Found in translation

By - Aug 1st, 2007 02:52 pm

By Evan Solochek


With so many misconceptions, half-truths and flat-out ignorance surrounding the Middle East, immersing yourself in its diverse culture and rich history for a weekend seems a good first step to enlightenment. In a time where stories of bombings and body counts are a nightly fixture on local and national news, it’s easy to overlook the positive and encouraging aspects of one of the oldest and most influential cultures in history. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Arab nations took in its “heretical” scholars, especially those practicing science and medicine, fostering their work and saving the world from losing invaluable knowledge. They gave us our system of numbering and have produced some of the finest architecture, artistic artifacts and textiles known to man. This month, Milwaukeeans can witness first-hand what we won’t be likely to see on television.

Now in its ninth year, Arab World Fest is a multi-cultural celebration loosely grouped under the label “Arab World,” which is itself one of the biggest confusions. Much greater than just the Arabian Peninsula, the Arab world spreads across 22 countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and while most Arabs are Muslims, the Arab world also includes significant Christian and Jewish communities.

Yes, there will be falafel and belly dancing and camel rides. But more importantly, there will be the opportunity to foster a better understanding of and appreciation for Arabian cultural heritage and the political awareness and sentiments of its citizens.

2007-08_culturefeatureTo that end, one of the Fest’s newest and most highly anticipated attractions will be its film festival, highlighted by Occupation 101. “We brought this last year and were showing it in a small tent and there was standing room only,” says Ihsan Atta, President of Arab World Fest. “We were surprised at the overwhelming positive response, which led us to have a film festival this year.”

A powerful and moving documentary, Occupation 101 details the current state and the historical roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the first massive Jewish immigration from Europe in the 1880s and the 1948, 1967 and Yom Kippur wars to the Oslo Peace Process and Intifadas of 1987 and 2000, this film offers one of the most comprehensive analyses – along with first person testimonials – of this seemingly unending conflict.

Other entries of note include Paradise Now, which was released in 2005 by Warner Independent. The harrowing story of two Palestinian childhood friends who are recruited for a suicide strike on Tel Aviv, Paradise Now chronicles their last two days together as they say goodbye to loved ones and family and prepare for their mission. While en route to meet a driver who will take them to Tel Aviv, the two young men are separated from their handlers and intercepted at the Israeli border by a young woman who, after discovering their plan, tries to make them reconsider their path. It’s a first-hand look at the lives and motivations of two would-be faceless martyrs.

Most Westerners don’t really understand what the Gaza Strip represents and why it’s such a hotly contested strip of land. It’s hard to believe that so small a swath of land, not more than 27 miles long by 6 miles wide, is the cause and site of so much pain and suffering in the world. But that’s the reality for the Gaza Strip and its 1 million inhabitants. Gaza Under Siege, another film in the festival, is the story of one family trying to cope and survive in the aftermath of the 2000 Intifada, since which none of Gaza’s 40,000 day laborers – not to mention goods and medical supplies – have been able to cross the Israeli border. It’s a stark look at the realities of a conflict that very often get muddled and lost in translation.

Through film and food, dance and music, Arab World Fest hopes to entertain and educate and, ultimately, demystify one of the world’s most significant cultures, one steeped in tradition, history and misunderstanding. VS

Arab World Fest runs August 10 – 12 at Henry Maier Festival Park. For more information, please visit

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