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Both myself and my brother belong to the under 30 demographic, which Pat said makes 70 percent, but according to our statistics it makes 60 percent of the region’s population. Qatar is no exception to the region. It’s a very young nation led by young people. We have been reminiscing about the latest technologies and the iPods, and for me the abaya, my traditional dress that I’m wearing today.
Now this is not a religious garment, nor is it a religious statement. Instead, it’s a diverse cultural statement that we choose to wear. Now I remember a few years ago, a journalist asked Dr. Sheikha, who’s sitting here, president of Qatar University — who, by the way, is a woman — he asked her whether she thought the abaya hindered or infringed her freedom in any way. Her answer was quite the contrary. Instead, she felt more free, more free because she could wear whatever she wanted under the abaya. She could come to work in her pajamas and nobody would care. (Laughter) Not that you do; I’m just saying.
My point is here, people have a choice — just like the Indian lady could wear her sari or the Japanese woman could wear her kimono. We are changing our culture from within, but at the same time we are reconnecting with our traditions. We know that modernization is happening. And yes, Qatar wants to be a modern nation. But at the same time we are reconnecting and reasserting our Arab heritage. It’s important for us to grow organically. And we continuously make the conscious decision to reach that balance.
In fact, research has shown that the more the world is flat, if I use Tom Friedman’s analogy, or global, the more and more people are wanting to be different. And for us young people, they’re looking to become individuals and find their differences amongst themselves. Which is why I prefer the Richard Wilk analogy of globalizing the local and localizing the global. We don’t want to be all the same, but we want to respect each other and understand each other. And therefore tradition becomes more important, not less important.
Life necessitates a universal world, however, we believe in the security of having a local identity. And this is what the leaders of this region are trying to do. We’re trying to be part of this global village, but at the same time we’re revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development. I’m a representation of that phenomenon. And I think a lot of people in this room, I can see a lot of you are in the same position as myself. And I’m sure, although we can’t see the people in Washington, they are in the same position. We’re continuously trying to straddle different worlds, different cultures and trying to meet the challenges of a different expectation from ourselves and from others.
So I want to ask a question: What should culture in the 21st century look like? In a time where the world is becoming personalized, when the mobile phone, the burger, the telephone, everything has its own personal identity, how should we perceive ourselves and how should we perceive others? How does that impact our desert culture?
I’m not sure of how many of you in Washington are aware of the cultural developments happening in the region and, the more recent, Museum of Islamic Art opened in Qatar in 2008. I myself am personalizing these cultural developments, but I also understand that this has to be done organically. Yes, we do have all the resources that we need in order to develop new cultural institutions, but what I think is more important is that we are very fortunate to have visionary leaders who understand that this can’t happen from outside, it has to come from within. And guess what? You might be surprised to know that most people in the Gulf who are leading these cultural initiatives happen to be women.
I want to ask you, why do you think this is? Is it because it’s a soft option; we have nothing else to do? No, I don’t think so. I think that women in this part of the world realize that culture is an important component to connect people both locally and regionally. It’s a natural component for bringing people together, discussing ideas — in the same way we’re doing here at TED. We’re here, we’re part of a community, sharing out ideas and discussing them. Art becomes a very important part of our national identity. The existential and social and political impact an artist has on his nation’s development of cultural identity is very important.
You know, art and culture is big business. Ask me. Ask the chairpersons and CEOs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Ask Charles Saatchi about great art. They make a lot of money. So I think women in our society are becoming leaders, because they realize that for their future generations, it’s very important to maintain our cultural identities. Why else do Greeks demand the return of the Elgin Marbles? And why is there an uproar when a private collector tries to sell his collection to a foreign museum? Why does it take me months on end to get an export license from London or New York in order to get pieces into my country?
In few hours, Shirin Neshat, my friend from Iran who’s a very important artist for us will be talking to you. She lives in New York City, but she doesn’t try to be a Western artist. Instead, she tries to engage in a very important dialogue about her culture, nation and heritage. She does that through important visual forms of photography and film.
In the same way, Qatar is trying to grow its national museums through an organic process from within. Our mission is of cultural integration and independence. We don’t want to have what there is in the West. We don’t want their collections. We want to build our own identities, our own fabric, create an open dialogue so that we share our ideas and share yours with us. In a few days, we will be opening the Arab Museum of Modern Art. We have done extensive research to ensure that Arab and Muslim artists, and Arabs who are not Muslims — not all Arabs are Muslims, by the way — but we make sure that they are represented in this new institution. This institution is government-backed and it has been the case for the past three decades. We will open the museum in a few days, and I welcome all of you to get on Qatar Airways and come and join us.
Now this museum is just as important to us as the West. Some of you might have heard of the Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine, but I doubt a lot of people know that this artist worked in Picasso’s studio in Paris in the 1930s. For me it was a new discovery. And I think with time, in the years to come we’ll be learning a lot about our Picassos, our Legers and our Cezannes. We do have artists, but unfortunately we have not discovered them yet.
Now visual expression is just one form of culture integration. We have realized that recently more and more people are using the means of YouTube and social networking to express their stories, share their photos and tell their own stories through their own voices. In a similar way, we have created the Doha Film Institute. Now the Doha Film Institute is an organization to teach people about film and filmmaking. Last year we didn’t have one Qatari woman filmmaker. Today I am proud to say we have trained and educated over 66 Qatari women filmmakers to edit, tell their own stories in their own voices.
Now if you’ll allow me, I would love to share a one-minute film that has proven to show that a 60-sec film can be as powerful as a haiku in telling a big picture. And this is one of our filmmakers’ products.
(Video) Boy: Hey listen! Did you know that the stocks are up? Who are you playing? Girl: Uncle Khaled. Here, put on the headscarf. Khaled: Why would I want to put it on? Girl: Do as you’re told, young girl. Boy: No, you play mom and I play dad. (Girl: But it’s my game.) Play by yourself then. Girl: Women! One word and they get upset. Useless. Thank you. Thank you!
SM: Going back to straddling between East and West, last month we had our second Doha Tribeca Film Festival here in Doha. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival was held at our new cultural hub, Katara. It attracted 42,000 people, and we showcased 51 films. Now the Doha Tribeca Film Festival is not an imported festival, but rather an important festival between the cities of New York and Doha. It’s important for two things. First, it allows us to showcase our Arab filmmakers and voices to one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, New York City. At the same time, we are inviting them to come and explore our part of the world. They’re learning our culture, our language, our heritage and realizing we’re just as different and just the same as each other.
Now over and over again, people have said, “Let’s build bridges,” and frankly, I want to do more than that. I would like break the walls of ignorance between East and West — no, not the soft option that we have discussed before, but rather the soft power that Joseph Nye has spoken about before. Culture’s a very important tool to bring people together. We should not underestimate it.
“Know thyself,” that is the journey of self-expression and self-realization that we are traveling. Now I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I know that me as an individual and we as a nation welcome this community of ideas worth spreading. This is a very interesting journey. I welcome you on board for us to engage and discuss new ideas of how to bring people together through cultural initiatives and discussions. Familiarity destroys and trumps fear. Try it.
As chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani uses the rich history of her country to drive education and cross-cultural interaction today. The QMA’s flagship project is the Museum of Islamic Art, an institution built to serve as the world’s center for education and information on art in the Muslim world. According to H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa’s vision, the museum will not only preserve and document the vast diversity of Islamic art, but also provide a welcoming place for the international community to learn more about an often-oversimplified culture.
Sheikha Al Mayassa has committed to fostering diversity and creating opportunity for all. She is also the chairperson for Reach Out to Asia (ROTA), an organization that is trying to provide access to education for underserved populations throughout Asia, regardless of gender or age. She’s continuing her own education by pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia University in New York.
“A lot of countries in the Arab world are very rich yet have a poor population. There’s a lack of innovation. There’s stagnation. Qatar is trying to become a role model. It has proven it can make a lot of changes in a short time. “
Sheikha Al Mayassa, in Travel + Leisure, July 2007