Monday, December 19, 2011

Conclusions: Qatar Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations

Olivia attended the UN Alliance of Civilizations Forum on Development and Cultural Exchange in Doha, Qatar last week.  

Now that my bags are unpacked and my internal clock is on New York time, I can take a moment to reflect on the UNAOC Forum in Doha. Those four days sparked amazing conversations and insights with young leaders and more established leaders working to make the world a “better” place, but what specifically am I taking away from it?

New connections, to be sure. I met activists from all over the world (and I mean all over) who are working at the grassroots level to make their cultures more equitable. Simply being in a room that has that energy is exciting: I am reminded why I like going to work every day. These are young people who are not satisfied but who seek to make lasting changes. What could possibly be more important?

I attended a panel in which five Arab Spring activists talked about their experiences on the ground in Libya, in Tahrir Square, and in Syria. Their stories were violent, yes, but also filled with camaraderie and laughter and more than a little hope. I miss that true idealism: not Pollyanna rose-colored glasses, but honest belief.

I cannot read the news about Egypt today and not think of the blogger I was speaking to just days ago. Despite being so saturated with the events of the region, I never felt I understood clearly until she told me that folks all over the Arab world and the MENA region were listening to one song of freedom on the radio, and it kept them working towards democratic peace. That I understand perfectly: revolution needs art and music to breathe life into it.

I also got to talk to Israeli and Palestinian people about how to actually initiate dialogue in a region so stifled geographically and politically. There is no room (literally and metaphorically) for a new opinion or idea. Yet logically, it is not the same logic that has been used for decades that will solve anything. We have had years of hatred, stereotyping, fear and violence: what can we do now that will change the landscape even a little? My biased answer is theatre. I know that it works, and I know that it makes me confront my own demons. As we work towards peace, what could be more vital than self-reflection?

That is what I am struck by most: the questions that go unasked in my own society. We assume we have answers without ever bothering to ask about other people’s experiences and realities. Want to know how to make a dent in the housing crisis?  Awesome, me too.  How can we do that without knowing the experience of a homeless person,or a person who cannot make rent, or a shelter worker who does not have enough beds?

My solution to this is theatre: theatre to see a glimpse of someone else’s day-to-day reality, theatre to communication with populations who speak a different language, and theatre to remove the conversations from the intellect and relocate them in the heart.

Cross-cultural dialogue is a massive and necessary goal if we are going to work together in a global world, but it is impossible to mandate. Dialogue is not debate, nor is it academic. It must be relatable, real, and honest. The arts create that interaction because they seek to ask questions and to open up new perspectives.

I know this to be true: now my task is to continue to convince others.  I got to change a few minds in Doha.  Who is next?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Youth Gather in Doha

 Olivia is in Doha, Qatar to attend the UN Alliance of Civilizations Forum on Development and Cultural Exchange.  On December 10, she moderated the Pre-Forum Discussion for Youth Leaders.

Today, myself and 25 other UN Alliance Of Civilizations moderators (folks who had been moderating the online pre-forum discussion, members of the Youth Committee, and students from Penn State’s World in Conversation program) moderated four hours of discussion in order to come up with 7 concrete messages we want to send to world leaders. These messages will be presented tomorrow at the opening session of the 4th UNAOC Forum in Doha.
I have spent the last three weeks moderating the pre-Forum discussion on how the arts speak to a shared human experience and what kinds of programs work.  Reading so many other young voices form across the world share their stories of singing in a choir, of performing in a show, and of creating a mural together reinforced for me that I am in precisely the right business.  Creativity and collaboration are the most effective way to reach across borders and truly see another being for who he or she is.
Today, the prospect of crafting a youth message that will be heard on a global stage is exciting in and of itself, but to do so with thirteen other youth leaders from all over the world is an opportunity I rarely get.  So often when youth connect, it is through the internet.  We do not sit together in the same room to engage in dialogue around issues of development and cultural diversity: that only occurs in my nerdy fantasies.   
Of course, through Bond Street young people do get to experience collaboration in the same room, but one or two countries at a time.  Today there were leaders from over one hundred countries sitting face-to-face.
Not that dialogue is enough: we must commit to setting goals together that propel us toward sustainable change.   Dialogue is a tool to reach a collaborative construction of methodology, ideology, programming, and more.  Even though this is the UN and there is a lot of talking, just talking is not enough.  Youth work quickly, we organize, and we spring to action.  There is certainly space for reflection and planning so we do not end up flying by the seat of our pants, but the focus must be on moving towards a goal.  I get frustrated when dialogue is the end and not the means because I and the other 400 folks here are not used to talk.  We are used to turning words into action.
I, in particular, am used to working with very few words.  The arts create a space to engage in dialogue nonverbally by sharing cultures and the human experience of living in them.  As one of the only self-identified artists here (and certainly the only one who works at an arts organization), I am consistently finding myself on the verge of yelling, “Just CREATE together!”  My pre-forum discussion proved that working together to create theatre, song, visual art, murals, or any sort of creative project breaks down the barriers that exist.
My goal for the next three days is to make as many people as possible-from Ban-Ki Moon on down- understand this fundamental value.  I know the arts work not just in Afghanistan, in Haiti, in Myanmar, in the Balkans, in Israel, but I have also seen them work firsthand in Nepal and in prisons in the US.  
I am reinforced in my mission every time I tell a delegate what I do and they immediately exclaim, “Wonderful!  That sounds so interesting/effective/useful/creative!”  Everyone has that positive reaction because using art to reach across borders makes some sort of innate sense to us. It’s about more than providing a voice to the voiceless: it is about empowering voices to speak us and be heard in whatever way they want to communicate.  

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Creating the Shows in Kabul

Here are more of Kayhan’s thoughts about the creation process with White Star Company in Kabul, excerpted from her Artivism blog October 8, and 14. For the full stories, check out her blog here:

I’m tired. Tired, tired, tired. I work 6 days a week with the actors, then spend many more hours at the apartment revising agendas, planning, and trying to connect with local and international NGOs who would be interested in supporting this fledgling theater company when we leave. We go to meetings in the mornings and then go to the university in the afternoons until evening working hard and pushing the students harder. The sky is dark when we leave and Kabul is getting chilly, “sard-e-st” … “it is cold” in Dari.

Kianaz works in the mornings then goes to our rehearsal, then school, then home where she is the sole supporter of her mother, father and younger brother. Her father is too ill to work and her mother cares for her brother and the home. We found out that she is still in high school but has persisted in knocking on doors and pushing her way into the Kabul theater department’s activities. If Kianaz can fight for her theater dreams amidst great responsibility and burden, I’m not too tired to give her my best.

Tired, annoyed, bored; these all seem like luxurious states of mind. These students are rising above great personal odds, societal oppression and national instability to make their dreams a reality at any cost – dreams of being theater artists. Their hopes are so much bigger than me. They give me energy when I am drained, spirit when I am down, and sweetness when I get sour.

Right now, the actors have chosen the themes of their plays and their stories. We started off speaking about sexual harassment on the streets, the challenge of getting married when you have no money, the problem of corruption, illiteracy, ethnic discrimination, unemployment and violence against women.

The men and women are working as one group but as two teams so that the women can bring their work out to women’s groups and spaces where they are safe. The women have chosen to work on two themes: 1. illiteracy and the oppression of women not to get educated; 2. the challenges of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The men have chosen to work on the theme of personal responsibility to the society. In a country torn apart by decades of war, strife and instability the family unit was the only type of real cohesion, support, and trust. People are still bound to their family unit and the idea of common good, public support, etc. is still being figured out. But this means on every level (from the average Mohammed to the highest Minister) people are likely to pass the buck, not be the leader, and only think in terms of family and known community. So the guys are showing a story about that.

They are a beautiful, fun loving, open hearted bunch capable of changing the world. Inshallah, this will be one of many big steps they take in leading their country women and men towards creative options for change.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Updates From Kayhan in Kabul

Kayhan blogged from Kabul during the most recent Theatre for Development Project. Here is some of what she had to say about the 2011 National Theatre Festival in Kabul on September 29 and about being an American in Kabul on October 2. For the full stories, check out her blog here:

The last four days at the Kabul Theater Festival has been heady, thrilling, hopeful, and heartful. I was overjoyed to meet most of the theater artists that I worked with last year. They were presenting their work at the festival (one of them won best scenery and costumes!) and they all looked radiant and full of life. Moreover, I met so many new, creative people working in MANY different provinces of Afghanistan and in different forms of theater.

We met groups who have faced great danger making their art, people new to theater, others who are well established, some on the cutting edge, and folks who are just joining in for the sake of it – maybe hearing about it for the first time. This is exactly the type of vitality and diversity you want to see in any field.

In general (and not just with theater folks) there is so much love, energy, brilliance, and hope I feel when talking to Afghanis. Just the opposite of what the mainstream media shows us. I suppose that outside forces need people to believe things are drab and hopeless to get support for unending war. Imagine if we heard about theater festivals, language schools, women judges, youth voices, inter-ethnic solidarity projects, music and dance forms, etc.?

The truth is, Afghanis are creating their futures with vision and dedication. I hope that reading this blog will allow you to reignite your hope for the people of Afghanistan and believe in their brilliance and power.  Hope springs eternal – through theater!

There is such diversity in the look and feel and styles of the various performances.

A brilliant young university student from Herat did a fantastic clown show and had us all laughing and crying. Her amazing mother and father joined her onstage for the curtain call. You could see how much they loved their daughter and supported her dreams. All artists should have parents like hers!

"Stupid American"
Being raised in a South/West Asian home, in NYC, I have the privilege to be able to see things from different cultural perspectives and to carry with me the knowledges of many people. (I use the plural to reflect that there is no one “knowledge”.) I am blessed to have an extended family of second mothers, sisters and brothers who have shared with me some of Puerto Rican culture, African American culture, LGBTQ culture, Jewish culture and so on. I am grateful to have that information and perspective as a part of my being.

But, I too get to be a “stupid American” sometimes – seeing things as funny or odd because of where I come from. It can be people, situations, or everyday things.  I realize the ethnic boxes and categories we have are measly and hollow.  Just look and see.  I am sure you’ll recognize a cousin, a sister, a neighbor, a friend.  No matter where you go in the world, human beings are more alike than we are different.