Culture  Building bridges through the arts

The Arab World Festival gives a complicated taste of Arab culture

The Arab World Festival of Montreal is a multidisciplinary event that strives to facilitate the meeting of Arab and Western cultures by providing a space that fosters their exchange. The festival contains a wide variety of programming including film screenings, concerts, dance shows, debates, poetry slams, and conferences. This year, the event spanned from October 25 to November 9. The festival also supports and produces artistic initiatives based on the cultural diversity found in Montreal.

According to organizer Emily-Jane Aouad, the festival is able to encourage an artistic exchange because the audience is mostly made up of Canadians who already possess a passion for learning about other cultures. In addition, the festival meshes Western and Eastern cultures in on-stage dialogues. For example, this year the festival brought together the Algerian dance group El Ferda with Montreal’s choreographer Kim Girouard to produce a performance of ancient Arab dances with a contemporary spin. A poetry slam at l’Escalier also illustrated this intercultural dialogue as Quebecois Arabs of Syrian, Moroccan, and Tunisian background recited prose recounting their experiences growing up as immigrants in Quebec.

The festival is one of a kind. According to Aouad, it is “the only event in Quebec fully dedicated to arts from the Arab World” offering exclusive and unique artistic programming. The high proportion of Arabs who speak French, for example immigrants from Algeria or Morocco, facilitates the sharing of cultural ideas within Quebec. According to Aouad, “Most of the international artists and intellectuals who come to the festival are Francophones. So the ‘Salon de la Culture’ section of the festival (where conferences debates and round tables happen) is held mostly in French.”

However, although the festival has always been well-received, Aouad pointed out that it is sometimes negatively influenced by the social and political context within Quebec. Aouad told The Daily that in 2007 when the “accommodements raisonnables” (reasonable accommodations) were being debated, the festival experienced a significant decrease in the Quebecois audience turnout. “There have also been a few incidents where team members or volunteers have been insulted while handing out flyers for the festival,”  Aouad said with regret. According to the festival’s website, “With every new edition, this event defies a social reality characterized by an increasing polarity” between Arab and Western cultures. Despite the sometimes unfavourable political and cultural atmosphere, the festival has grown significantly because of its commitment to showcasing original and innovative Arab-Quebec content and its courage to dare to do so.

This year the Arab World Festival entered its 14th year against the backdrop of political and religious aggravation caused by the the Parti Québécois’ recently proposed Charter of Values. “Well, we do not like to mix political and religious matters with the festival, which is purely dedicated to arts and culture. The festival has been a non-political and non-religious organization since its creation.” Aouad said. However, given that the Charter would affect a large percentage of Arabs within Quebec, the festival could not avoid addressing the issue. Aouad told The Daily, “We have programmed a debate discussing the Charter as well as other conferences and debates discussing social issues of our actual society.”

As the title of the festival suggests, “Arab” identity is treated as largely uniform, without much distinction between the many groups that fall under the umbrella of that label.

Despite the high quality of artistic content showcased at the festival, an event of this sort proves to be problematic. As the title of the festival suggests, “Arab” identity is treated as largely uniform, without much distinction between the many groups that fall under the umbrella of that label. In reality, Arabs have many different ethnicities, practice diverse religions, and inhabit geographically distant countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Presenting a wide assortment of ethnicities, religions, and countries under the same umbrella seems to belittle the vast cultural variety and ethnic plurality found in the Arab world. This runs the risk of greatly misleading the average Canadian viewer and enforcing the idea that Arab culture is homogeneous. Ask someone from Lebanon how they are different from someone from Egypt, and I’m sure they will have a lot to say.

The festival also claims to be “a non-political and non-religious organization since its creation,” however, this glosses over the many ethnic, religious, and political cleavages that have existed in the Middle East for centuries. “I don’t think you can discuss the Middle East without discussing politics,” says Omar, a Palestinian McGill student in attendance at the festival who was raised in Dubai. While the festival showcases performers and speakers from a myriad of Arab countries, it offered little discussion of the tension and discrimination that occurs between those groups. The salience of these differences could be seen in the film Would You Have Sex With An Arab, where documentary filmmaker Yolande Zauberman asked this question to Israelis at bars in Tel Aviv. To Arabs, she asked, “Would you have sex with an Israeli Jew?” There was a wide variety of answers given, shaped by their individual religious views and country of origin. The film demonstrated that, to Arabs, even something like attitudes on sex and intimacy are politically and religiously charged. “While striving for a festival that is non-political and non-religious is honourable, it would be deceptive and falsely utopian.” says Omar. “The festival can claim it is non-religious and non-political in the sense that everyone is welcome regardless of background, but not in the sense that art and culture of real value can be contributed without a political component. Maybe for a country like Belgium this could be true, but for a post-war country like Iraq, or a post-revolution country like Egypt, it would be unlikely. Can you imagine current Egyptian art that doesn’t discuss the revolution?”

According to Omar, the festival provides a platform for Arab immigrants who plan to stay in Quebec to find common ground with one another over culture, values, and food. However, he does not see the festival having a successful unifying effect unless the uglier, more difficult political issues are addressed. “What good does it do for Pan-Arabism if an Egyptian and a Sudanese can enjoy a plate of hummus in Montreal, if their political tensions haven’t been addressed for when they return to their respective countries?” he says. “Living as an Arab in a foreign country, you’re more likely to see commonalities than differences: you’re kind of forced to collaborate. Quebec could act like a marriage counsellor for Arabs, providing a safer, more accepting stage to delve into deeper issues. Instead of suppressing such problems, the festival should address them head on. Only then could we work for a more realistic Pan-Arab goal.”

Whether the Arab World Festival, with its dedication to showcasing artistic talent inspired by the meeting of Arab and Western cultures, succeeds at uniting the many ethnicities, religions, and nationalities that are Arab remains unclear.


The Arab World Festival will run till November 9. Events are held in a variety of locations in the Downtown and Plateau Mont-Royal areas. Go to for more information.