America in Alexandria, de Tocqueville in Arab

By Amb. Cynthia P. Schneider

"This is the most extraordinary place I have ever seen," exclaimed Sid Ganis, film producer and past President of the Academy of Motion Pictures, about the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern day reincarnation of the famous Library of Alexandria. Ganis was in Alexandria to participate in a conference organized by the Library commemorating the one year anniversary of President Obama’s Cairo speech. The brainchild of the Bibliotheca’s founding Director, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Initiatives in Education, Science and Culture Towards Enhanced US-Muslim Countries Collaborations, aimed to focus on concrete projects and initiatives in those three areas, and not on divisive political issues such the Israeli-Palestine conflict and Iraq.

To a large degree, the conference succeeded in its goal: sessions presented a wide range of initiatives and projects. From Inspire Dreams, a nonprofit launched by three Georgetown graduates that offers classes and programs to youth in Palestinian refugee camps; to Share the Mic, a new online venture that features music from around the globe and links artists with philanthropic causes to the mutual benefit of each; to the online Science "Supercourse" developed by the Library of Alexandria, it was apparent that civil society in the East and the West had responded to (or in some cases, anticipated) President Obama’s call for collaborative action. The participant’s list included a wide range of representatives from inside and outside governments, from 24’s executive producer Howard Gordon (whose son Micah starred on the piano in the jazz concert) and actor Peter Weller (who led the jazz trio on the trumpet) to Iranian American nuclear engineer Najmedin Meshkati and the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, as well as representatives from the Arab League, the US government and ISESCO (the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).
"Hip-Hop is My Life"

Outside the formal conference sessions, Alexandria had much to offer, from the marvels of the Library itself (six specialized libraries, four museums, a planetarium, a Culturama, a patented nine projector interactive system, eight academic research centers, plus permanent and temporary exhibitions in art, science, and history), to scenic seafood restaurants and a lively music scene. Egyptian actor Khaled Abolnaga organized an impromptu jam session of Alexandria’s underground music groups at a local night spot. Lebanon’s female rapper Malika mixed with Alexandria’s Y-Crew, and the Americans recognized familiar sounds of hip-hop beats, but with Arabic words and musical strains.

"Hip-hop is my life," declared one of the musicians attending a workshop sponsored by the German Goethe Institute and the Swedish Anna Lindh Foundation. "How can we reach the Arab youth?" is a question constantly posed by policymakers in the US. Hip-hop and standup comedy, two American inventions that incorporate "American" ideas of dissent, critiquing authority, and the individual making his/her own way in society are reaching them.

"Let’s Hug": the US Government as Dr. Phil

Despite the Library’s efforts to focus on concrete projects, politics reared its ugly head, and the resentment of American policies simmering beneath the surface erupted. Although Sid Ganis and his colleagues, including Iranian filmmaker Behrooz Hashemian offered a fascinating account of the Academy’s trip to Iran (March 2009) and exchange with the Iranian House of Cinema (October 2009 in Los Angeles), audience questions vented about U.S. policies — for which, needless to say, none of the panelists were responsible. "There seems to be a generation gap," observed standup comedian Dean Obeidallah. "The young people really do want to engage in the areas of culture, technology, and education (even though they might disagree with U.S. policies), while older generations still focus on the political divisions."

Although the US government provided no financial support for the conference but Canada did — U.S. government representatives, Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey, U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith, and U.S. Representative to the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) Rashad Hussain, presented an optimistic vision of relations between the United States and the Muslim world. While the appointments of Ms. Pandith and Mr. Hussain initially were welcomed by Muslim communities around the world, comments at the conference and in the Arab press indicated that patience is wearing thin. Ms. Pandith noted the "tone, energy, and passion" behind the U.S. government’s desire for engagement with Muslim communities. She offered the American government as a "convener, facilitator, and intellectual partner."

From the conference itself and subsequent commentary in Arab media, expectations for the United States are higher. The spokesperson for Arab League enumerated frustrations with "engagement" since the Cairo speech, including the lack of response from the White House to their proposed initiatives or request to collaborate on the Entrepreneurship Summit. An article entitled "Let’s Hug" in the respected pan-Arabic newspaper al-Hayat noted the similarity between the speeches by the U.S. government representatives and the approach of Dr. Phil, who also thinks that "mutual respect and understanding" can solve all problems. In another analysis of the conference, which reflects the tone of commentary in other Arabic publications, al-Hayat contrasted the empty rhetoric of the U.S. government representatives at the conference with the more substantive pledges of Obama’s speech. Echoing the point made by ISESCO representative Muhammad Bin Salih that the Palestine remains the critical determinant in the relationship between the U.S. and Muslim communities around the world, the article gave President Obama a failing grade on that issue, and wryly noted that the "so-called need for dialogue dissolves when compared to everyday reality" (translation from Arabic by Nadia Oweidat).

A History of America in Arabic

If the U.S. government underwhelmed with its ambition for delivering on the promise of the Cairo speech, the same cannot be said of the Library of Alexandria, which has projects in film, with NYU’s Tisch School; in developing a Universal Networking Digital Language, with UNESCO; in building an Arab network for women in science and technology, with various international science and education organizations; and in translation, with Yale University — to name but a few. One of the most exciting ideas was Ismail Serageldin’s proposal to host a series of television programs in Arabic on American history. Dr. Serageldin, who enthuses about Abraham Lincoln and the American meritocracy — "unique in the world"– developed the concept after a well-received "marathon series" of lectures on American history presented at the Library in 2007. Is the world ready for de Toqueville in Arabic? Akbar Ahmed’s recently published book Journey into America interpreting American history and life through the eyes of Muslim Americans gives one version of a Muslim de Tocqueville. Let’s hope that Dr. Serageldin’s American History project garners the necessary funding and support to produce another — in Arabic for Arab audiences.

Cynthia P. Schneider is an expert in cultural diplomacy. She leads the Arts and Culture Initiative within the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and teaches Diplomacy and Culture at Georgetown University. She served as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands (1998-2001). 

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

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