Drawing and sustaining Arab culture

BEIRUT: Lebanese cultural activists Bahia Shehab and Kamal Mouzawak are among the recipients of the 2016 Prince Claus Award. Distributed yearly, the Dutch prize recognizes exceptional achievements in the cultural sector, worldwide.

“I didn’t know I was nominated, but I was obviously very happy when I found out.” Mouzawak confessed to The Daily Star. “It’s a wonderful recognition, because it’s always important to know that you’re doing the right thing.”

In 2004, the chef and food activist founded Souk El Tayeb, Beirut’s first farmers’ market. His vision was to “celebrate the food and traditions that unite communities and support small-scale farmers.”

After 12 years, his experiment has evolved into a thriving culture of sustainable agriculture. Now the activist chef has expanded far beyond the farmers market, opening four eco-restaurants (Tawlet) and three eco-hotels (Beit) throughout the country.

“Every day, when I see people coming to Tawlet for lunch, I think to myself, ‘Yeah, I think I’m doing the right thing.’ It motivates me to do more and better.”

Mouzawak’s culinary project has not only reconfigured the food industry. He sees Souk El Tayeb, Tawlet and Beit to be as much social experiments as they are agricultural projects. “Preserving culinary traditions, rural heritage and the natural environment” are all part of Mouzawak’s intentions, and they go beyond the borders of Lebanon.

“We’re starting to venture outside Lebanon too, with our farmers’ markets and we are beginning a relationship with [the United Nations Development Program] in Amman as well as local associations who do markets there,” Mouzawak disclosed. “Soon there will be a Tawlet in Paris, celebrating local cuisine as well as the diverse demography that make up France today.”

For the culinary activist, these international projects demonstrate that his ideas are relevant and can be applied outside the country.

“It’s about celebrating our farmers, producers, wonderful cooks,” he said. “We should be proud of our identities, agriculture and cuisine.”

An artist, graphic designer, educator and historian, Bahia Shehab identifies as a “global citizen.” Born in Lebanon and currently based in Cairo, Shehab has worked on a multitude of diverse projects centering on Arabic script and the future of its visual heritage.

Her most notable project, “A Thousand Times No,” began in 2010. The project plays on the Arabic expression “No, and a thousand times no.” Shehab began documenting a thousand different “no’s” produced in Arabic and Islamic art over the past 1,400 years. A year later, during the popular street protests that marked the start of the Egyptian revolution, Shehab amplified her project, as her “no’s,” spray-painted on Cairo streets, became “ammunition” against the regime.

Her Prince Claus nomination was not exclusively based upon her art projects. A professor at the American University in Cairo, Shehab developed a graphic design program in 2011 “based on Arab visual culture.” Curating the entire curriculum herself, she has designed 25 courses, constituting an official AUC course major.

“It’s important for me to focus on the visual history of the region, which is not very well documented or researched,” she said. “Many of the courses highlight and try to raise awareness for this.”

Today, Shehab’s activism is focused within AUC, while her canvas has moved around the globe.

“I’ve been very lucky,” she continued. “I haven’t got in any trouble, but I stopped working on the streets in Cairo. There have been a lot of crackdowns on activists. Thousands of us are in prison for political reasons – writers, journalist, lawyers. I haven’t worked [on my art] in Cairo since 2013.”

For her new project, “Darwish,” the artist has tagged cities from Vancouver to Tokyo with stanzas from the work of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

“[Darwish’s] work is very relevant to us today as an Arab nation. I don’t see us as ‘parts’ anymore” Shehab declared.

“I don’t feel either Lebanese or Egyptian. I feel like an Arab woman. I identify as a person from the Arab world,” she said.

First granted in 1966, the Prince Claus awards honor individuals and organizations contributing to social development in areas where the freedom of expression is threatened. Past winners include Al Jazeera, Malian political activist Aminata Traore and Chinese film director and screenwriter Jia Zhangke.

Shehab and Mouzawak are among the award’s five secondary winners – which also include Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia, Colombian digital portal La Silla Vacia and Pakistani interdisciplinary cultural center PeaceNiche.

This year, the principal laureate is the critically acclaimed Thai artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a pioneer of Thailand’s independent cinema movement. Weerasethakul’s work addresses the social and personal politics within his society through “mesmerizing aesthetics and innovative, nonlinear narrative forms.”

Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands will presents awards to laureates in the Royal Palace Amsterdam on Dec. 15.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 16, 2016, on page 16.




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