Bouncing on a hot stage

Amman-based correspondent Oula Farawati explores why large segments of Jordan's artistic community are campaigning against Jordan's Festival for Culture and Arts. In what is proving to be an embarrassment to the government, critics say the event is a Jordanian attempt at normalizing relations with Israel.
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Acrobats perform at the Festival for Culture and Arts in Jarash, Jordan. R.R.

AMMAN, July 4, 2008 (AL-AHRAM) - What a debut for Jordan's Festival for Culture and Arts, due to start official on July 8. The pre-festival activities have already been marred by an angry public, civil society boycotts and cancellations by many Arab and Jordanian artists.

Jordan's professional associations and opposition political groups are leading a campaign against the festival, with allegations that the event is a Trojan Horse for normalization with Israel. The campaign alleges that a French company, Publicis Groupe, is organizing the festival after it had apparently organized both Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations and the Arab Nakba (or "day of catastrophe") commemoration.

Those allegations, which have been denied several times by the government, have put the entire festival in the dog-house. Several Arab artists, including Amr Diab, Mohamed Hamaqi and Elissa said they will boycott the festival if the allegations turn out to be true. Jordanian singer Omar Abdullat has already canceled in accordance with a decision made by Jordan's Artist Association, which has joined forces with the campaign against the festival.

The crisis has been compounded by the announcement of the Lebanese and Syrian artists associations that they were also considering boycotting the festival, which will host big names in the entertainment industry including opera singer Placido Domingo, and divas Monica Yunus and Julia Migenes.

The government claims 'no fault'

The government at first denied any involvement of Publicis Groupe in organizing the festival, but then Tourism Minister Maha Khatib said the company was only involved in "contracting a few Arab and foreign artists". She added, however, that the company has worked in Jordan in the past and organized "big events like the World Economic Forum".

Managing Director of Jordan Tourism Board Nayef Fayez also insisted the organization of the festival had been a purely Jordanian affair. He denied any involvement by Publicis Groupe and added that French company Les Visiteurs du Soir was the one involved in contracting some artists.

Arts and culture editor Mowaffaq Malkawi accuses the professional associations of using the normalization allegations to win a battle against the government. The associations, which are mostly led by Islamists and opposition figures, have been in a tug-of-war with the authorities here over several issues including a controversial new professional associations draft law that will limit the power of the associations. The association has been under pressure from the government for resisting normalization with Israel and organizing pro- Iraq and Palestine activities. The government has always maintained that the associations should rather concentrate on professional, not political issues.

Twelve members of the lower house of parliament wrote a memo to Prime Minister Nader Dahabi asking for the annulment of the entire festival. According to the MPs involved, the excuse for their cancellation demand was not the normalization (with Israel) allegations but "the hard economic and financial straights that Jordanians suffer now."

"The entire campaign is based on allegations that were not supported by any documents, but rather by rumors," said Malkawi.

Food over culture

One government official, who preferred anonymity, said the association was ignoring the national interest in order to win a battle with the government. He added that the associations and the Islamists were using this to "increase their dwindling popularity in the Jordanian street."

Columnist Salim Qanouni wrote that the Islamic Movement was using the public sentiment, angry because of rising food prices, to make the festival fail. The movement had said that "food was more important than festivals and singing."

"If food is a priority, we should also cancel other important things like education and media and other projects that don't generate income. But I only call this a gross statement that is only adopted by Taliban and Hamas," he wrote in the political weekly, Al-Sijil.

Malkawi said the loser in this war would be the tourist season on which the government had pinned hopes to reinvigorate the economy by attracting Arab, tourists, especially from the Gulf Arab states. "Regardless of the motives for the boycott calls, the coming days will reveal the real loser, especially now that doors for dialog have been closed," he said.

The calls to boycott the Festival were also attacked by columnist Bater Wardam, who believes the associations and the Islamic movement should have double-checked the normalization allegations before attacking a festival that will generate income for the economy.

"Thousands are working to make the festival a success. But again we fall for baseless allegations and deliberate propaganda. Our country is paying the price for all this," he said.

(This article was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly Online. © Al-Ahram Weekly. All Rights Reserved.)