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Lincoln Center Festival Features Islamic Culture

More than 75 concerts, operas, theater and dance performances from around the world are on stage this month in the annual Lincoln Center Festival in New York. The festival is notable for its emphasis on culture from the Middle East and the Islamic World.

Algerian-born singer Souad Massi gives a concert in Arabic. Singers from Egypt, Morocco and Israel perform too, blending Eastern and Western musical styles. They are performing in the Lincoln Center Festival, which this year features artists from the Middle East, Iran and North Africa.

Festival Director Nigel Redden said the program was planned long before the region gained new attention after the September 11 attacks. But Mr. Redden said he believes now the festival can serve to counter negative stereotypes.

"I think that we need to know more about various parts of the world," he said, "but certainly now I think we definitely need to know more about the Middle East and what is going on in countries that we have in some ways demonized. And I think that the arts have a way of providing a human face to people with whom it is difficult to communicate because we do not share a common language."

Mr. Redden said a highlight is the U.S. premiere of Ta'ziyeh, the only indigenous form of musical theater in the Islamic World. Ta'ziyeh, which means "mourning" in Farsi, refers to about 200 epic productions that are several centuries old. Ta'ziyeh, is traditionally performed outside of Iran's large cities in outdoor arenas.

Musicians and actors often dressed in colorful costumes, performed riding camels and horses, to relay dramatic stories related to a branch of Islam known as Shiism.

A Ta'ziyeh, from the 18th century called the "Battle of Hor," tells the story of a general who sets out to kill the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed but changes his mind after hearing celestial voices. Hor and his young son die as martyrs protecting the grandson, Imam Hussein.

Legal problems jeopardized the production of Ta'ziyeh, at the Lincoln Center Festival. The State Department denied entrance visas to 10 of the 28-member troupe on grounds that they were potential economic refugees.

Without the full cast, three productions of Ta'ziyeh, were canceled. Ta'ziyeh, director Mohammad Ghaffari sais he is disappointed that the dedicated actors he chose from Iran were left behind. "It is this concept that if you come from that part of the world you have something to do with terrorism, which is really annoying and it is not nice," he said. "I would love to perform these plays to show that Iran has a very rich culture. That Iran's culture, poetry influenced even American writers and poets."

This year's festival also interweaves Eastern and Western themes in two Chinese operas and a Japanese production of Pacific Overtures, American Steven Sondheim's 1976 show on the westernization of Japan.

And the international fare includes puppets and ballet from Russia and dancers from Mozambique.

Director Redden calls the collaboration of international artists a positive side of globalization that is dependent on the freedom of travel. "I can say if we find ourselves unable to invite art groups from other parts of the world to come to the United States, the people who will be the losers are Americans," he continued.

The Lincoln Center Festival also showcases American groups, such as the ground-breaking dance company of Merce Cunningham and performance artist Laurie Anderson.