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MIDDLE EAST: Iranian Art Bridges Regional Divide

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Jun 2 2007 (IPS) - While Iran’s leaders maintain a confrontationist attitude towards the international community, Iranian artists are playing a friendlier tune in the immediate neighbourhood.

In May, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) served as the setting for the enunciation of the dual policy by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit, the first by an Iranian leader in nearly four decades.

Ahmadinejad did not miss the opportunity to blast Washington and its policies. ‘‘Every time your name (United States) is mentioned, hatred builds up…Go fix yourself. This is Iran’s advice to you. Leave the region.”

Coinciding with his visit was the Iranian Art Festival in Sharjah – another of the seven emirates that make up the UAE – which showcased May 10-31 the talent of painters, film-makers, photographers, sculptors, musicians and theatre professionals from Iran. The idea was to encourage cross-cultural interaction between the two nations.

‘’Iranian artists love life,” Omid Tofighian, organiser of the festival and coordinator, told IPS. ‘’Themes of friendship, peace, love, existence, philosophy and dignity are the features that revisit us in this festival and we want the Emiratis to share this experience with us.”

Tofighian insisted that political undertones ‘’have had and will have no adverse effect on this cultural bonding as most Emiratis seem to be able to differentiate between political and socio-cultural spheres.”


The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has harboured fear and suspicion about Shiite Iran’s intentions in the region ever since the ‘Islamic Revolution’ in 1979 and the threat to export it across the borders into the Arab regions dominated by the Sunni sect of Muslims.

Apart from the tension over Iran’s development of the nuclear programme, ties between the UAE and Iran are complicated by a dispute over three islands – Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs – near the Strait of Hormuz. The islands were occupied by Iran in 1971 after centuries of contention.

Countering the U.S. threat of using the military option to destroy its nuclear programme, Iran has often said that it would retaliate by targeting U.S. bases in the Gulf region – an obvious reference to the GCC countries.

‘‘The festival is an indication that Iran would like to show its soft and beautiful side to the UAE. This is not a military operation message, but a cultural contact. The sociological message, therefore, is that it is possible to talk to each other through culture, through artistic creations,” Ali Reza Sheikholeslami of the American University of Sharjah said.

‘‘About 20 or even 15 years ago, neither would have been possible. The message would have been martial or a religious sermon. The change in the language of communication between Iran and the UAE is very significant. One should not forget that there is a large Iranian population in the UAE and that trade with Iran is significant,” the academic told IPS.

There are about 400,000 Iranians residing in the UAE and the trade between the two countries was estimated to be about 11 billion US dollars in 2006.

Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iran’s influence in the region has extended from the Shiite-dominated and war-torn country to support for Shiite Hizbollah in Lebanon and even the Hamas movement in the Palestinian territories. Politically, all this has intensified the Sunni-Shiite divide in the region.

Said Marwan Al Sarkal, CEO of the Qanat Al Qasba Development Authority, which played host to the festival: ‘‘It is noteworthy that the festival took place during the same month that the Iranian president visited our country. Through such events, we hope to strengthen inter-cultural understanding.”

Speaking with IPS, Al Sarkal said he hoped that the Iranian expatriate population would ‘’help provide us the opportunity to interact with them and promote ties not only between them and our residents but also between our two nations.”

Maryam Shirinlou – a painter whose works are inspired by Persian mystical poetry and the Farsi script – showcased multifaceted collages with mixed media, often merging text with symbols, to show the importance of cultural interaction across borders. ‘‘Cross-cultural synergy is very important and art is a beautiful tool to enable this process. I really want my Iranian compatriots here to mingle with our Emirati friends at the exhibition and use art to further relationships,” she told IPS.

While politicians on both sides – Arab and Iranian – have been at odds, the common people in the Arab world have a completely different opinion about Iran and the threat perception that emanates from it.

In a poll conducted by the U.S.-based Zogby International across six Arab countries, including the UAE, last November and December, only six percent felt that Iran was a major threat. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents considered Israel and the U.S. to be the two biggest external threats to their security.

‘‘This festival provided a great opportunity for interaction between two social forces. Art is very powerful and as we can relate to the experiences that these artists are portraying through their works, it evokes a sense of shared heritage,” Suzzane Al-Muttawa, a UAE resident and an expert in Islamic art, told IPS.

“Art is beyond religious and political boundaries. Art is all encompassing and universal and it is this message that we hope to share with the UAE citizens. The warm reception we have been accorded and the genuine appreciation for our art from the people of this country transcends all underlying tensions,” Tofighian said.

 
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