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Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa: Culture is the True Act of Resistance

by Nadia Turki

A leading figure in the Arab culture and art scenes, H.E. Shaikha Mai has spearheaded national efforts to develop the cultural infrastructure in the Kingdom of Bahrain for heritage conservation and the growth of sustainable tourism. The President of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, HE Shaikha Mai is the foremost public expert in the field, holding the unique portfolios of the Ministry for Culture & Information and then the Ministry for Culture. As the founder of the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research and Chair of its Board of Trustees since 2002, she works actively to foster culture and preserve the traditional architecture of Bahrain. It was to this end that she launched the nation-wide ‘Invest in Culture’ initiative, building an unprecedented partnership between the private and public sectors for heritage preservation, leading to the establishment of the Bahrain Fort Site Museum and the Bahrain National Theatre – key cultural tourism attractions.

In her interview with Majalla, Shaikha Mai explains that culture is flexible and powerful tool in promoting peace and development objectives. It brings people together regardless of their origins and backgrounds, creates strong social cohesion and bonds, and facilitates mutual understanding and dialogue while promoting universal values that transcend all barriers.

What role does The Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiques play in the Kingdom’s culture sector and in the protection of artifacts?

The role entrusted to The Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiques carries the depth of the history of the Kingdom and thousands of years of civilization. It also takes into consideration the values that have defined Bahrain since ancient times. It is a place where cultures, ethnicities, sects and religions have spread over a small geographical area, transforming it into an example of coexistence, tolerance and openness. This is what distinguishes Bahrain’s unique identity.

The Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiques plays a major role in protecting, strengthening and promoting the country’s cultural identity. It is also making culture one of the cornerstones of sustainable economic and social development, enhancing Bahrain’s reputation as a respected country on the international scene, and stimulating creativity and innovation in arts and culture.
In this context, the Culture Authority works to strengthen the national cultural identity and to instill the spirit of true citizenship in the youth. It also supports cultural and artistic programs and institutions and preserves the sophisticated cultural environment with the contribution of the media, modern cultural and artistic industries and the private sector which is committed to contributing to the development of cultural infrastructure and to the principles of sustainable development.

What is the role of culture at a time when the region is witnessing many events and changes, particularly ideological ones?

Culture is the true act of resistance that we count on as it brings together opposites in a rich context. Culture remains the only weapon in the face of instability because it is rooted in its history and universality. Culture works to establish human values. The principles of peace, beauty and joy are embodied in societies because culture doesn’t know violence, war, or oppression. Culture is the soft power of love. Culture unites societies with the richness of its diversity and the uniqueness of its components. Culture lives on and it is what history holds for our children. I would like to address all officials – I hope that they give more attention to local culture and give it its place and importance so that we can address all challenges from every angle together, as it is with culture that we can resist instability and triumph.

What is the Bahrain Culture Authority’s policy in relation to raising awareness of the dangers of ideological divisions its impact across all fields?

Pluralism in societies is a form of democracy and we are not anti-pluralism. We consider it a source of wealth that enriches the cultural and social landscape. But naturally, we are against every tone that does not conform with the harmony of peace the dismantles the local social fabric that has long coexisted in harmony.

While the region underwent a series of challenges and consequences for years, culture was the beating heart of Bahrain which signified the unity of our society. The name of the Bahrain Summer Festival “A victory of joy,” reflected the effective resistance which we experienced with the joy of triumph over those who want to destroy the principles of our society. As did the coming together of young Bahrainis belonging to various sects and religions to embody the role of culture and raise awareness among the young generation of the values of good citizenship and belonging to the national identity through the festival “ta’a al-shabbab.” The youth, who have great fondness for their precious kingdom, are at the heart of the festival which has returned for its ninth edition. These are some examples of the pivotal role that culture plays in the divisions which some Arab societies are witnessing.

Since you began working with the Ministry of Culture the doors have been wide open to the intellectual and artistic elite from all over the world. What is the main objective of this? Is it to introduce others to the Kingdom of Bahrain or to introduce Bahrainis to other cultures?

Culture has no limits, language or religion. It is trans-geographical. It brings people of different backgrounds together. Bahrain’s ancient and modern history reflects this concept of cultural openness. If we go back to the history of Bahrain, we see that because of the Bahraini people it was as a source of knowledge and enlightenment, and that is what distinguished it from other countries. Today, we see Bahrain’s history revived through the bringing together of cultures on the land of the Kingdom. The bringing together of intellectuals and artists from all over the world is a continuation of the spirit that has long characterized our land. Intellectual convergence, cultural encounters and the exchange of knowledge is an natural result of the regional and global cultural mobility that Bahrain is experiencing in international conferences and activities organized and hosted locally. Becoming intimately acquainted is not an end in itself, but it is the fruits of a vision and strategy which makes the values of openness and tolerance a fertile ground to meet unique people who are a source of knowledge, education and enlightenment, in a civilized and natural way.

Bahraini Culture Minister Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa (C) attends the press conference to launch the Bahrain summer festival in the capital Manama, on July 4, 2013. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)

How do you assess the role Arab intellectuals are currently playing in their countries and societies? Are there any shortcomings and how can culture in the Gulf States specifically and the Arab world in general be promoted to fulfill their role?

The Intellectual is the child of society and has the same duties and rights as every individual in our Arab communities. The role of the Arab individual, whatever his level of intellect, is as important as that of the government and official institutions, or more so. The responsibility of the intellectual is as great as his level of knowledge and enlightenment. If each person does their part to improve cultural mobility in their environment, and if the civil and cultural institutions have the power, authority and potential, we will all elevate culture in the Arab countries. Each person is responsible for this renaissance, and official institutions alone can not be held responsible because culture remains a reflection of the work of individuals and groups and not of one institution or ministry.
Hence, our commitment as individuals who are fully aware of the importance of our role in promoting local culture and our continued pursuit of sustainable cultural development that is being proposed today by international organizations seeking one future for the world.

Do culture ministers in the Arab region work together or in parallel in the interest of promoting and developing culture to keep up with the high-speed developments the world is witnessing?

Collective cultural work, locally, regionally or internationally, is what we rely on in our public policies, hence the importance of the official organizations that maintain and promote cultural strategies that raise cultural awareness in all our societies. Cooperation between guardians of culture becomes obvious when these organizations take the lead in setting their vision and goals for sustainable cultural development. For example, we have seen culture officials in the Islamic world choose Al-Muharraq as the capital of Islamic culture in 2018, a decision which came about through meetings between culture ministers and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO).

Have social media platforms served culture in the region or affected it negatively?

The world of modern media has its disadvantages and advantages. However, we cannot distance ourselves from the international paths of the “global village” that media experts have always talked about. We believe in the role of media in communicating the most beautiful and true picture of our cultures. Hence, we are present in this virtual world and we give it the importance that it deserves to enlighten people about the richness of our land, our cultures and our historical heritage, and it is the duty of cultural institutions because their presence on the internet is essential . At the Bahrain Culture and Antiquities Authority we have a presence on various social media platforms. We use social media to talk about local cultural mobility and our regional and global initiatives, as well as the content and diversity of our activities, and thus by using these tools we can transcend barriers to reach out to every individual in multiple languages.

On the other hand, we find that the popularity enjoyed by these tools may make some people forgo being truly present in the elements of culture. And as you’ve seen, the pages of a book no longer attracts readers as it once did.

Have you succeeded in improving the image of Arabs and Muslims, particularity in the West, in the age of global terrorism through the participation of the Gulf countries in general and Bahrain in particular in international forums?

When we convey the true picture of our societies, the imbalance of this stereotypical image which is propagated by acts that have nothing to do with religion is eroded. For example, in 2018, we will celebrate in Al- Muharraq, the capital of Islamic culture, by focusing on peace, beauty, joy and arts to project the true image of Islam to the world. This is how we reflect the most accurate and true picture of our society when we are participating in international forums, particularly when we are awarded prizes that show the world the professionalism and quality of work in our Arab world. For example at Expo Milan in 2015, the Bahrain Pavilion won the silver award in the architectural awards category, and at the 2010 Venice Biennale, Bahrain was the first Arab country to win the Golden Lion Award.

Do you see solutions to the countries that have been subjected to destruction due to crimes related to the smuggling of antiquities? How can we protect our antiques and who should bear this responsibility?

Unfortunately, during wars we see the theft and smuggling of antiquities and this is punishable by international law. Hence, we must all activate the international agreements for the protection of the cultural heritage of nations, which are sponsored by international institutions such as UNESCO, the International Centre for the Study of the Perservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and others. It is worth noting that the Kingdom of Bahrain is home to The Arab Regional Center for World Heritage (ARC-WH) which is a Category ٢ Center under the auspices of UNESCO, whose purpose is to implement the World Heritage Convention in the Arab region by enhancing knowledge, operational guidelines and cooperation between States Parties in the region, and of course preserving the heritage in the Arab world.

In the end, we move towards culture, awareness and knowledge and we are drying up the foundations of wars and destruction. The land, however hard it is, does not resist a flower that wants to live.

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