Progress through regress
While reporting on the last week of the 41st International Carthage Festival, from Tunis, Youssef Rakha
quizzes the event's savvy new director, actor and producer Raouf Ben Omar
Once in Tunis it takes self-discipline to apply oneself to journalistic work -- a process facilitated by the affability of potential interviewees and the beautiful settings of the event one is there to cover. The International Carthage Festival (9 July-15 August), an origainally multifaceted forum that had, until the present round, focused exclusively on satellite TV-style commercial music at the expense of theatre, cinema and the literary sphere, was previously held in the Roman amphitheatre, one of several landmarks in the ancient Phoenician-Roman city that gives the event its name. That was the only space available to festival organisers. This year, for the first time in its four-decade span, the festival is taking place in six different venues at once: the St Louis Cathedral (Acropolium de Byrsa), the adjoining Carthage Museum, the gardens of the Palais Saada, the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music (housed in the historical Dar Ennejma Ezzahra in Sidi Bou Said, the resort town closest to Carthage), and the Abdallia Palace in La Marsa, closer to downtown Tunis, as well as the amphitheatre. More importantly, however, this, the 41st round, hosts, aside from ubiquitous video-clip icons like Saber Al-Ruba'i, Latifa and -- the more distressing face of the contemporary Egyptian music scene, this -- Ihab Tawfiq, such serious, well-respected names as Mahmoud Darwish, widely acknowledged as the poet laureate of the Palestinian resistance, Marcel Khalifa, the musical voice of the Lebanese communist party during the Civil War as well as, incidentally, the first composer to set Darwish's poems to music, and Anouar Brahem, the world-class Tunisian instrumental composer. For the first time since 1988, what is more, poetry readings form a significant portion of the event's activities; the festival's best-known sponsor, the Rotana satellite channel, which had taken up more than 50 percent of the programme in the last few years, now boasts no more than six out of a total of 106 events - a development welcomed by most educated Tunisians, who, unlike their counterparts in Cairo or Beirut, are surprisingly interested in the artistic, the literary and the little known.
Impeccably decked out in white shirt and trousers and off-white linen waistcoat, with a meticulously groomed rectangular moustache that seems typical of a certain class of middle-aged Tunisians, actor Raouf Ben Omar, the festival's new director, takes an energetic, down-to-earth interest in the progress of events. "In its first 30 years," he tells me, prior to a poetry reading at the Acropolium, "the Carthage Festival was an international event in every sense of the word. It opened out onto all five continents, and hosted the best known names in the Arab world and Europe, and in every field of cultural endeavour. When poetry was last scheduled on the Carthage Festival programme, in 1988, Nizar Qabbani, Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish [the Arab world's 'top, top, top' poets, to use Ben Omar's own expression] were all there on the same occasion. I, for one, grew up making artistic discoveries in Carthage, which introduced me to numerous cultural figures and works of art. You could say it was the formative influence, in terms of the films and plays, as well as the musical performances, it made available. Now in the last six or seven years," Ben Omar lights one of those slender cigarettes often reserved for women, perhaps another sign of his affiliation with the aforementioned class of cultured Tunisians, "its orientation changed significantly - and drastically, I thought. It became almost a pop music festival - and one devoted to a particular type of pop music, too. You could say it was well on its way to becoming a video clip festival, for this is the kind of unabashedly commercial fare it hosted, almost exclusively. I have my own production company and I entertain no illusions in this regard: culture is culture; commerce is commerce. So my vision for the festival is radically different. I feel it must return to its original orientation. And it is in this sense that I keep telling people: it's not that I'm renewing Carthage; I'm simply going back to the old, the original orientation of the festival, which I personally benefited from, growing up. That would be my achievement."
Though some festival goers testified to the contrary - even if it has already started, change will take time to fully register - Ben Omar's achievement is widely recognised. Concluding a triumphant Bait Al-Oud Al-Arabi performance at the Abdallia Palace last week, Cairo-based Iraqi oud virtuoso Nasir Shamma told the tabloid Al-Anwar Al-Tounisiya that the change amounts to "a curatorial coup d'etat", stressing the pleasure he took in witnessing it: "I had known about this since May, since I was among the participants at the Conference of Arab Festivals, in the company of Marcel Khalifa, and Raouf Ben Omar. I am certain that Arab festival programmes have altered by at least 60 percent after that conference. In the course of the proceedings I personally suggested that political-cultural festivals should be revived, in order to preserve the sanctity of such venues as Carthage and Jarash. The truth is that the revolution that took place in Carthage could never have happened even in the most prestigious European festivals." Writing in the festival newsletter, Syrian journalist George Ain Malek hailed the young Malouf master Ziyad Gharsa's Carthage debut as "unlike [ordinary, formulaic evenings] experienced in previous years, an affirmation of the meaning of art in the figure of this young Tunisian, full of emotion and knowledge"; while Tunisian journalist Najat Al-Habbashi, writing in the daily Al-Sahafa, described the Quebec singer Isabelle Boulay's concert as "unforgettable, the occasion for a warm embrace on the part of a singer who hails from a snow-filled land". Such success, Ben Omar, explained, would have been far more pronounced had there been more time to undertake the task of "programming the festival" - which he accomplished, somewhat impressively, in only eight weeks. "Already," he adds, "I am making contacts with artists worldwide in preparation for next year's round." He mentions a phone call to Andrea Bocelli's agent by of an example: "Such artists require lots of notice. It wouldn't have been possible to contract them this year."
The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Tunisia's newly appointed Minister of Culture and Protection of Heritage, history professor Mohamed Ibn Al-Aziz Ben Ashour, a quiet, lanky man whose demeanour is remarkably modest for an Arab minister. "He is a good friend of mine," Ben Omar goes on, referring to Ben Ashour. "When he was appointed he contacted me and requested that I should join in discussions of how the festival should be run. Eventually he suggested that I should manage the festival, with a view to retrieving its original character. As I was saying before, I entertain no illusions about the commercial hemorrhaging to which art can be subject. Culture does not make a profit as such. And the Carthage Festival is a 100 percent government-funded event. Why should it make a profit? The festival administration is not a video clip agent. We thought things out together, slowly at first. Then the programming began. First, we raised the number of spaces, and divided different programmes among them: the Palais Saada, for example, is devoted to children's performances. We conceived of the event as, first, Tunisian, then Arab, African and Mediterranean. Tunisians take up 50 percent of the programme, but I've sought out Tunisians living abroad, artists who have made a name for themselves elsewhere in the world while remaining virtually unknown in their home country: the Chicago-based musician Habib Haddad, for example, or the prodigy violinist Yasmine Azaiz. The festival is giving them an opportunity to connect with their real audience, and vice versa. I was hoping to host Mohamed El-Ezabi and [the recently deceased Egyptian folk singer] Mohamed Rushdi on the same evening, a kind of tribute to the profoundly original music they both perform. Sadly when I called Rushdie he was in the intensive care unit, but El-Ezabi's concert is happening and it will be by way of tribute to his late brother in arms. I also called [vernacular Egyptian poet] Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, but in the end he couldn't make it."
As to the question of whether state support in a unipolar regime compromises the integrity of the artist, Ben Omar is firm: "In Tunisia, if there was no state support for culture, there would be no culture. Businessmen who spend billions on football will not contribute a centime to culture. Integrity in the arts is, in the end, a matter of intelligence and creative accomplishment, not of political rhetoric." Once an oppositional figure, Ben Omar denies any involvement with politics. His position is rather simple: make it happen, whatever it takes; and if you do it properly, you can only congratulate yourself. "Serious art will of course have a take on social conditions," he elaborates, "but this is different from activism or any other political activity. It's not the business of the artist or the producer to undertake the latter. In Tunisia what space there is for freedom of expression is there in the arts." Indeed in speaking of "dynamic synergy", Ben Omar seems to know what he was talking about. "Carthage was an occasion for theatre," he kept saying, with passion, "for jazz, for opera, for poetry..." But art is never free of practical (for which read, mainly, financial) considerations: "I earn my living by organising major, large-scale events and, due largely to major Western production houses shooting their films in Tunis, acting in international films. Some of this money goes into endorsing non-commercial art. The important thing is to have a network of support the world over. This is partly how I managed to come up with 106 events in eight weeks: I have numerous friends in various artistic fields the world over, people I know I respect and like to work with. I don't need to deal with commercial institutions or let someone else decide for me. Even the six Rotana shows this year were carefully selected." He contacted not only networking partners but journalists and, notably, festival directors: "I dream of joint production, but perhaps this is too soon. We can at least start with an exchange of programmes. But with joint production, if you offer someone a tour of several Arab cities, and if you can pay them well by pooling funds, it's a different story. The activity can even be extended to European festivals, why not. But for now I am working on establishing the Arab connections and exchanging programmes..."
It was soon time for the poetry reading, however -- a mixed bag of contemporary Tunisian versification, in classical Arabic. In drawing on historical and literary figures of the Maghreb, Jamila Al-Majid invested taf'ila poetry (verses based on the old metres of the Arabic canon but used in a less rigid framework) with a cultural specificity not unlike Egyptian poets of the 1960s, while Youssef Al-Ruzouqa's self-consciously postmodern, print-oriented work echoed the work of 1970s poets. Of all the work presented at the Acropolium on Saturday, however, it was Al-Munsif Al-Mazghani's novel approach to reading that drew a relatively big crowd and kept the audience, as it were, on the edge of their seats. Writing of love, from the viewpoint of woman, Al-Mazghani draws on Quranic recitation to deliver his short, pithy lines in the form of a chant - something that turns the process into a performance. In the meantime, at the amphitheatre, the Tunisian premiere of the Dardenne brothers ' L'Enfant, winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'or this year, had already begun, while Tunisian star Salah Misbah, a black man with an exceptionally powerful voice who looks far younger than his years, was, to the accompaniment of an excellent orchestra, delivering his own rendition of the late Egyptian composer Saleh Abdel-Hayy's famous song Leh ya Banafseg (Why, violets). Perhaps the highlight of the evening occurred later, however, when, arriving just as a Syrian folk music show had ended on the small stage set up at the Palais Saada garden, all I got was the sight of children jumping up and down on the still lit stage, yelling in an Arabic dialect rather more comprehensible to me than Tunisian as they pleaded with invisible parents to take photos of them.