There are extremist views that still consider arts and literature useless, worthless “entertainment” despite the significant examples that contest such views.
Two important events were held recently in the Saudi capital, Riyadh: the Janadriyah Heritage and Cultural Festival and the Riyadh International Book Fair. It is no longer considered odd to follow the development of the Janadriyah Festival with its distinguished guests and the splendid shows. The Janadriyah Festival has become a landmark event in the kingdom.
Every year, there is clear “daring creativity” in dealing with some subject matters. The operetta entitled ‘Suns of the Homeland’ that featured as part of this year’s activities was a clear indicator of the country’s new approach and vision.
The Riyadh International Book Fair is also a source of debate, reflecting the atmosphere of the country that is caught between wanting development, reform and change on the one hand, and the sense of caution and fear of all of this on the other. This is reflected in the diversity of the titles and participating publishing houses.
Such events contribute to the making of a country’s conscience and the consciousness of citizens, in addition to developing and improving a national sense of responsibility. There are several examples of literature and art in our own cultural heritage that emphasizes this idea. For example, every Egyptian understands the significance of Sayyed Darwish’s ‘Biladi, Biladi, Biladi’ [My homeland, my homeland, my homeland] which became the national anthem and an icon of Egyptian nationalism. Fayrouz who sang about her love for Lebanon and its Cedar trees had more of an effect than any political leaders and parties because her love for the country came from the heart and brought the people together. There are also several films, poems and books that beautifully and realistically express examples of loyalty, love and dedication to the homeland.
In Saudi Arabia, a certain segment of society is aware and conscious of the contribution that songs have made to social cohesion and the way that they have brought together different dialects. In the old days, songs used to be performed in the Hijazi dialect. At a later stage, traditional Najdi poems became popular in the kingdom.
Today, “local” dialects have spread through song and now every Saudi can understand them in spite of where s/he lives. In my opinion, this strengthens the national spirit and the sense of loyalty to the homeland amongst the people of one nation.
The conservative view that used to cast doubt upon the importance of cultural festivals, fairs and exhibitions is now changing. There has been talk of [establishing] official and licensed theatre and cinema in Saudi Arabia “very soon” with no doubts or suspicions surrounding them. These should be nothing more than a way to present beneficial works that nurture the mind and achieve noble goals or merely present innocent entertainment. Such goals are harmless and need to be encouraged and supported.
Art and literature are two positive elements of any normal society and the time has come to deal with these more seriously rather than confronting them out of ignorance and fear.