Ali Alawi
Last updated: 3 June, 2013

Spring brings cultural efforts to the Gulf’s pearl

An annual festival of culture in Bahrain faced mixed reactions, unsurprisingly in a country consisting of a diverse population and opposing points of view.

Following an annual tradition, March and April were rich with all forms of art performances, presented under the umbrella of the “Spring of Culture” festival. In its eighth edition, this year’s event celebrated Bahrain’s brand new National Theatre that hosted Yanni, the Greek musical composer, and a set of other appearances.

The UNESCO registered festival attracts people from Bahrain and neighboring countries, not only because it hosts international and highly respected performers, but also because it offers the events at cheap cost and even, sometimes, for free.

Especially upon its establishment, the festival faced a noticeable attack from some Islamists who considered its liberal shows an insult to the Islamic traditions. Islam-oriented parliament members targeted the program and the person behind it, Mai Al Khalifa, the minister of culture.

The attack was generated after anonymous posts on the internet claimed that the show “Majnoon Layla” (crazy with Layla), which is performed by the Bahraini poet Qassim Hadad, Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifa and his dance performers, contained sexual gestures. Only then did the politicians awaken to shut down the program. 

“This noise is a type of cultural hypocrisy.”

Nevertheless, the minister had the support of other parties and officials and continued working on Bahrain’s spring of culture with the same agenda. The opposition reduced gradually, losing its effectiveness in face of the broad audience who awaits the festival each year.

Through this program, and some other efforts, the minister eventually achieved three titles to Bahrain; the capital of Arabic journalism (2012), the capital of Arabic culture (2012), and the capital of Arabic tourism (2013).

The timing of these accomplishments, coinciding with the most tenuous years of the Arab Spring which reached the shores of the island in 2011, provided an indication of the ministry of culture’s willingness to build a new image around Bahrain; a peaceful, open-minded country that appreciates culture and art. 

Despite these continuous efforts, this year’s festival faced mixed reactions, unsurprisingly in a country consisting of a diverse population and opposing points of view.

On her Facebook page, a young lady close to the local cultural scene commented, “culture is about transcending your ego and understanding others point of view but this noise is a type of cultural hypocrisy.”

Others consider these two months of extensive cultural events as a testament to how the Khalifa family managed, in one way or another, to protect its heritage of acceptance and hospitality to all kinds of art even though it is surrounded by the two conservative Islamist states of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Aladdin, a young Bahraini who attended several events, appreciates the opportunity of enjoying the performances “I’m grateful for hosting such events, and enabling the community to experience such high quality of intentional art at almost no cost,” he said. 

Despite the dilemma of whether to support the festival or go against it, the facts are showing high attendance and audience engagement, and the annual hosting of the festival keeps attracting key international performers to the Gulf’s pearl.