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Articles, Essays, Volume 6

For Future Reference: Art and Politics (1999)

For Future Reference: Art and Politics (1999)
By Nehad Selaiha
Arab Stages, Volume 6, Nehad Selaiha Memorial Issue (Spring, 2017)
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publication

In the Arab world, where repressive authoritarianism, in varying degrees of severity and one form or another, penetrates all aspects of life, and constitutes the ruling principle – informing the structures of thought, social relations and government – cultural events, and theatre festivals in particular, invariably have an air of crude political machination. Because theatre in the Arab world has always had an irreducible political dimension, and continues to be inextricably bound up with a critique of domination, official theatre festivals are often viewed by governments as effective means to divert attention from the many arrant abuses of human rights in this part of the world, and project a spurious façade of democracy, freedom of speech and conscience.

The partisan political base of such events, however well camouflaged, is hardly a secret. Over the years, Arab artists, critics and cultural activists, have had to learn how to manipulate it in their interests without compromising their visions. In this respect, bluffing has proved invaluable. By taking the establishment at its word, pretending to believe its glossy slogans, and threatening to embarrass it by calling its bluff if necessary, artists have been able, in some cases, to secure subsidies, spaces, media coverage and a bigger margin of freedom.

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