Cultural Year – material for a film week, an open air cinema and an international film festival. The subject of cultural heritage covers a vast area including Algerian jewelry, coins, calligraphy, Ibn Kaldoun, the Fatimids and the story of the city of Algiers from the Phoenician to the Ottomans, to name only a few. There is an exhibit in Dar Khdaouedj el Amia, in one of the most beautiful houses in the Casbah of Algiers, on the history of Algiers in the time of the Ottomans. Furthermore, at the end of the year, there will be numerous events and dozens of seminars on subjects like Sufismus, Arabian archaeology, women in the Arab world, art in the Arab world, etc. The historical cultural centers of the Maghreb, like Tahert, Sedrata, Tlemcen, Bejaia, M’zab, Qalaa des Beni Hammad, and Constantine are involved along with the capital in the activities of the Cultural Year. All 48 vilayas (provinces) are presenting their own cultural weeks with colorful folklore events. The cultural weeks of all Arab states are among the highlights with their impressive diversity of the music, song and dance of their national folklore groups, modern dance formations and orchestras that thrill the audience. The media of the individual countries will cover the appearances of their respective artists because, for reasons of prestige, only their best artists will be presented, be it the Yemeni Orchestra from Sana’a, the national folklore groups from Oman and Saudi Arabia, the storyteller from Syria, the experimental dance group from Tunisia, etc. The mixture of traditional and modern is interesting – constantly in a frenzy of movement, color, and sound.
If everything is carried out in Algiers that has been planned for the Cultural Year, then the chances are good that it will become the new magnet in the Maghreb. An Arab/Latin American library is planned along with the construction of an Arab Archaeology Center (cornerstone laid in March 2007), a National Restoration Center and a National Center for Archaeological Research. The models of the National Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art and the the Museum for Miniatures and Calligraphy are just as attractive as the new Atlas art complex. Dar Abdeltif is the new house for artists and the Fadhila Dziria Amphitheater is impressive.
It remains to be seen whether the Cultural Year will be used to overcome the silence that has ruled during the years of terror or not. As a result of the charter on national reconciliation and social peace passed in parliament, coupled with an offer of amnesty to the Islamists, which was ratified by 90% of the Algerians in a referendum, it is said that all Algerians are victims of a “national tragedy,” even the perpetrators. Discussions about terrorism and its victims do not take place, are even banned – thus there exist limits to coming to terms with the subjects of intellectuals and artists who died victims of terror. The latest attacks show how complicated the situation is and they are having an effect on the Cultural Year. The Algerians who have a decisive influence on Arab thought in the country will have to deal with it – they act optimistic, however, that the Cultural Year will have an effect on into the future. A chance for an actual realization of a cultural Renaissance?
Text: Barbara Schumacher
Photos: Barbara Schumacher