Double interview with Sonja Hegasy and Jowe Harfouche
How to build fair cultural relations? This is one of the questions discussed at the Halaqat Expert Roundtables about the future of cultural relations between from Europe and the Arab world which gathered more than 20 experts from both regions in 2021-2022. Experts Jowe Harfouche and Sonja Hegasy gave us their view on the question.
By Dounya Hallaq
In the last session of the Experts´ roundtable, “Fair cultural relations” were defined as a process based on co-curation, co-working, co-construction. What, in your opinion, constitutes an obstacle to this co-construction? What is a source of imbalance in cultural policy tools?
Jowe Harfouche: I would like to start by painting a larger picture. We are talking about two very different entities (the EU – and the Arabic-speaking region) and I don’t think that in the current situation, we can talk about equal or fair cultural relations. There are two official levels here: the channels of governments and the channels of national institutes, who are tasked with cultural diplomacy.
Both can prove to be problematic. In most Arab countries, there is no active, clear constructive cultural policy. In this absence, the international organizations and national institutes come to fill a void. I don’t think that Arab countries lack the ability to manage their cultural affairs, but the way the current situation stands is that this intentional governmental void reinforces a style of informal, unofficial policy making in the realm of culture. This policymaking is hegemonic and with a top-down approach, starting by these international organizations. Since the money is flowing in a one direction it gives tremendous power to whoever is funding in shaping these policies. Therefore, there is a dimension of policy making that is informal instead of official by virtue of the power of capital. This system is also reinforced and reproduced by international donors, big institutions and government agencies. To me, this whole system shapes cultural policy rather than one that is dictated by the state or regulated by an elected government.
And it seeps into cultural work in all its facets: it is in the mechanisms grants are disbursed, the way juries get to decide what is and isn’t worth funding, which projects get visibility, in the gate keeping, in the financilization of the arts and culture sector, etc . In this respect, I don’t think the Arab institutions get to prioritize and reflect on their own “how” and “why.” The artists also don´t have much opportunity and channels to speak up against this since they don’t really have a possibility to be included in conversations on how and why cultural policy tools are the way they are.
Sonja Hegasy: I fully agree. I understood the idea of co-working, co-constructing, maybe co-curating is regarded as a way out of unfair cultural relations and I don´t think it has worked very well in the past. We are currently starting to rethink how this discrepancy can be overcome. In cultural cooperation, funding plays a major role. Funding is not only about money, it also has to do with power. It is also about marginalization: if you are an Arab artist who only speaks Arabic, you often won´t be included in the collaboration. There are huge parts of Arabic society that are not represented, not part of this exchange, and not able to represent their own thoughts, ideas or creativity.
Of course, we now have more artists from the MENA region who are sometimes exhibited there, and a pluralisation of voices in the cultural field over the past twenty years. New values have emerged that give space for expressions, but we should also question the role of “gatekeeper” positions such as curators. Except for film festivals and art exhibitions, do we have many famous Arab curators? I suppose that the Gulf region has its own curators. But I also see German and other European curators going to places like Abu Dhabi and Cairo to curate the exhibitions there. At the end of the day, curators are the central figures of the art market. They decide what gets into museums and what gets to be seen.
How do we get equitable cultural relations, after what we have all tried out over the last forty years? At the moment, I would say that listening is one of the most important requirement to get to a fairer level. Listening, hearing, trying to understand what the other side is saying and where they are coming from. That is really missing.
Could other actors play the role of intermediaries between Europe and the Arab world, for instance, institutions co-founded by states from both regions, such as the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris or Darna in Brussels (the official cultural centre for Flemish-Moroccan collaboration supported by the Flanders Ministry of Culture and the Moroccan Ministry of the Diaspora Living Abroad)?
Sonja Hegasy: Sure. The engagement of some Mediterranean states is very important. It is definitely a requirement or a step to be welcomed if Arab states put in more money.
On the Arab governmental side, there is a lack of taking over responsibility in the frame of what is possible. It is clear that they don’t have major funds, but if they want more ownership and less dependency, it is also partly connected to being able to support projects financially to a certain extent.
Jowe Harfouche: If we want any partnership to be fair, we need to ask the question of historical context and to center decolonial frameworks first and foremost. This is the first step, before even discussing whether it is fair or not. The colonial past and its present-day ramifications is this huge elephant in the room where EU-Arab cultural relations are discussed. It still affects us, especially when it comes to culture. Culture is not a sector or a discipline per se. Culture is also identity and knowledge-production and transmission. Putting two cultures in dialogue cannot be only epidermal. It is by definition a very deep, radical conversation.
I am not sure to what extent these intermediary organizations are immune to the aforementioned issues of governance. I think most of their funding is still tied to monies conditioned by these power dynamics, and therefore a rich dose of introspection and self-critique are essential for them to fully embody their role and fulfill their organizational missions.
Sonja Hegasy: It is in a way very surprising that we are talking about colonialism again. I´ve been in the field for 30 years and for definitely 25 years I wasn´t able to bring this topic up because it was regarded as a simplistic excuse for what is going wrong in Asia or Africa. Colonialism was regarded as something that ended “a very long time ago” and that was already overcome. When one pointed to consequences of colonialism on the ground, people would be regarded as renegades and as not taking accountability for what had been going wrong in the second half of the 20th century, i.e. in post-colonial times. Mentioning the effects of colonialism was seen as always blaming external forces. This was the stereotypical mainstream discourse. And now we find ourselves again with the debate of colonialism entering wider debates in Germany, in France, the UK, especially with the question of restitution. In Germany, for example, there was (and is) a huge controversy around the Humboldt Forum. Individuals, NGOs, groups like Anti-Humboldt or Bénédicte Savoy who left the board, have been critical and have in a way put colonialism on the agenda again. All this kind of criticism brought to the attention of the wider German public that actually colonialism is not that long ago and is deeply entrenched. People are forced to recognise it today. We can go from this transformation to the question of what could be de-colonial practices.
Does the conversation on decolonialism have an impact on the reality of these relations?
Jowe Harfouche: It already has a major impact, both positive and negative. Regarding the negative impact, the inclusion of this conversation in cultural centres’ programming can be done as pure lip service, and complex issues can be rendered into virtue signaling and checked box in a strategic plan. If decoloniality is a narrative subject or thematic, it can also be co-opted and monetized.
On the positive side: the conversation is less taboo in public arenas. We couldn´t raise the topic in a European institution a few years ago. There is something to be said on the postcolonial moment of independence of Arab states, when very overt colonial policy and cultural practices went through a rebranding into cultural diplomacy. When a “civil society” started taking shape, tasked partially with the role of neutralizers of violence (read anti-colonial violence). This is a very simplistic way of depicting history, I’m aware, but I am just trying to contextualize the conditions in which our arts and cultural institutions came to be.
It is really time to dive into this conversation again and to use this positivity in order to shake off some roles that we are playing without having chosen to play, that we might reproduce without knowing.
Sonja Hegasy: I like to look to the language question because it’s so difficult to summarize the problem that these countries face today. If you are a Berber child born in Morocco, Amazigh is your mother tongue. Then in the school you learn Moroccan dialect, in the high school, modern standard Arabic and French. Most of the universities teach fully in French. French as a mother tongue is needed on this level. You already have 4 languages that you have to navigate. I am not in favour of saying abandon French education or Arabic. But there is no awareness here of what a child already goes through on that level. You can transpose this example to many other cultural fields. The lack of awareness in Europe of the situation on the ground (in so many fields: academia, philosophy, etc.) is still very shocking to me.
Cultural actors often deplore the lack of diversity in the cultural field as our societies become increasingly diverse. What role could members of the diasporas or of Arab descent play in the cultural relations?
Sonja Hegasy: They have a positive impact, we can see it for instance in the Halaqat round or in the Goethe-Institut. But it does not automatically say that people abandon their deep-seated colonial gaze. I had a very bad experience few years ago when I wrote an article on Palestine for a German decolonial cultural magazine that was supposed to be illustrated. I needed images of “urban Palestinian society in the 1940´s” and I received images of Polish immigrants to Israel. Then I received pictures of colonial British soldiers, then Israeli soldiers yelling at old Palestinian farmers etc.pp. It took around five rounds of exchange about the images till the picture editor understood, and that was quite awkward in a context that had taken up the banner of being decolonial.
Furthermore, diversification is of course a process, and it is happening now in the media. You can pinpoint the cases where big German newspapers have failed to cover some topics because they don’t have the sensitivity of what a certain event entailed. For example, German media didn´t understand the relevance of the murder of Marwa el-Sherbini, an Egyptian pharmacist, in Dresden in 2009 because they didn’t have anybody on the editing team that had the sensibility to understand what was in fact going on. A long article was subsequently written by journalists from inside showing some self-criticism on why they missed out of this topic.
Jowe Harfouche: We really need to be mindful of the trappings of the identity politics when we are talking about diversity. Conversations around diversity can easily be limited to questions of representation while there is a lot beyond representation. Another trap is tokenisation. A radical conversation would be much deeper than this simple matrix that we take on when we talk about inclusion.
What questions should be addressed to the European institutions?
Jowe Harfouche: On the topic of cultural diplomacy, I can think of some questions that would be worth asking European cultural policymakers. Why is cultural work and cultural support to the Arab world part of the European delegations for example? Why is it channeled under this diplomatic umbrella of foreign affairs and security policy?
Can we imagine cultural relations outside of this framework, outside of it to be used as a tool of influence and hegemony? Given the historical context of the relations between the two regions, these entangled administrative hierarchies make it much easier to infringe upon culture work. Who does cultural diplomacy serve?
I wonder what kind of conversations on decolonial efforts, if any, are being had inside EU institutions and within policymakers and lobbyist circles that shape those grants and cultural support trickling down the ladder.
Sonja Hegasy: I wonder how far the debates on decolonization have reached policy level already? It has reached academia and NGOs, but I have not seen anything yet that shows that this is also vibrant in diplomatic circles.
About the experts :
Vice Director, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) / Guest professor for Postcolonial Studies, Barenboim-Said Akademie, 2019 - 2021 (Germany)
Sonja studied Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University in Cairo, the Universities of Witten/Herdecke and Bochum, and graduated from Columbia University. She co-directed two DFG-projects on overcoming violent pasts in the Middle East. Subsequently, she headed the project 'Transforming Memories: Cultural Production and Personal/Public Memory in Lebanon and Morocco'. Her interests include civil society and social movements, modern Arab intellectual thought, and politics of memory in post-conflict societies. Since 2008 she serves as Vice Director of the ZMO in Berlin. In 2016 she was a Fulbright Fellow at CUNY, the City University of New York.
Executive Director, NAAS - Network of Arab Alternative Screens (Germany)
Jowe Harfouche is a filmmaker based in Berlin and Beirut. He is the executive director of the Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS), a growing constellation of non-governmental cinema spaces presenting visionary film programs that engage and challenge audiences across the Arab region.