Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa has transformed Bahrain's Ministry of Culture into something resembling a beehive. The ministry has not taken a rest or vacation for the past year. Cultural and artistic activities are ongoing, even during the summer. When reviewing the ministry's annual agenda, you see many diverse activities that display its openness to the Arab world and international cultures. The minister, who came to her post from the field of research and science, has turned Manama into a permanent cultural capital that serves as a bridge between Bahrain and the Gulf, as well as between Bahrain and the Arab world and the West.
It is known that the minister sought to renovate the most renowned old houses and convert them into cultural centers dealing with various affairs. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the achievements made by the Sheikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research, a non-profit civil institution founded by Sheikha Mai. She currently heads the center's board of trustees. Since it was founded 12 years ago, the center has hosted a number of Arab intellectuals, writers and poets in programs that are held throughout the year. The center has 20 cultural houses, including the Mohammed bin Faris Music Hall, which hosts evening performances by a cultural band and opens its doors for free to all who love this art. This represents a unique phenomenon in the way non-governmental organizations interact with ordinary citizens, and there is a productive relationship between culture and the people, away from concepts of elitism.
These distinguished activities are possible thanks to the serious and passionate efforts of Sheikha Mai, who believes that change starts from the individual. She seeks to develop relations between human aesthetics and reality, and, in particular, focus on art as a distinctive form of social consciousness. The ministry has dedicated this year to Bahraini visual arts, under the title "Our Year of Arts." In her position as minister of culture and someone entrusted to develop the arts in the Kingdom of Bahrain, Sheikha Mai believes in the ability of beauty to change the world for the better. She has launched programs to encourage the youth to discover real talent in the local community, and to take advantage of this talent to shape the features of the future. She is also a researcher and a historian who works hard to introduce the world to Bahraini, or Dilmun, culture. Al-Hayat met with Sheikha Mai in Manama.
Here is the text of the interview:
Al-Hayat: You once said: "The defense minister has the task of defending the borders of the homeland, while the minister of culture is tasked with defending identity." It is clear that you have used "beauty and the arts" as a weapon. Are you wagering on making art a priority for future generations in Bahrain?
Khalifa: This is the bet I'm working on. I'm trying as much as possible to send messages to the people of Bahrain and visitors, in order to increase interest in art, whether in terms of architecture, music, printing or other areas of culture and the arts in general. I am trying to develop aesthetic appreciation, which is something I think is essential and necessary, and not a luxury.
Al-Hayat: Can the Arab countries one day regain their aesthetic strength on the cultural level?
Khalifa: We are working on the basis of hope. If we did not have hope that things will change for the better, we would have stopped at where we are. All of these ideas began with an enthusiastic seed for success. They were launched and transformed into large-scale projects.
Al-Hayat: Do you think we can bet on the "spring" that has appeared in the Arab world, despite its tragedies? Is there any glimmer of hope?
Khalifa: I do not see a glimmer of hope in this spring. In fact, it began in the winter, so the timing has nothing to do with the spring. [It has nothing to do with a spring] in form, substance or results. We have only seen destruction over the past three years. How can I call it a "spring" when it resulted in the destruction of a historic city like Aleppo? This is a city that was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now it is threatened with destruction. Anything that destroys a heritage that is of value to the people, cannot be called a "spring."
Al-Hayat: As a history and researcher, you work on the logic of analyzing a historical event through an approach based on a rigid foundation in order to reach the truth. Do you think that our Arab history needs to be revisited and reanalyzed?
Khalifa: All of history is in need of a smart reading that draws conclusions and links events together. But no one can write the whole truth. There is no such thing as complete facts or indisputable truths. History is made of viewpoints dictated by certain forces at a specific time in history. Thus, we do not believe that a historian can say he or she has arrived at the absolute truth. Rather, there are only individual efforts that represent serious attempts to approach a subject from a specific point of view governed by politics. [History] is formed according to the vision of individuals who record it.
Al-Hayat: Do you agree with the idea that understanding the past can allow one to develop the present and predict the future?
Khalifa: Whoever studies history well is preparing himself to approach the future with more clarity, in a way that is governed by vision and goals. We, as individuals, cannot change everything around us. But let's start with ourselves, from our small individual surroundings, to achieve a real impact on entire communities.
Al-Hayat: Bahrain or Dilmun, as it's usually recorded in history, is a land whose history stretches back 5,000 years. It has a strategic location and throughout history served as a link between different civilizations. Does [modern] Bahrain still play the same role?
Khalifa: All cultures were built on a blending and a give and take. And perhaps we, as Bahrainis, are negligent in investing in the rich history of our land, which enchanted the West. We have not offered a history that befits this region, at least from my point of view. I think that we have been negligent, as if we content ourselves with what we have. I am delighted by the achievements of neighboring cities such as Dubai, which I consider a real source of pride. In short, we must not be content with merely what we have achieved thus far.
Al-Hayat: Bahrain is a prominent Arab country in the field of visual arts. Could you serve as a catalyst for neighboring countries?
Khalifa: Bahrain is distinguished by its early visual arts movement, compared to other countries of the region. The majority of wealthy Arab countries have spent huge sums of money to acquire international art work, while neglecting Arab artists. In Bahrain, when we thought about establishing a modern art museum, we relied on our local art scene. I am proud of the experience of Bahraini artists, and I believe it is best to take pride in the rich art we have, for the interest of our cultural presence. I am personally working to acquire the works of Arab artists, and I hope to see a modern Arab art museum in an Arab country. And I'm trying to prepare for such a museum in Bahrain.
Al-Hayat: How are you involving Bahrainis and ensuring that they influence the cultural activities celebrated by the Ministry of Culture throughout the year?
Khalifa: There has been a nice turnout. With time, the audience for art grows more and more. And I am betting that it will only increase in the future. We are now in the process of aesthetic education and, sooner or later, it will bear its fruit.
Al-Hayat: Are there any quantitative studies to monitor the extent of the influence of the new generation on the Ministry of Culture's activities?
Khalifa: We can track the awareness among the new generation through a cultural project we are overseeing under the title of "Taa' al-Shabab" [Come on, youth]. In this project, the ministry adopts the youth's ideas without intervention. Over the past five years we have been impressed by their ideas and proposals. They always bring something new, and there are promising names and experiences that we embrace and transform into reality. With these youth, we left the official role of culture — such as theater and other fields — and went into the streets, producing cultural projects that were accessible to all. We gave them the chance to show off their creativity in front of the public, and we invested in vital areas such as the heart of the old Muharraq district and the Bahrain Gate, where we held an urban planning contest prepared by the youth.
Al-Hayat: We know that Bahrain will be a guest at the Asilah Festival this year [in Morocco]. Tell us more about Bahrain's participation in this event. What will the country bring to Asilah?
Khalifa: We are trying to bring something new, and to benefit from the deep-rooted experience of [former Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs] Mohamed Benaissa over the past 35 years. We are relying on a group of young people who will show off [the art of] Bahrain in a nontraditional manner. In short, we are trying to bring a new spirit that is befitting of Asilah and its history in the field of cultural work.
Al-Hayat: Some media outlets have expressed the views of those who criticize your efforts that raise aesthetic and artistic slogans with the goal of advancing social development. Do you think that those who are trying to pull society backward are an obstacle to your projects and ambitions?
Khalifa: Any attempt, carried out in any society, anywhere and at any time, will be met with critics. It is only natural for new ideas that go against the grain to be confronted with people who condemn them. The paths to renewal are not unobstructed. But there is a positive side to these negative campaigns against constructive work, because they contribute to identifying what is going on, and at the same time they emphasize the seriousness of development.
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