x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

There's got to be a better way to market our heritage

The world needs to know that belly dancing and Aladdin are not all there is to Arabic culture.

When I worked in Jebel Ali, many years ago, one of my frequent duties was to take foreign guests of the company to enjoy an "Arabian" night out.

This usually meant large amounts of Lebanese food and the mandatory belly dance. I don't know what is it about a belly dance that makes it so "Arabic", or why that act, or "art", has come to define our culture.

In fact, when visitors from Arabia are entertained in other parts of the world they are often treated to ... a local version of the belly dance. Do we really miss this "art form" so much?

History endows a region with traditions and character that mark its way of life, literature, street names, architecture and much more. In our region, you can expect to find an Ibn Sina hospital in each city, an Ali Baba amusement park and the like. Everywhere, Arab tales are known, but too often only through Disney productions featuring Aladdin and Yasmin.

Some such stereotypes can be flattering; Ibn Sina is well remembered as a great physician and Yasmin as a mesmerising beauty. Other portrayals, however, have the effect of reducing the historical value of a character or activity.

I have been kindly hosted in a shisha place in Sao Paulo and a restaurant in Beijing, both unfortunately named 1001 Nights. Umm Kulthum's music was the only distant hint of Arabic culture. The dancers, though graceful, were not Arabian, and the dance's essence was lost in excessive innuendo.

Back when the Nile flowed through a calmer land, I was invited on cruises that attempted to enthral visitors with lithe dancers; in that case, local form and music in more natural surroundings made the experience authentic.

Istanbul is a good example of a city that has learnt to stage entertainments that celebrate - and profit from - authentic cultural history.

In Turkey these events frequently incorporate a belly dance, often as the main event.

There is a performance of a village wedding with local food, song and dance, as well as a costume show. Then enters the star performer and her entourage of drummers. But the whole event is pleasant and non-threatening; couples can enjoy an evening out and tourists are left with a soft sense of discovery. A restaurant that pulls off such a feat can easily employ scores of people - waiters, dancers and others. Playing on heritage is a huge industry.

The Gulf societies, and all of the Arab world, have a rich heritage. Yet visitors and local residents alike complain of the lack of cultural output, or outlets.

There are many underserviced themes. Think of the regional traditions: seafaring, pearl-diving, Islamic history spanning centuries, the desert and desert romanticism, and the food, dance and costumes of local weddings.

In my country, Oman, there are at least five cultural groups with their own costumes, food and traditions. Belly dancing cannot be the defining cultural export of our region.

I have seen other examples of how culture, when protected, nurtured and marketed well, can yield handsome profits.

The other result of course, is great personal fulfilment. Attending a one-week summer course in England last year, I was introduced to the Italian poet Dante and his monumental work The Divine Comedy. This year that university is offering courses on the architecture of cathedrals. Where in our region do we celebrate our famous poets? Instead, high schools are dropping the once-mandatory courses about Mutanabbi and Hafez Ibrahim.

Mosques in Cairo can tell the story of architectural and historic evolution, but we don't really hear about of the Arab equivalent of Romantic, Roman and Gothic styles - Abbasid, Umayyad and Andalusian.

Perhaps there is an opportunity here for somebody to offer continuing-education courses in these overlooked aspects of Arabic culture.

 

Anees Sultan is a businessman based in Oman