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Ambitious Exchange Program Bridges Cultures

Amid the turmoil generated by U.S. policies in the Middle East, the American diplomatic community is looking for more effective ways to communicate with Arab populations throughout the Middle East. Now, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, America's premier cultural center in Washington, D.C., is launching an ambitious exchange program with arts organizations from 22 Arab countries. The program aims to use the arts to improve cooperation and understanding between Arabs and Americans.

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser is a man of many talents. He is also a roving ambassador for the U.S. State Department's Cultural Programs Division. At a recent (Dec 7) Washington news conference, he announced that the Kennedy Center is launching a two-pronged effort to boost U.S. cultural interactions with the Arab world.

"We are mounting a major Arab art festival (at the) Kennedy Center in 2009, but beginning this coming spring, we are also holding an annual symposia on arts management in the Arab countries. I am convinced that this project-our most ambitious to date-will have the dual benefits of not only educating the American public, but also creating stronger cultural institutions in the Arab world," he said.

Mr. Kaiser believes that Americans would benefit from learning more about other cultures and that the most effective and engaging way to do that is to experience how people in other cultures express themselves artistically.

"We can highlight the commonalities and we can also highlight the differences, but just not set apart from each other by these differences. I think it is very important for Americans to understand Arab people, not just Arab governments. And similarly it is important for Arab people to understand Americans. We should understand each other and not just the other's government and we could make peace," said Mr. Kaiser.

In 2003 the Kennedy Center invited the Iraqi National Symphony to perform in Washington. Mr. Kaiser says it was an eye-opener for an American audience unfamiliar with Iraq's cultural wealth.

"When we hosted the Iraqi Symphony at the Kennedy Center three years ago, the most common response I heard was: I did not know Iraq has a symphony. Most Americans were completely unaware of the level of education and the culture of the people of Iraq."

In a similar eye-opening exchange back in 1984, Diana Calenti, an American dancer and choreographer, single-handedly built a cultural bridge between the contemporary American ballet community and Egyptian folkloric dancing:

Both Calenti and Kaiser are firm believers that artists can bridge East and West better than most politicians because art reminds us of our common humanity, and of the values we share with people throughout the world. Kaiser says the new arts collaboration program will bring together hundreds of the finest artists from the United States and the Arab world.