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?

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