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The Middle East & the West – Building Bridges through the Arts

On a Caravan

by Paul-Gordon Chandler

“Art is the conversation … Art offers an opening for the heart ... Art is, at least, the knowledge of where we are standing … In this Wonderland … we are partners straddling the universe.’”

                                                             – Hafiz, 14th century Persian poet and mystic

The turmoil and tension in the Middle East and the growing chasm of misunderstanding between that region and the West calls for a new kind of movement – not of theological belief or religious unity, but one that builds on what we hold in common. It is more critical than ever that “creative demonstrations of dialogue” be developed.

The challenge in short is finding ways Middle Eastern and Western cultures can live together peacefully.

CARAVAN is an international interreligious peacebuilding arts non-profit. The vision for it surfaced seven years ago “out of Egypt.” I worked in Cairo for ten years as the rector of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, which serves the international diplomatic, business, academic and NGO communities.

Through various interfaith artistic initiatives, we discovered how the arts can be a powerful medium for building bridges between the creeds and cultures and enhancing understanding, engendering respect, enable sharing, and deepening friendships. The late Nobel Prize Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz said, “Art is language of the entire human personality.”

In that Middle Eastern parish we learned how the arts can serve as an indirect catalyst for diverse peoples to gather, who would normally never come together. It was a means to encourage new friendships across religions and cultural differences.

Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese artist and writer who profoundly bridged the Middle East and West, said, “Your neighbour is your other self dwelling behind a wall. In understanding, all walls shall fall down.” In this sense CARAVAN is not so much about interfaith dialogue, but something deeper –  interfaith friendship. CARAVAN’s internationally travelling exhibitions become“encounter points” facilitating friendship and changing erroneous stereotypes.

Art is a means of expression but also a means of healing, providing powerful ways to generate transformation and social progress. Leonard Bernstein, the renowned composer and conductor said, “The point is, art never stopped a war . . . That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed ... because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events by the way they behave, the way they think.”

All of CARAVAN’s art initiatives are developed to promote intercultural and interreligious harmony and provide a link within communities as well as between communities. They serve as shared starting points for developing community that inherently respects and honors diversity and working in harmony. The long-term objective is to stimulate practical models of co-existence and collaboration. Numerous interfaith initiatives and programs have developed out of these art exhibitions and festivals.

A flagship CARAVAN initiative is the annual CARAVAN Exhibition of Visual Art & Festival, bringing together many of the Middle East’s premier and emerging artists with Western artists for peace-building and using the arts as an intercultural dialogue. Each year this unique exhibition garners attention from the international media and the art world, attracting thousands of visitors.

In 2013, many thousands of Egyptians and Westerners in Cairo viewed CARAVAN’s public art exhibition of 45 painted/decorated life-size fiberglass donkeys (the donkey being a symbol of “peace and compassion” in both Islam and Christianity) involving Egypt’s premier artists and noted Western artists. Then the exhibition moved to London to the world-renowned St. Paul’s Cathedral and was viewed by over 120,000 people. Following the CARAVAN exhibition in London, the artworks were auctioned at a charity auction led by Sotheby’s to raise funds for NGOs in Egypt serving the poor.

The 2014 CARAVAN Exhibition of Visual Art brought together renowned Arab and Western artists from Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith backgrounds. With the theme AMEN – A Prayer for the World, the art initiative was an aspirational expression for both the people of the Middle East and the rest of the world. The 48 participating artists made a highly symbolic statement to the world: “together they are ‘praying’ for peace, respect for the ‘other’ and living and working together in harmony.”

Imams in Cairo at the 2013 Exhibition of Visual Art.

Imams in Cairo at the 2013 Exhibition of Visual Art.

Each of the 48 artists was given a life-size fiberglass sculpture in one of four poses of prayer to paint or decorate as they wish – symbolizing the commonality of prayer, serving as a “universal bridge.” Each of the four poses loosely referenced a common prayer pose from each of the main monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) and the fourth reflected the revelation, peace and wonderment that “prayer” can bring to all, thereby symbolizing human diversity, community and the many forms that “prayer” can take.

The 2014 CARAVAN exhibition opened first inCairo, Egypt at the Museum of Modern Art by the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheik Dr. Ali Gomaa, Christian bishops and the Ministry of Culture. The exhibition then journeyed to the renowned National Cathedral in Washington D.C. followed by an exhibition to New York City’s celebrated Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world that is known for the arts. Over 200,000 people viewed the exhibition at these three venues.

Just recently, on February 2, 2015, during the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week, CARAVAN’s exhibition titled THE BRIDGE, a travelling East-West exhibition launched in Paris, France with a month-long exhibition at the historic Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in the Latin Quarter, the oldest church in Paris. THE BRIDGE showcases original paintings of 47 premier visual artists; Middle

Eastern Arab and Persian artists of Muslim and Christian backgrounds, as well as Jewish artists, around the theme of what “bridges” us to each other. The exhibit will travel throughout Europe, to Egypt, and around the United States for an 18-month period and will be exhibited in a variety of venues.

Non-visual artist participants in CARAVAN’s programs have included actor Omar Sharif, the world renowned Iraqi oud player Nasser Shamma, the New York Times best-selling Anglo-Afghan author, Tahir Shah, and the bestselling Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany. Distinguished religious leaders also participate, this year including the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Dr. Ali Gomaa, and the Anglican Bishop of London, Rev. Dr. Richard Chartres.

At CARAVAN we do everything possible to hold our interfaith exhibitions in sacred spaces rather than galleries or museums. And each initiative includes a charitable component supporting charities assisting the poor in the Middle East.

The words of Kahlil Gibran are most apropos to CARAVAN’s mission: “I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are [children] of one religion, and it is the Spirit.”