June 28, 2013 7:37 pm

Pop culture diplomacy

Among a people used to turmoil and defeat, trivial victories can become trenchant victories

The handsome young man in the bow tie fell to his knees and kissed the ground. Just a few moments later he was composed in front of the camera. “A revolutionary is not just the one carrying the rifle,” he said. “It is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer.” Talent show winners are not known for the wisdom of their metaphorical outpourings. But the winner of this year’s Arab Idol had more to say than the usual contestant.

Mohammed Assaf, a 23-year-old wedding singer who grew up in a Gaza refugee camp, moved hearts throughout the Palestinian world when he won the pan-Arab competition, held in Beirut, last weekend. World newscasts were full of improbably good-natured gridlock on the street and flag-waving revellers. “The world needs to know we are civilised people,” said one of them on Al Jazeera. “We are all so happy!” said a middle-aged woman. “He raised our heads. His voice is beautiful.”

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Peter Aspden

Among a people used to turmoil and defeat, trivial victories can turn into trenchant victories. Assaf’s signature song, “Raise Your Keffiyeh, Raise It”, did not need much in the way of textual deconstruction. Like all great pop songs, it meant more than it seemed. It was an against-the-odds victory. Assaf had to beg Hamas officials to allow him to leave Gaza, and bribed customs officials so that he could arrive in Lebanon. He arrived late for auditions but a compatriot gave up his place to him when he heard Assaf’s voice. Here alone – put aside Assaf’s looks and impassioned singing – was cause for the raising of a keffiyeh or two.

A couple of days earlier, two more Palestinians were doing their best for their homeland’s culture. The writers Ali Abukhattab and his wife Samah al-Sheikh, also Gaza-based, had been invited to London by the organisers of this year’s Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture. They were to read their work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts but made it no further than the airport, where they were denied visas for entry by the UK Border Agency.

“They have been humiliated,” says Omar al-Qattan, chairman of the festival. “They went to such great lengths to do all the correct paperwork, and paid out of their own pockets to come here.” His voice is imbued with a note of resignation.

“I don’t think it is the kind of thing that serves the UK’s international relations.”

The incident failed to damp the spirits of the festival’s opening events last weekend, although of course London’s weather did its damnedest. I sat shivering in a deckchair in the square outside the Lyric Theatre in west London’s Hammersmith, listening to lovely music from Sudan and Algeria. It should have been an exuberant event; it was at least warming.

This year’s Shubbak is broader, and more ambitious in scope, than the inaugural edition two years ago. It is headlined by a major exhibition at Tate Modern, opening on Wednesday, on the work of Sudan’s Ibrahim el-Salahi, marking the gallery’s most comprehensive look at African modernism.

. . .

Notwithstanding the festival’s richness, the absence of the two Palestinian writers has not been the only impediment. Al-Qattan says he was surprised and disappointed that there was not more support for this year’s Shubbak, from Arab government sources or private corporations. Some of the ultraconservative governments, he says, were nervous of aligning themselves with an event in which ideas were being discussed freely, in a place as strategically important as London. “It was seen as a loose cannon,” he says. The sheer heterogeneity of the Arab world also made things difficult. The priorities of Saudi Arabia are not those of Iraq.

As for corporate funding, the excitement that helped make the first Shubbak a success in 2011 was related to the startling events in the Arab world. “Now that things are so terrible there, they don’t want to touch us with a barge pole,” says al-Qattan. He has learnt that geopolitical turmoil, like everything else, has brand value. “Arab spring” was an easy brand to support; mass slaughter and civil war make for grislier corporate partners.

So the very thing that Shubbak is trying to do – reflect, through culture, the complexity of things, and the need for quiet contemplation away from the headlines – is undermined by those that have no desire to look beyond the headlines. Al-Qattan is hopeful that a younger generation of Arabs will begin to wriggle out of that conundrum, and support the imperative to think and debate more deeply, and more freely.

In the meantime, there is “Raise Your Keffiyeh, Raise It”, a song from a tacky television franchise but that has the unbeatable qualities of 21st-century pop culture: immediacy of impact; fast global dissemination; good looks; good sounds. It is lauded not for its cultural sophistication but for a still more important message: that culture, in this blighted corner of the world, goes on at all.

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‘Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture’, until July 6. www.shubbak.co.uk

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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