Veteran Egyptian actor Yehia Al-Fakharani received the Abu Dhabi Festival Tolerance Award at the Cairo Opera House on 26 January. The award was granted by Hoda Ibrahim Al-Khamis, founder of the festival and the non-profit Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. Al-Khamis has been active in cultural circles in the UAE and other countries, focusing on women’s empowerment.
How is Al-Fakharani’s award linked to the cultural and humanitarian connection you feel with Egypt?
I was in Cairo to deliver the Abu Dhabi Festival Tolerance Award 2020 to Al-Fakharani in honour of his exceptional achievements in television, cinema, and the theatre. The award, which recognises contributions to humanity and tolerance, was given to Al-Fakharani because he is an inspiration to generations of artists who look up to him as a role model.
Egypt is where the cultures of east and west meet. It is the homeland of the Arab world’s leading figures in the arts. In 2010, the Abu Dhabi Festival hosted sculptor Adam Henein who provided the opportunity for many budding artists from the UAE to discover their creativity. In 2007, Egyptian Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem enchanted the festival audience with a flute recital. For me, Abdel-Dayem’s presence on stage was a powerful moment for creativity. In addition, former minister of culture Farouk Hosni had always been present with us, giving the festival immense support.
Egypt has always presented top-tier paragons of culture, the arts, literature, poetry and every other field. It is the original example of profound civilisation.
No end of 20th-century Egyptian figures created a thriving cultural and artistic scene in the Arab world. Do you agree with the view that the field has declined since the death of the likes of Taha Hussein and Um Kolthoum?
The scene those genius figures set remains a pillar for the work of later generations. The legacy of Taha Hussein, Abbas Al-Akkad, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Um Kolthoum is a perpetual source of inspiration and creativity. But I disagree with those who say that culture has regressed since then, because they are key in our battle against extremist ideologies. Through culture and the arts, we unite and develop humanity, regardless of religions, languages, and tastes.
As governments and institutions, we bear the responsibility of maintaining the legacy they left us. We have to preserve their works that reflect our rich diversity and the deep roots of our cultures.
You have been active in the effort to enhance the role of women. Has the Arab woman’s role improved in recent years?
My efforts in this domain are a small contribution to give women the opportunity to unleash their leadership and social energies. Sheikha Fatima bin Mubarak played a regional role that culminated in her presidency of the General Women’s Union in its third round in 2007 and the launch in October 2019 of the Arab Document on Women’s Rights in the UAE, a new addition to the track record of achievements in the field of women’s empowerment.
At the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, we are inspired by Sheikha Fatima to offset programmes and initiatives that enable young Emirati women to be creative in different art forms. We are now witnessing the fruits of our cultural labours: we have an Emirati woman opera singer, a soprano, as well as a woman PhD holder in the arts, and many other role models.
What is your experience with the Abu Dhabi Festival and other cultural institutions you co-founded?
The Abu Dhabi Festival is the main event on the programmes of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. I believe the festival is the platform with the most influence on youth. Its audiences comprise people from across the UAE’s social spectrum and Arabs residing in the Emirates, as well as visitors from across the world. The festival, since its launch in 2004, has become an annual gathering of more than 60,000 international artists and attendees who meet to perform and watch Arab and international shows that enhance international partnerships and reflect cooperation in the service of culture and humanity.
My work in culture and the arts is voluntary for the sake of making positive change in the lives of peoples and communities. The cultural foundations I co-founded and worked with make room for giving endlessly to culture and humanity.
Do you believe the Arab world has a problem with identity after several unsuccessful attempts to find common ground, such as Arab nationalism and political Islam? And what is your take on our relationship with the West, which is ahead of us in the scientific, industrial and technological field? Do you think the West is also ahead of us in the cultural, literary and creative fields?
Our Arab, Islamic identity is undoubted. A genuinely intellectual person doesn’t have identity issues. Arab nationalism and political Islam are political trends that can’t be a substitute for the true identity of our Arab nations. In the UAE, we call for moderation guided by the values of tolerant Islam and Arabism. Through tolerance we assure our place as Arabs on the scene of world civilisation. We exchange expertise, science and knowledge in an unlimited manner. This is how we can achieve something good for the future. As regards cultural, artistic and innovative work, we have to embrace our cultural specificity, which becomes richer through communication between peoples without being biased in favour of one culture or identity.
The common identity we believe in is our human identity, which is reinforced by culture through a collective creative movement that stresses tolerance and openness and contributes to the sustainability of human development and bringing it to creative excellence for every human being without distinction.
How did the six years you spent at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage add to you?
Everything I’ve been through has enriched my voluntary experience in the cultural, humanitarian and charity fields, particularly being a member of the board of the Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage where I worked alongside leading figures in field in Abu Dhabi. It meant a lot to me to have the responsibility of launching initiatives to preserve heritage and provoke creativity in the emirate. It was also a foundational stage to launch a cultural development movement, work on its sustainability and on cementing Abu Dhabi’s status as an international destination for innovation and a capital for culture and the arts.
You have received 15 awards and accolades, what does this mean to you?
The awards have made me feel more responsible for what I can offer in the service of humanity. It is a genuine feeling of satisfaction that doesn’t materialise unless we work every day to make more achievements and give endlessly.
My happiness is doubled when I give an award or honour to an artist. This sense of achievement is maintained when we give due credit to our artists and when we adopt new talents and contribute to their development.
The only award that makes a difference in the lives of those who conduct voluntary work is to make a difference for youth chasing their dreams and developing their innovative abilities, and when we enable and invest in them. It is also rewarding to see them making the world a better place, free of extremism, violence and strife, a place where all people can come together despite their different cultures and languages, united by arts and sharing the dream of a future full of tolerance and love.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.