WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 800 Arab artists from 22 countries will appear in Washington in the largest ever presentation of Arab arts in the United States, a three-week event that coincides with President Barack Obama's attempt to build better relations with the Muslim world.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began planning the "Arabesque" festival years ago. Its events are not tied to the U.S. government in any way, but the timing turned out to be inspired, said show curator Alicia Adams.
"It's fortuitous that it's happening at this time when we are trying to change the way that we do things and our relationships with this region of the world," she said.
"We certainly want to call attention to the arts and artists that are from this region of the world, but also to the beauty and humanity that exist in that part of the world -- and to debunk some of the stereotypes."
The festival, which runs from February 23 through March 15, will include performances in music, dance, and theater, as well as exhibitions and installations. One exhibit showcases more than 40 elaborate and colorful wedding dresses and the silver and gold jewelry and headdresses that go with them.
Presented in cooperation with the League of Arab States, the $10 million festival seeks to illuminate the diversity of a region that stretches from the Arabian Gulf to North Africa and was a cradle of human civilization.
The festival will include many free performances, poetry readings, films and exhibits, as well as low ticket prices for other shows.
Artists include well-known musicians like Lebanon's Marcel Khalife, an all-male Moroccan contemporary dance company, dervishes from Syria and Alaa El Kashef, a Grammy-award winning sound engineer who has captured the sounds of the bustling streets of Cairo.
Adams, who visited 15 of the countries represented, first began thinking about showcasing the work of Arab artists more than 10 years ago, when artists from North Africa participated in a Kennedy Center's African festival.
"I saw at the time that there was a real need to present more of these artists who were sorely missing from the main stages of America," said Adams, who has also curated festivals focused on Japan, China and Latin America.
But timing proved complicated. "You get into this thing of waiting for the political environment to be better, and then you wait and wait and wait," she said.
When Michael Kaiser became president of the Kennedy Center in January 2001, he and Adams picked a date and got to work.
Kaiser held fast, even after the September 11, 2001, hijacking attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- events that spurred both huge interest in the Arab and Muslim worlds and much negative sentiment.
"He said we will not waiver from this. It's really important," Adams said.
Many Americans know little about how much Arab scientists, philosophers and thinkers contributed to Western civilization, said Jonathan Lyons, author of "The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization."
"There's some underlying assumptions that Islam and the West are natural enemies ... but if we look at the cultural histories of the two regions, we see enormous commonalities," said Lyons.
To address this gap in knowledge, the festival includes a free multi-media exhibition that explores Arab advances in mathematics, medicine, astronomy and chemistry achieved between the 8th and 15th centuries.
"We have to remind people that the Arab contribution was huge. Without this, there would not have been the Renaissance in Europe," said Adams.
Simon Shaheen, a U.S.-based Arab composer, violinist and oud player who is performing at the festival, says he has seen interest rise since he first moved to New York in 1980, even outside big metropolitan areas.
Presenting his music in the United States is "very powerful and it brings culture closer. It creates an understanding and acceptance," said Shaheen, who recently did a residency in Dayton, Ohio.
Shaheen, who has played with Sting, said he doubts Arab music will ever become part of the pop mainstream, but remains committed to making it more accessible.
"I think it's possible to reach a greater sector of the American people -- but you need to do a lot of work," he said. "At least there are pockets here and there that want to learn about the culture and want to reach out."
(Editing by Alan Elsner)
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