Harmony Beat

Violinist from Indiana traveling to all 50 states in 2016, asking: "What is American culture?"

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Location: Indianapolis, IN, United States

violinist, violist, teacher, composer, conductor, writer, cultural diplomat, traveler

Friday, September 26, 2008

The dialogue continues

I noticed a comment from “Yusuf” on my previous entry. The comment reads as follows:

“It is sad that no matter what positive message was being brought out, some seem to always focus on the negative. Remember: This was an iftar dinner, and for Muslims breaking the fast and sharing meals with acquaintances or strangers is considered a blessing, particularly at this time. For one night do you think one can put aside his or her political obsessions? As an advocate of peace and understanding, the focus was on the purpose of the dinner and to hope that we can win hearts, even amongst our worst enemies.”

First, thank you so much for commenting! Some times I get the idea that only three or four people read this blog, so it is nice to suspect that perhaps my readership has climbed into the double digits. Second, thank you for disagreeing with me. Cultural dialogue without dissent is not worthy of the name.

Your words certainly occasion much thought, and I should clarify: I do understand the need to put aside politics and dine with those with whom we disagree. Had the Turkish Cultural Center invited Ahmadinejad I would not complain, though I disagree with him on many issues. But Mugabe is in a class by himself. To call him a politician or to say that “political obsessions” are a reason for disliking him does a disservice to politicians (not the most honorable class of citizenry to begin with). Mugabe ordered the killing of tens of thousands of his own people, and commanded that the relatives of the murdered dance on the graves of their recently deceased family members.

Governments frequently negotiate with leaders of other government whom they do not like, and they maintain alliances with countries that do not share their values. This kind of dialogue is well and good, since diplomacy conducted by high-ranking leaders remains one of the most effective ways to ensure the eventual triumph of peace with justice. If Bush invited Mugabe to the White House, I would applaud both of them for agreeing to the meeting.

Similarly, I applaud citizen exchanges between countries that do not enjoy good relations. Indeed, Cultures in Harmony has assiduously sought to set up projects that would facilitate such exchanges. We have been to Zimbabwe twice, and will hopefully go to Iraq soon. The Turkish Cultural Center has done an outstanding job bringing together Muslims and non-Muslim Americans to facilitate greater understanding during a fraught period in the history of relations between these groups.

However, there is no diplomatic or political need served when a non-governmental organization hosts a despicable dictator. Civil exchanges with such despots do not help or enlighten those who meet them, and as for Mugabe, I doubt the evening did anything to convince him to repent for his sins. Most likely, he simply received some assurance that not everyone minds his crimes so much.

However, I understand and appreciate the Turkish Cultural Center’s position, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about what an iftar dinner can accomplish. Again, I thank Yusuf for responding. I hope I have clarified my own views. I encourage him or anyone reading this to contact me directly at culturesinharmony@gmail.com.

On another topic, I like to spotlight people and organizations who have done great work in the field of cultural dialogue, even if a mention on this blog is unlikely to bring them to the attention of more than the seven (eleven?) people now reading these words. I’ve been writing about the Turkish Cultural Center, whose excellent activities I still heartily recommend to all in the New York area.

I was moved to read about Christina Shunnarah’s work in a classroom dominated by many different ethnicities. Also, here’s an interesting article about Karim Wasfi, the music director of the Iraqi National Symphony. Cultures in Harmony is honored to be working with him to plan a project in Iraq for 2009.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dialogue with dictators?

How far should you go for dialogue? That question first became personally relevant when I met with Imelda Marcos in the Philippines last year. Sitting in a gold-leaf chair in her lavish Manila apartment, she explained that Iraq and the Philippines were at peace during her husband's rule because of a cultural exchange she initiated with Saddam Hussein. Her tone of voice made me uncomfortable. She sounded almost proud to have been friends with Saddam. The exchange I understood, but the tone of affection for a murderous thug was incomprehensible.

Of course, the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Marcos is an occasion for reflection in its own right. I confess that I sought the opportunity and did not harbor any doubts about doing so until long after the evening when she extended her hospitality. I felt that her husband's rule was long in the past and that many Filipinos today hold a higher opinion of her than Americans do. Furthermore, I hoped that she would take an interest in Cultures in Harmony. She did show interest, calling us an "army of artists who will save the world," but no donation was forthcoming. I am glad I met with her, even if only to satisfy my curiosity about one of the twentieth century's most fascinating figures. Refusing her invitation would not have sent any sort of message, nor would it have made life easier for those whose lives were made difficult by her husband's rule.

Tonight, this question once again hit close to home. I performed at the reception before, and then attended, the Third Annual Friendship Dinner, presented by the Turkish Cultural Center at the Waldorf Astoria. I enjoyed the great honor of meeting with His Excellency, the Ambassador of the Republic of Cameroon to the United Nations, the Hon. Tommo Monthe, as well as Prof. Maurice Kamto, the Minister of Justice of the Republic of Cameroon. Since Cultures in Harmony is planning a project in Cameroon next year focusing on the Bakassi hand-over, this was an extraordinary opportunity to converse with two men who struck me as outstanding public servants. Their interest in the project pleased me.

The evening seemed delightful until the host, Emily Thomas (a friend from my days at Juilliard) started reading out the names of some of the more well-known guests. My heart sank when she read the name of Teodoro Obiang, the leader of Equatorial Guinea, consistently ranked among the worst dictators in the world. I was even more stunned to learn that Robert Mugabe was in attendance.

Mugabe's many atrocities are not all known, but some of the ones we know about are pretty horrific. And to think, I was watching the same entertainment and eating the same menu in the same room as a man responsible for beating and torturing opponents and creating inflation of two million percent. I toyed listlessly with my sirloin, but reflected that refusing to eat would not send any message at all.

However, by extending an invitation to a murderous thug, the Turkish Cultural Center definitely sent a message. They told him that he deserved to attend the same event as Turkey's president Abdullah Gul, who genuinely deserves respect. They told Mugabe that he is welcome at America's most famous hotel, and that not everyone in America thinks he should be shunned for butchering and starving his people.

Emily Thomas became connected with the event after the Turkish Cultural Center arranged a cultural exchange tour of Turkey in which she participated. Since they arranged a similar tour for Cultures in Harmony in 2007, it is conceivable that they could have asked me to host, though it is perhaps a good thing they did not. I would have welcomed Mugabe as follows:

"Tonight, we are also joined by the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Greetings, Mr. President. Unfortunately, we cannot be joined by Fatima, an eight-year-old girl I met in your country in 2006. Fatima could not join us because she lives in Epworth, the suburb of Harare which you targeted for destruction because its residents opposed your re-election. I'd give you her last name and her address so you could send her a card, but she doesn't know her surname because AIDS, which you refused to address until it was too late, killed both her parents. She doesn't know her address because she lives in a crumbling stone shack to which you have provided no alternative. She wanted to walk to a telephone to at least say hello to you, but the problem is, she can't walk, or at least she couldn't when I met her. There's nothing wrong with her legs, actually; it's just that she's so hungry, she doesn't have the strength to stand. This may be because you turned Africa's breadbasket into a country where starvation is commonplace.

"So, I'm sorry you won't get to interact with Fatima. In fact, she's probably dead by now, but I do have this picture. Enjoy your dinner."

After the dinner, I discovered that Mr. Mugabe had forgotten to pick up his calligraphy place card, a little party favor which all guests received. I picked it up and took it home:

On the back, the card has a quote from Fethullah Gulen: "Be so tolerant that your heart becomes wide like ocean." Every ocean has boundaries, and in my view, hospitality for Robert Mugabe lies outside them.

Cultures in Harmony will continue to engage in dialogue with people with whom we do not agree, and we will continue to conduct projects in countries whose leaders we do not admire, yet with apologies to our friends at the Turkish Cultural Center, we cannot endorse offering hospitality to dictators.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Business blog by the vice president of our board

All readers, especially those involved in business, will enjoy Pam Wolf's informative blog about business matters. Pam is the founder of New York Kids Club. Cultures in Harmony is honored by her service as Vice President of the Board of Directors, and I am personally happy to call her a friend.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Why cultural diplomacy remains so important

This article reveals attitudes which, although deeply offensive to myself and other Americans, do far more than demonstrate why public diplomacy in the Middle East is so important. The article shows that the copious public diplomacy efforts of the U.S. government and numerous cultural diplomacy organizations have been nowhere close to sufficient. On a grand scale, the project of ameliorating the American image over the past seven years has been a failure.

What is the solution? Give up? Accept that Arabs will hate Americans and Americans will hate Arabs? What a sad choice. It is one I will not make.

Obviously, a change in our foreign policy and (not "or") in our leadership would provide the most significant improvement to Arab-American relations. However, that would not be sufficient.

What will be needed is public diplomacy at a scale previously unimagined. It is not enough for the government to send Karen Hughes over to Saudi Arabia to tell Saudi women they want to drive when they don't. Nor is it remotely satisfactory to launch a major television network and expect Arabs to watch it.

We need to send Americans to the Middle East to listen, not just to talk. We need to send Americans to the Middle East to learn, just to teach.

When Cultures in Harmony launches projects, we conceive of them as fully equal exchanges. In Tunisia, we taught cello lessons, chamber music, and string orchestra, but members of our group also took lessons in kanun and oud and developed true friendships with our students. In the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, when we work with indigenous groups, the amount of time we spend teaching them equals the time we spend learning from them: in fact, we probably spend more time learning from them, what with all the informal sessions that spontaneously arise. For instance, in this picture, Tiffany and Steve learn the Miani language from villagers in Yoro, Papua New Guinea.

In 2009, we hope to launch such projects in Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Tunisia, Pakistan, Turkey, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, but we cannot do this without your help. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation now. Your donation builds a world governed by the kind of understanding in which such heinous and vicious rumors as those described that article would have no currency. Your donation builds friendships, dollar by dollar, person by person, nation by nation.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Podcast now available!

Idealist.org, the prestigious website about non-profits, now features this podcast about Cultures in Harmony, produced by Eric Hanser. It is also available for download from iTunes.

This is a great honor for Cultures in Harmony. Listen to the podcast, and if you enjoy it, don't forget to make a donation.