国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Presenter Interview プレゼンターインタビュー

Dec. 7, 2012



The new network connecting the Arabic cultural sphere to the world

Khadija El Bennauoi

In recent years opportunities to see performing arts from the Arabic cultural sphere are beginning to increase in number in Japan. However, there is still little access to information about the Arabic arts world. In this interview we learn about the arts in the Arab world today and the effects of the “Arab Spring” by talking with Ms. Khadija El Bennaoui, who is involved in projects to encourage intercultural exchange while working as a project coordinator with the Young Arab Theatre Fund that supports the activities of young Arab artists and with the Art Moves Africa organization that helps promote regional arts exchanges.
Interviewer: Shintaro Fujii (Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University)

I would like to begin by asking you about your personal history.
 I was born in Agadir in southwest Morocco. It is a region populated by many people of the Amazigh (Berber) ethnic group, a people with their own unique language and culture. It is a culture with a long history that predates the spread of Arabic culture through North Africa. By the way, thanks to the effects of the Arab Spring movement, Amazigh language has been newly recognized in 2011 as the second official language of Morocco, along with Arabic.

After getting my Bachelor’s Degree at university in Morocco, I went to University Paris 8 and studied arts management at the Institute of European Studies. While I was studying there I began actually working in the field as well, and from 2005 I became part of the staff at the Young Arab Theatre Fund. There, I was involved in the launch of the Art Moves Africa (AMA) mobility fund (Note: A grant system providing funding for travel expenses to support people’s travel and exchanges) and I still working for it, now as the person in charge.
In Japan, we had a “Middle East Series” at the Tokyo International Festival (TIF, predecessor to the current Festival/Tokyo) from 2004 to 2007 that was organized in collaboration with the Japan Foundation to invite artists from the Middle East to perform in Japan, beginning with Lebanon’s Rabih Mroué and including other representative companies and artists like Palestine’s Al-Kasaba Theatre and Tunisia’s Fadhel Jaïbi. Since then, exchanges with the Arabic cultural sphere have continued steadily, and this autumn Algeria-born Nacera Belaza was invited to Dance Tiennale Tokyo and performances by artists like Iran’s Amir Reza Koohestani are planned for Festival Tokyo. These performances have shown us that the Middle East is producing outstanding artists.
 Nonetheless, it can’t be said that, here in Japan, we really know much about the Middle East region or the Arabic cultural sphere. And, when you speak of “the Arab world” you are actually referring to a very large area. I believe there is one key to regional unity to be found in the shred Arabic language but we hear that there are also big differences between the various regions. Before we ask you to tell us about theater in the Arabic cultural sphere, I would like to ask you to tell us in a bit more detail how we should view the Arab world.
 First of all, the Arab world can be divided largely into the Maghreb (the western region, referring primarily to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and the Mashreq (Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria ). Taking the languages for example, the Maghreb uses Darija, which combines elements of Arabic, Amazigh, French and Spanish. It is very different from the Arabic that is spoken in the Mashreq countries. When people from the Maghreb and Mashreq meet what they speak is, in fact, most often English. As for the written language, everyone can understand classical Arabic, and this constitutes a strong bond among the people of the Arab world, but the spoken language is different in each region. Also, the Maghreb has a history of being colonized by the French, so French is used widely. However, since French is not understood in the Mashreq countries, with the exception of Lebanon, so most often English becomes the common language used. But, since Egyptian movies are very popular in Morocco and Algeria, people in the Maghreb can understand the Arabic spoken in Egypt. By the way, the Al Jazeera Satellite TV station of Qatar has a very important presence throughout the Arab world.

There are a number of factors that make free exchange between the people of these Arab countries difficult. For example, the border between Morocco, which I know well, and Algeria is closed now. You don’t need a visa for visits to the two countries but because of the Western Sahara issues (Note: Conflict continuing between Morocco, much of which was formerly colonized by the Spanish, and Algeria, which supports the rebels fighting for independence in that area) the border between these two countries is closed. That means the artists going back and forth between the two countries can’t use inexpensive ground transportation. Instead they have to travel by expensive air transportation, which becomes a barrier inhibiting exchanges between artists of these countries. In this way, mobility is a major problem for the Arab countries and the governments are not acting to remedy this problem, so currently it is only people like us in the independent sector that are working to try to break down these barriers. We established Art Moves Africa (AMA) in order to support mobility in light of this problem, but in reality there are few requests for mobility support for artists traveling between the Maghreb and the Mashreq, or between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the Maghreb, there continues to be a relationship with their former colonial ruler France in the urban centers like Algiers, Casablanca and Tunis. This is especially true in the economic sector due to continued trade and financial investment from France, but we remain strongly tied in the cultural sphere as well. For example, many Moroccans are fluent in French and it is common for them to mix French with Arabic and Berber in everyday speech. Rather than limiting ourselves to one dimension of mobility , I believe it is essential for us to increase our channels for exchange.
What is the status of freedom of speech for artists in the Arab nations today? There are indications that there are still strong religious and political restrictions.
 It can’t be said that there is sufficient guarantee of freedom of speech in the Arab countries. Most of the countries were under repressive dictatorships and it wasn’t rare for artists deemed to be critical of the regime to be tortured and imprisoned. Those conditions gave for example birth to a genre called “prison literature.” In Tunisia, under the repressive dictatorship of Ben Ali, theatre director Fadhel Jaibi continued to create works that were critical of the regime. In Morocco there was a dark age for artists and writers called the “Years of Lead” (Années de plomb). Aside from some small exceptions like Lebanon, freedom of speech was suppressed in all of the countries. But there were also situations where the [political] forces were so divided and there was a lack of dominant forces that led to a leadership vacuum, and that sometimes favored the artists.

However, when the Arab Spring began from 2010 into 2011 with its democracy movements, the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt fell and with them the “walls of fear” that had been implanted in people’s minds crumbled with the old regimes. The Arab Spring gave people great new confidence. But that didn’t mean that the fight [for freedom of speech] was over. Ironically, in many cases the democratic elections that ensued led to the emergence of Islamic parties that have attacked artists and other progressive factions in society and is threatened their freedom of speech once again. We hear a lot of talk about protecting human rights, but in actuality there is still a long way to go.
What kind of role did artists play in the Arab Spring?
 The artists and producers I know were all activists who took the lead in the [democracy] movements, filming and recording the activities and showing them publicly. I had friends who were jailed for their activities, and sadly, there was one musician friend of mine who lost his life in the revolution’s riots. After the revolutions, all has not been rosy, but the artists were at the forefront as citizens and performed their role as citizens, and I am very proud of that fact.
Have there been any changes in government action regarding the arts since the Arab Spring?
 Unfortunately, the governments in the Arab world still aren’t democratic. So, I think the potential lies in working with the civil society. For example, in Morocco it is not the Ministry of Culture but a civil society organization called “ Racines” who took the lead to organise Etats généraux de la culture (State of play of the cultural sector ) that has brought the artists and intellectuals together, and it is this platform where they are now discussing a cultural policy in Morocco.
Next I would like to ask you about the programs you are involved in. Would you tell us about the Young Arab Theatre Fund?
 Young Arab Theatre Fund was established under the initiative of Tarek Abou El Fetouh a cultural practitioner from Egypt. He is an architect by training. Near the end of the 1990s he tried to establish the organization in Cairo with international funding, but there was government interference and he eventually had to give up on that project and look for an overseas base. Finally, he established the fund in Brussels in 2000. Because, as you surely know, Brussels is an ideal city for organizations functioning internationally. In establishing the fund he got practical and professional assistance from the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM) and was able to get non-profit organization status (Association internationale sans but lucrative) under Belgian law. The organization’s main activities are providing support through its three grants programs, the production program for producing works, the touring program for funding performance tours and the arts & culture program for funding management of art spaces. We also organize the “Meeting Points” festival and informal meetings for arts professionals in the Arab world.

At first our headquarters were in KAAITHEATER like IETM, but after that we moved to Brussels’ Rue Antoine Dansaert. The Young Arab Theatre Fund and Art Moves Africa share the same offices.
Meeting Points is certainly a unique festival, isn’t it?
 Meeting Points is a festival held once every two or three years in different cities, and each holding occurs simultaneously in multiple cities in the Arab world and in Europe, which makes it an unprecedented venture. For the first four holdings, Tarek Abou El Fetouh served as the curator himself, but since the 5th holding when Frie Leysen served as curator, the policy is to have outside curators with the aim of making it a festival that is open to artists outside the Arab world, particularly from Europe. With Meeting Points, the tie-ups and with and support from local organizations in each host city are extremely important.
Could you tell us in a little more detail about the objectives behind the establishment of the Young Arab Theatre Fund?
 In the Arab world as well there is a lot of “contemporary creation” (création contemporaine) going on. When you are trying to support contemporary creation, you come up against major institutional problems. In the Arab world there are three main types of networks with the potential to support in the arts and culture field. The first is the nationally approved networks, but these organizations do not support experimental types of artistic expression. The second is the commercially oriented network. This is a network that attempts to deal with the largest possible audiences, so again they can’t be relied on to support contemporary creation. The third is the cultural exchange network that operates through foreign government agencies. Support from this network is important but it is also a system that asks for something in return for their support. So, what was necessary was a way to become independent, in order that when, for example, a Lebanese artist creates a work there would be a system in place to help promote the work in the Arab world. That was the main objective in creating the Young Arab Theatre Fund. And I would like to note that the “Theater” in the organization’s name is used in the wider sense of the performing arts in general, but there is often a misunderstanding that our grants are limited works theatre (plays), so I think the name should actually be changed. Also, the “Young” doesn’t mean young in age. And the “Arab” is not used in the sense of ethnic Arabs but in the sense of culture in the Arabic language and the concept of the geographical region.
In that case, should we think of “Arab” as including Turkey and Iran?
 Turkey and Iran are extremely important strategic partners for us, so we don’t exclude them, but they are not included in the primary recipients for our grants. They have a different history and culture from the Arab world, and I don’t think they would be very happy being considered Arab (laughs). Personally, I am Amazigh and in general the Amazigh people don’t like being considered Arabs . So, when I say we use the word “Arab” not in an ethnic sense but in a cultural and geographical sense, that is what I mean.
Are your grants available for artists from the Arab world who live and work in Europe?
 It is relatively easy for artists residing in Europe to get support from the governments of the countries they live in. For example, Nacera Belaza, who performs at the Dance Triennale Tokyo 2012, doesn’t get support to come to Japan from her native Algerian government. She was born in Algeria and maintains a strong relationship with Algeria but she now lives and works in France and is an artist who gets support from the French government and Institut Francais.
The reason I asked this question was because there is often a glass ceiling for artists of immigrant origin in the European countries that limits their access to support and so we believe there are many of those artists in need of support. It also seems that these are artists who can serve as a bridge connecting Europe and the Arab world.
 I believe what you say is true. On the other hand, however, artists living in Europe have far better conditions for their activities than those living in the Arab world. They also have access to seeing far more works, in terms of both numbers and diversity.
Where does your organization get its funding from?
The Ford Foundation is our largest source of funding, and we also get funding from other foundations and governments. We had a cooperative relationship with KVS (Royal Flemish Theatre) and through our connections from having Frie Leysen serve as our festival’s curator, we also get support from the Flemish government. There is a support scheme operated by the European Union, but it is for projects, not funding organizations, so we don’t get funding through that. We only have two full-time people on our staff, but we are also supported by many outside people who give us their cooperation.
Next I would like to ask you about Art Moves Africa. It seems to me to be a highly meaningful program to expand the scope from the Arab world to the entire African continent and open up new channels discourse and make exchanges easier. You serve as coordinator for both the Young Arab Theatre Fund and Art Moves Africa. What is the relationship between the two programs? Are they completely separate organizations with separate budgets?
 Art Moves Africa used to be under the umbrella of the Young Arab Theatre Fund. Legally they are separate organizations with separate boards of directors and separate budgets. Art Moves Africa is a program specifically for the entire African continent and its aim is to increase access to mobility for artists and arts professionals. Its selections committee meets three times a year to review grant applications. In the past the program had a budget of 300,000 euros, but since the economic crisis that has dropped to 100,000 euros, so we are now working with a very limited budget. The main reason is that the Ford Foundation had been providing most of the program’s funding until they made a policy change and stopped all arts support for Sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2011, and that has made things difficult for us. But, we are going to try our best to survive this all and keep the program going.
Back in 2007, before the Arab Spring, The Roberto Cimetta Fund made a survey of conditions in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. According to the report from that survey, support is weighted toward events and festivals in each of these countries, but there are also national arts and culture facilities and arts education institutions. However, the report notes that outside of this public arts and culture realm the environment for artists is still a difficult one. Does that situation remain the same today? Are there any notable new developments?
 The Arab world today is full of artistic activity and creativity, but the foundation of institutional support for this activity is extremely weak. Taking Morocco as an example, there are national culture facilities but you can’t say that they are functioning effectively. Due to the country’s abundance of tourism resources, a remarkable amount of effort is being poured into tourism in the local regions and cities, and the result is an abundance of festivals being organized. However, they are all one-time events that seldom take root on a long-term basis in these localities, so they aren’t contributing much to the development of arts and culture at present.

On the other hand, there are new initiatives emerging in the independant sector. Some examples are the “Dream City” project in Tunis, the “On marche” contemporary dance in Marrakesh, the “Boulevard” alternative music festival in Casablanca, the “Arab Dance Platform” in Beirut and the “100 Copies” festival in Cairo. Events like these with programs that deserve a lot of attention are increasing in number. All of these are events that I would like to see people from Japan coming to.

Furthermore, I would like to say that the curator of the next Sharjah Biennial, a contemporary art biennale, is Yuko Hasegawa. This is surely the first time that a Japanese curator will be working with Arab artists in the Arab world, so it is drawing a lot of attention.

The 4th edition of the Informal Meeting program that the Young Arab Theatre Fund organizes for arts professionals was held in 2011 in Marseille. This was the first time we organized it outside the Arab world. We were hosted by Marseille in the framework of preparation for Marseille Provence European Capital for Culture 2013.I hope to strengthen our relationship with people in Japan through opportunities like the Informal Meeting.
Thank you so much for this very interesting talk.

Khadija El Bennauoi
Khadija El Bennaoui started her professional career in Morocco in 1998. She implemented various projects and missions in the Arab world, Africa and the Carribbean for a range of Arab, African and European, stakeholders such as the European Cultural Foundation, The Information & Resource Center at King Hussein Foundation, Arterial Network, Culture Resource and Mimeta…etc.
From 2005 till 2012, El Bennaoui played a major role in developing support for the mobility of cultural operators within Africa, as the Administrator of Art Moves Africa mobility fund. In parallel to her work in Africa, she has been a consultant and project manager to YATF, convening and managing four successful and important symposia for members of independent arts and culture spaces in the Arab world.
Since November 2012, El Bennaoui has been appointed as MENA Regional Program Coordinator for EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture).

Art Moves Africa


Contemporary Performing arts agenda in Middle East & North Africa « On Marche », Festival of contemporary dance, from 28 February to 3rd of March 2013 in Marrakech (Morocco)
Beirut International Platform of Dance, from 11 till 28 April 2013 in Beirut (Lebanon)
Arab Dance Platform, from 18 to 20 April 2013 in Beirut (Lebanon)
Home Works Forum, from 17 till 27 May 2013 in Beirut (Lebanon)