Interview with Dr Ziad Aldrees, Chair of the international Consultative Commission for the Plan for the Promotion of Arab Culture (Arabia Plan)
What makes Arab culture unique among world cultures?
It is difficult to give an answer to this question because of its universal dimension. It is as though I was asked to present an overview of all aspects of Arab culture. Of course, each culture has its own uniqueness and distinctiveness and each has much that differentiates it and sets it apart from others. This is what makes culture both a source of and an outlet for diversity at one and the same time. Over the ages, Arab culture has been like the ocean, taking from its surrounding shores and giving to them. Since antiquity, Arab culture has been characterized by a variety of literary forms, at the forefront of which is poetry. Indeed, it was said by the ancients that “poetry is the record of the Arabs”. However, despite its importance, we cannot reduce Arabic literature, historically, to poetry alone, as there were many literary forms, from the art of narrative and story-telling to oratory and epistolary works etc. In our own day, the novel, drama and criticism have reached a high standard at Arab and international level.
We are fully aware of the role played by our glorious intellectual and cultural heritage in maintaining the chain of human civilization. The Arabs not only transmitted philosophy and the sciences and from Greece and the ancient civilizations of India and Persia but added to these and enriched them. They were a bridge connecting those civilizations to Europe and the wider world. But the Arabs could not have performed this major role without having confidence in themselves, an open-minded approach to knowledge and a brilliant human sensibility. Today, they are calling for the openness to the world’s successful experience to be repeated in order to fertilize their culture and make it more creative than at any other time. The secret of life is giving and taking and the tree to which birds do not carry the buds of life from another tree will wither and die. The mind is not a museum in which ideas are embalmed. It is a laboratory, where ideas are welcomed, developed and revitalized by the fire of experience.
What has the Arabia Plan achieved to date and what are the issues that could be addressed?
The Arabia Plan is very ambitious and cannot be summed up by one activity or a number of activities because its goal has been and continues to be to revive a mechanism for creativity and renewal in the Arab world, while being open to the experience of other world cultures. From the outset, the plan succeeded in gathering around it an Arab and international consensus of belief in its power to be an engine to drive Arab creativity. Among its many successful projects has been a study of the relationship between Arab culture and Latin American cultures mediated through the Iberian Peninsula – i.e. Spain and Portugal. Experts and officials from all the Arab and Latin American States, as well as from Spain and Portugal, took part in this study.
I might also mention the research devoted to the study of the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), the first scientific and cultural institute in recorded history.
The most recent contribution of the Arabia Plan has been the adoption by the UNESCO Executive Board of World Arabic Language Day, celebrated on 18 December each year with a group of important activities based upon themes varying from year to year.
What are the most significant challenges facing the Arabia Plan at present and in the foreseeable future?
The key challenges for the Arabia Plan in the future may be summarized under the following points:
Firstly, there is the issue of the rights of the Arab author and the full value of intellectual and artistic property in the Arab countries. Within the Plan we might, perhaps, look at the difficulties which prevent authors in Arab countries from making a living from their creative and intellectual work, except in a few rare cases. Writers and thinkers are obliged to take up other professions and use another language in order to be able to make a decent living. Asked why he wrote in English, the great Arab writer and intellectual, Ameen Rihani replied, “I write in English to nourish my Arab pen”. As part of the Plan, a field study could be conducted, following which several proposals could be put forward for possible solutions to the issue of the rights of authors and the ability of Arab creative artists to make a living from their creativity.
Secondly, there is the issue of Arab content on the Internet. How can Arab content on the Internet, which is without question the most marvellous means of communication in the world, be creative and productive? How can Arabic be introduced on the Internet in a lively and stimulating way as a digital content-producing language and not merely as a cosmetic device to increase linguistic diversity? The need for this is becoming more pressing with the spread of social media, especially among the young.
Thirdly, there is cultural tourism, an important area of the tourism business in today’s world. How can we foster cultural tourism in the Arab region? What are the obstacles it faces? What is required for cultural tourism to become one of the key supports of our economic life?
Fourthly, there are the Arab communities overseas. What is their intellectual and cultural situation and what level of Arabic language teaching do their sons and daughters receive? What can the mother countries offer these communities? What can we do to harness their energies in the scientific and intellectual fields and the modern expertise and skills they have acquired in order to benefit, even if only partially, their mother countries? Initially, however, proper infrastructure in the Arab countries is needed. Is this infrastructure already in place? What is stopping it from being in place? How can the Arab diaspora be brought into the process of a living, “hands-on” civilizational dialogue between cultures in their new homelands and mother countries?
Fifthly, there is the benefit to be gained from the various activities of UNESCO and similar organizations in strengthening Arab culture and intercultural dialogue and creating a range of action mechanisms. Here we might call for reflection on the role of the Arabia Plan in marking a number of the international and world days celebrated by the international family, not just as celebratory events but for the light they shed on problems and conditions experienced in this or that part of our lives. Of these, I would like to mention by way of example only: World Teachers’ Day, World Science Day, World Philosophy Day and World Poetry Day, quite apart from World Arabic Language Day.