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Interview with General Director Gema Martín Muñoz about the Arab House in Madrid and Córdoba.By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Sep 2010
Casa Árabe [Arab House] and its International Institute for Arab and Muslim World Studies compose a consortium that was founded on July 6, 2006 by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Spanish Agency for International Development, the autonomous communities of Madrid and Andalusia, and the Municipal Councils of Madrid and Córdoba. With its two headquarters in Madrid and Córdoba, Casa Árabe aims to enhance the broad spectrum of relations with Arab and Muslim countries and be a reference point for study and knowledge of the reality and history of these countries. The institution wants to fulfill a reciprocal task by spreading knowledge about the Arab and Muslim reality in the European and Western context and vice versa. This is done in the framework of collaborations and institutional interaction aimed at building a bridge of communication and relations between the respective societies. It seeks to create an arena of mutual knowledge and common views, a meeting point.
(From the introductory text on the website of the Casa Árabe)
Interview with Gema Martín Muñoz, General Director of the Casa Árabe-IEAM
Haupt & Binder: Casa Árabe was initiated at the highest political level. What reasons and contexts led the Spanish government and its partners to found this institution with such a broad spectrum of tasks and goals?
Gema Martín Muñoz: The reasons have to do with the great importance of the Arab and Islamic region for international relations and with the important role that this part of the world plays in Spanish foreign policy. The geographical proximity, the historical connections, the presence of a large number of emigrants from the Maghreb, Spain’s Mediterranean calling as a country in the south of Europe – these are all factors that explain the special relevance of an institution like Casa Árabe in the fields of knowledge, popularization, public diplomacy, and research on the Arab and Islamic countries. Our work fulfills an important social and political role. On the one hand, to contribute to enriching knowledge, to normalize the direct exchange between the one and the other, and to reduce prejudices in our respective societies. On the other hand, to help strengthen Spain’s role as a mediator to the Arab world in the European and international framework.
H. & B.: Were you personally involved in the process of founding Casa Árabe? You are a recognized academician, researcher, instructor, and author of specialized books. Why did you leave the academic field to devote yourself to such a highly complex task as heading Casa Árabe? Where do you personally see the particular challenges and potentials of your work as Director of this institution?
G. M. M.: The Casa Árabe exists thanks to Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. He spoke to me on several occasions about the need for Spain to create such an institution. And when he had the opportunity to do so, he launched the project, called me up, and asked me to develop and implement a concept for it. So, in fact, I had the fantastic opportunity to found Casa Árabe and to realize the ideas I had already had in mind for many years. For a specialist in those countries, that’s a dream; that’s why I think the greatest use I can make of all the knowledge and experience I’ve gathered in twenty-five years of work as a university researcher consists in placing it in the service of the most important empirical work of my life and to make it as publicly effective as possible: namely, to found and direct the Casa Árabe. This is my mission now, but should I leave Casa Árabe some day, I will devote myself completely to academic work and writing books again. I also had the privilege of being able to personally select my entire team, which means I can rely on people who are as enthusiastic about and as interested in the project as I am. Together, we are building Casa Árabe’s reality .
We face many challenges, because there is great sensitivity and many unfavorable prejudices in regard to Arab and Islamic issues. Consequently we can’t merely work to fill the void of what is simply ignored, because this ignorance is full of ideas that are difficult to change. But I’m not hesitant about doing it, because I am very familiar with the gaps in knowledge and the ideological traps that are constructed in regard to the Arab and Islamic world, as well as with the inadequately known social, political, and creative pluralities that are currently developing and that need to be brought more to attention. And I gain a lot from learning something about the new realities that, for time reasons, I could not devote attention to so far. This is a lot of fun for me, because I continue to learn and discover things I wouldn’t have without the Casa Árabe.
H. & B.: Casa Árabe offers an incredibly broad palette of programs and services: academic research and prognoses, conferences, seminars and discussion groups, specialized publications, a socio-economic program and consultations for companies, a broad educational program, the library and multi-media center, film screenings, musical performances and exhibitions, and an annual Ramadan festival in Madrid’s Lavapiés district, to mention only some of the offerings. What has proven to be the most effective way to reach a new audience, and what are the greatest challenges?
G. M. M.: In quantitative terms, our whole public program is the most effective instrument for gaining and attracting a very diverse new audience, because it goes beyond the framework of people who are already interested in or professionally involved with the Arab world. Without a doubt, our continuous film program hasbeen very effective, as well as the convivial gatherings that we organize on the occasions of the book presentations by current Arab authors. And the media library also contributes substantially to drawing a new public to the Casa Árabe. In qualitative terms, Casa Árabe has highly innovative fields of action that are stimulating the interest of new people. For example, what we have realized in the areas of architecture, video art, renewable energies, the spirituality of Islam, etc. attracts societal groups and specialists who are not part of the usual or general public.
Doubtlessly, the greatest challenges are connected with all the topics that the mass media inflates and treats in great oversimplification. In other terms, we need to dispel the culturalist or essentialist analysis of conflicts and actors in the Near and Middle East; to promote an understanding of the different variants of Islam in their context and their diversity; and to deal with questions about Muslims in the West and all the polemics against veils and minarets, as well as the growing animosity toward Islam. This is a very difficult and time-consuming task, which first demands the analysis and sociological and political studies of our International Institute for Arab and Muslim World Studies and can be correspondingly disseminated only thereafter. It is an extremely important duty but also a complex one, because it has to do with the main root of the stereotypes and prejudices.
H. & B.: Your program of art exhibitions aims to present "the most avant-garde and innovative contemporary Arab art". Why do you make this the focus so explicitly? How are your exhibitions conceived? Is the Casa Árabe open for suggestions from external curators and artists?
G. M. M.: Casa Árabe is especially interested in what is current and contemporary. In the area of art, this is especially important, because beyond the artistic value of what we exhibit, we always have to pursue our goal of changing preconceived notions that do so much damage to our understanding of the Arab and Islamic world. That’s why one of the interests of this institution is to show that today’s Arab artists are innovative and creatively contribute to the currents of international art. One of the stereotypical ideas that commonly circulates through the Western view of present-day Arab reality is the supposed stagnation of creative and innovative processes. It is a common phenomenon to cast one’s glance solely to the past when giving recognition to Arab culture and creativity (Omayyads, Abbasids, al Andalus). The value and significance of this historical legacy is beyond doubt, but the problem is that an almost exclusive concentration on this classical legacy thereby indirectly implies that, after these long-past centuries, there has been nothing but cultural decline and a lack of creativity. But the reality is very different. The new Arab generations are connected with innovation and the international art world and contribute to the global art process from their own context and individuality. That is what Casa Árabe wants to show.
Casa Árabe itself normally conceives the projects it wants to realize and looks for suitable curators for them. But this rule is not cast in stone. Good suggestions are always welcome, if they match our goals.
H. & B.: Casa Árabe also has a program "Arabia Americana". What does this mean and what activities are carried out in this framework?
G. M. M.: Quite some time ago, when I started traveling to Latin America to hold lectures on the Middle East, I noticed the rich and intense Arab presence on the American continent, which goes back to the end of the 19th century and has found its expression in important contributions to the formation of American nationalities. This is a little-known experience. That’s why, when elaborating the concept of Casa Árabe, I integrated this dimension as one of our fields of action. The relationship between the Arab world and the West should be enriched by including the Americas and their experience with Arabs and their culture. In addition, Spain is in a privileged position to be able to foster such relations, and with Casa Árabe the country would also have an institution that functions as a bridge. Thus we developed the focus ultimately named Arabia Americana, in whose framework we are working out a special program that we realize in Spain, the American continent, and the Arab countries focusing on that dimension. We are carrying this out alongside the many activities on Arab countries that we do in Spain and then take to Latin America, so that knowledge of this current reality is spread there as well, where it is even less well-known than in Europe.
H. & B.: What highlights has Casa Árabe planned or is it preparing, in particular in the field of art and culture?
G. M. M.: We are currently preparing an exhibition on the modern and innovative creation of Arabic calligraphy; it will present five of the currently best calligraphers. Showing how one can be innovative on the basis of one of the most classical forms of art is an outstanding way to break through rigid ideas and stereotypes in the way I explained before.
An important highlight of the year 2011 is everything that has to do with the 1300th anniversary of the Arabs’ arrival in Spain in 711. It is extremely important that Casa Árabe analyzes, reflects, and debates this event, which molded our history decisively for almost 800 years. After all, this lasted for more centuries than have passed since the end of the Arab presence in Spain in 1492. All this is being done with an underlying interest: to understand the past in order to be better able to interpret the present. In this framework, we will be staging the Encuentros Averroes [named after the Spanish-Arab philosopher, physician, and mystic also known as Ibn Rushd, 1126 Córdoba - 1198 Marrakesh – the translator] from February 4 to 6, 2011 in Córdoba, where we have a branch; it will be dedicated to the "Paradigm of Córdoba: three religions and one Andalusian culture". It will be a series of round table discussions on the experiences of the past that are conceived for a broad public and the mass media and that aim to dismantle both the glorifying and the negating myths by examining the present in the light of the relations between the Islamic world and the West, which go back so far. The debates will be accompanied by a film and music program.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art. Based in Berlin, Germany.
Casa Árabe and its International Institute for Arab and Muslim World Studies in Madrid and Córdoba, Spain.
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