Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It’s a tense time in the Middle East. Age-old sectarian, ethnic and religious conflicts continue to play out across the region, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, while the Islamic Republic of Iran, with its hegemonic appetites, keeps rattling its nuclear saber.

Yet, in the midst of all this negative energy, creating so much uncertainty, it’s refreshing to consider how one person can help point the way to a more hopeful, stable future.

Dr. Wendy Sternberg, devoted practitioner of the healing arts, is doing just that. Ten years ago, she began dreaming about seeking cultural healing by engendering mutual respect and understanding through music and art.

Call it this century’s version of trying “to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

In 1999, with only a vision, this doctor and professor of internal medicine gradually began laying the building blocks to bridge centuries-old cultural divides, particularly in the Middle East, by bringing together artists of all stripes to perform for similarly diverse audiences - sharing their talents and collaborating across deepened religious and sociopolitical lines.

In December 2008, leaving medicine altogether, she began pursuing this mission full time as head of the aptly named Genesis at the Crossroads, a Chicago-based nongovernmental organization. Its two branches - one for performance programs, the other for arts education - inspire creation of new vocal, instrumental, dance, literary, documentary film and visual works of art, promoting peace in individual souls and the larger culture.

Her formula is simple. Pair artists from polar opposite communities and cultural backgrounds, and cultural healing isn’t far behind.

Since its inception, Genesis has created and produced more than 100 cross-cultural collaborative programs, three nationally touring concerts of Arab and Jewish musicians, as well as their Israeli-Palestinian, Gesher-Jisr, Building Bridges performance, featured at the United Nations’ 60th anniversary celebration.

Sometimes, however, Dr. Sternberg’s quest runs headlong into crusty, unyielding reality, as it did in Egypt, coincidentally just as President Obama was proclaiming the value of partnership and cross-cultural dialogue in Cairo.

Genesis was compelled to withdraw from the 8th Annual International Music Festival in Alexandria, at which its musical ensemble, the Saffron Caravan, was scheduled to perform in the festival’s closing act.

Made up of eight virtuosos - Muslim, Christian, Ba’hai and Jewish from Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, Morocco and the United States - they had previously performed at the Kennedy Center, the aforementioned United Nations’ 60th anniversary celebration and in Casablanca under the auspices of the king of Morocco.

The group had planned to couple its Egyptian festival appearance with arts education and humanitarian programs as well as performances with local talent.

But Dr. Sternberg withdrew - an unprecedented action - after festival organizers forbade the group from acknowledging religious differences (e.g., “cantor”). And, on a vaguely Orwellian note, the sponsor, Alexandria Library, told Genesis, “We will replace any sentence including religious references with the following: ‘Different Musical Trends.’ ”

The underlying impulse for this blurring of identity was illuminated by former candidate for UNESCO director general, Farouk Hosni, when he said in May 2008: “I’d burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt,” which sadly echoes “The Exodus Obama Forgot to Mention,” about which Andre Aciman wrote in the New York Times. (Mr. Hosni recently lost his UNESCO election bid.)

Perhaps in this small incident lies a big lesson, namely that Middle East peace will be achieved only when cultural and religious differences are acknowledged and respected.

“All You Need Is Love,” the Beatles crooned in June 1967 (ironically, shortly after the Six Day War that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser precipitated after expelling U.N. Emergency Forces from the Sinai Peninsula). Genesis at the Crossroads is trying to tell the world as much.

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based writer.

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