This is from the article I was up all that night trying to conclude: basically an analysis of two 2009 festivals of Arab or Muslim performance. Finally, the following afternoon, gave up on defending a single artificially clear thesis and decided to have it both ways. Does this work? Tell me now. There will still be time to make changes in the proofs.
Let me tease out some of the apparent contradictions in the argument I’ve proposed. The skeptic says: it is not art’s job to teach or edify, and artists can even be corrupted by playing to audiences whose curiosity is ethnographic or forensic. The optimist says: events like Arabesque and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Muslim Voices actually can expand audiences’ knowledge of Arab or Muslim realities, and this is a good thing. Likewise, the skeptic says, organized efforts to promote “dialogue” with “the Other” through art are doomed, because they must begin by reifying the Other into a single addressable interlocutor. And yet, the optimist retorts, isolated small moments of dialogic give-and-take sometimes do emerge – although they more often fail to emerge, as in the “deaf dialogue” Brooklyn Q&A described above – from particular playgoers’ encounters with particular performances. The skeptic says: the box is Orientalist, how could it not be? And yet, the optimist says, there are wonderful things inside.
At various times and in different roles I have argued for different sides of this debate. To a professional scholar’s ears, the optimist above sounds dated and bizarre: how very 1990s to think a work of art can or should cure anyone’s misconceptions of the Other, and how very 1790s to think it might deepen anyone’s soul. And yet this view still captures some of our intuitions as language learners, dramaturgs, translators, and teachers – or why would we bother? The optimist offers more scope for creative action, even if the skeptic is right.
Too sentimental? I should say that there will be some room for personal reflection in this collection inspired by the memory of Saadallah Wannus; it’s not strictly academic in tone.