The opportunity for 15 countries to assemble beneath one banner under the South African sky is a feat all of its own. The massive background logistics to co-ordinate a three hour show – the music performances, costumes, technology, accommodation, and travel – are easily under-estimated when one sees how seamlessly the action flows. I know that many were disappointed that access to the large auditorium of about 1000 people was limited; another thousand people only had access to a big-screen broadcast of the event outside the venue. Hopefully the spirit on the inside spilled outside, too.
What makes this event unique compared to other attempts at bringing people together to celebrate our heritages, our cultures, and our languages? For me it is the spirit of the philosophical rationale underpinning the organizers of the event: the Horizon Educational Trust, the Gauteng Provincial Department of Arts, Culture and Recreation of South Africa, the South African-Turkish Business Association, and the Turquoise Harmony Institute. What do they share in common that helps them to run a festival of diversity?
First, the festival is deeply focused on the “the diamonds” of the show: namely, the youth, who are students from a range of Turkish schools across the globe who came to showcase their experiences of dialogue, sharing the riches of their own cultures while embracing the opportunities for self-growth, discovery, and development as they learned to speak a common language of respect and value. Yes, there were the perfunctory speeches from dignitaries and sponsors. Yes, the organizers emphasized the role of Turkey offering not just bilateral South Africa-Turkey relations, but also access into the worlds where Turkish conceptions were sowing seeds across the international community. Yes, there was a nod to providing awards to the Mandela family in recognition of his contribution to world peace. But these speeches did not dominate the program; it was clear that the unexpressed agenda of the organizers was directed not towards scoring political points or grandstanding. The event was an opportunity to learn from others through appreciating difference and viewing “others” not as potential threats, a waging of supremacist ideological battles, or the harmful promotion of political factions. We, as the audience, were spectators of a new world in gestation.
The simplicity and genuineness of the hosts came through on multiple levels, but especially in how they promoted the view that cultural dialogues are easily communicated beyond linguistic specifics. The universal languages of arts, music, and dance speak volumes. The festival program directors marked each individual presentation with an evocative introduction translating the songs they rendered and offering connection with the message of the colors of a rainbow world, enriched by our diversity. Whist they hinted at the countries of origin of the performers, they were careful not to set any one up as “exotic others” against some normative hegemony, or in a competitive ascendancy. Each performance was afforded a dignity in its own right and the young stars rose spectacularly to the occasion with confidence and committed expertise. They exuded that this was a festival, not a competition; a celebration of dialogue of selves, not egoistic performances.
Notably, the program was also consciously planned to bring different performers onto the same stage in simultaneous coupled or multiple-group renditions, showing that it is not uniqueness alone that is to be valued, but one’s ability to stand alongside, and in concert with, other perspectives and points of view. We saw Romanian and Georgian songstresses hold back-to-back performances with South African backing vocals. We were mesmerized by a heartfelt Whitney Houston song, “I Am Nothing Without You” performed by an Australian teenager wearing traditional Islamic dress. We witnessed the choral singing of Turkish and South African songs by enthusiastic students on a full stage. A duo of a lanky African American and a suave South African Durbanite executed a spirited “Stand By Me” performance. An elegant impersonation of Adele’s “Someone Like You” by a Catholic girl from the Philippines sent shivers down one spine and brought tears to most eyes:
I wish nothing but the best for you…
The penetrating, almost operative gusto of “Je t’aime” by a pint-sized French lass celebrated the wonderful potential young people possess. Mozambican sisters, and Netherlander siblings, and Madagascar soloist performers continued to show the spirit of the festival by singing in Portuguese, Dutch, and Turkish. Audience members fervently waved randomly distributed miniature flags from all participating countries. Each member of the audience was randomly assigned arbitrary custodianship of these nationalistic symbols. The “We are the World” popular mantra brought all solo performers alongside the whole starry cast in a memorable display of togetherness. A South African dance group exhibited their pot pourri of traditional Turkish folkdances. Local variations of kwaito music and gumboot dancers culminated in a costumed celebration of all performers: North, South, East, and West in a rousing reinterpretation of the Southern anthem, Shoholoza. A tribute from the whole student group to both Mahatma Gandhi (in Gurathi) and Nelson Mandela (in isiXhosa) demonstrated the lessons of these international icons of harmony and commitment to social justice, through quiet, yet powerful engagement and dialogue. The celebratory pictures of their historical lives, presented in a back-to-back sequence, were a tribute by themselves. What a collage of possibilities peppered with the spice of smiles!
The music genres spanned both traditional and modern forms. It was quite evident that the star performers (ranging in age from early to late teens) were selected as exemplars of exceptional artistry. Each performance was reinforced by graphic slides depicting scenes from the performers’ home countries. Natural fauna and flora, cultural and architectural monuments, and significant people or groups formed the worldwide educational tour via the panoramic backdrop visuals. Some graphics told visual stories of evolving forms and features of the worldwide community. The program saw the presentation of singers performing their own and other cultural languages. They adapted costume styles from different settings outside their home countries. The kaleidoscope that emerged was a festival of variety: where people of different groups exchanged dress styles, languages, and dance choreographs to communicate the possibility for the dialogical space that a new cultural movement can embrace.
South Africans are perhaps skeptical of this kind of multicultural celebration due to apartheid. In such a form of cultural celebration, different cultures are placed alongside each other as enclaved entities, highlighting the “boundaries” of one’s beliefs, a celebration of otherness. Such divergence produced a “multi-cultural” endeavor that promoted a political hierarchy of perspectives which took on racialized proportions with disastrous effects.
In present times however, many proponents of the “new era” of cultural affirmation in post-apartheid South Africa see cultural celebration as an attempt to assert a new regime of hierarchies with one cultural form replacing the previously powerful forms. This is also more often associated with the representations of political power which silence those who differ from the majority perspective, the new master narrative, or dominant worldview. How different is this from multi-cultural apartheid?
By contrast, the Turkish school movement inspired by the international Hizmet philosophy of “service to humanity” is characterized by a worldview that celebrates the interdependent common ground across all cultural expressions. Their outward manifestations may differ, but cultural representations highlight the similitude of our humanity, and our quest for dialogue, love, and tolerance. This is embodied by the writings and teachings of a key founder of the Hizmet Movement: Fethullah Gülen. In this version of “inter-culturalism," the attempt is to develop individuals who are conscious of their own self and their heritage, but not in service of a protectionist or preservationist agenda. From this firm position of self-strength, one is able to reach out to the world of others. We see in others, too, our agenda for our common quests. Our reaching out is a service to realizing peace and harmony – which is a goal sorely needed in a war-torn, politicized and ideologized world, which often uses religious beliefs as rallying points for promoting hostility, supremacy, and divergence. Sometimes these separatist agendas are disguised econometric plots, too! Cultural affirmation is not a hearkening to a fossilized past, but a recognition that our habits and routines can mutate and extend through dialogue and exchange; our borders can be more inviting and more welcoming.
A third kind of cultural engagement is “juxta-culturalism” which merely tolerates different groups walking alongside each other, never interconnecting. This is sadly the lived experiences of many who pursue only a narcissist nationalistic myopic agenda, seeing only the boundaries of geography and politics as the border of their selfhood. This produces expressions of xenophobia which does not recognize the inherent commonality of all human beings. We are all created equal in the eyes of God. Our nationalist identity is only a man-made demarcation, dividing one set of people from another. It is more commonplace that many individuals in our modern global society, live outside the borders within which their forefathers were born. We may draw our cultural roots from one geographic space, but live in another context altogether.
Human history has been replete with stories of crossing borders, migrations due to the ravages of political, economic, or natural disasters. Not all of these journeys are tales of joy. More likely, the fragile settled communities interpret the visiting migrant culture as undercutting the nationalistic goals of their society. Open hostility is unfortunately sanctioned as the appropriate response to keep the outsiders from penetrating our “safe world.” So, which version of cultural affirmation did the festival of language and culture promote?
I think that a version of “trans-disciplinary culturalism” emerged as the young stars of the show interacted to generate a positive energy of harmony by crossing over to the other side. Their own past matters; they remained rooted on their own river banks. But they were confident enough to swim across to the other side. The young performers were firmly grounded in the here and now of the present 21st century, with all its influences: technology, media, and new musical and art forms, which they transported across the global village. And they dared us to dream of the possibility of building a new, shared cultural world. Their message was simple: we are simultaneously of the past, in the present, and eager to create the future. This movement across time and space, culture and geography, history and identity, are not threatening but enriching.
One of my lasting impressions was the emotional image of students embracing each other at the end of the show: this was the world in dialogue with each other. They had made a connection with those around them that would live on in their lives for many years. They will become the ambassadors of the new world order. The official festival song reverberates:
I saw a luminous future in my dream one night.
Lights were silent pouring down everywhere.
It was like a harmoniously working clock.
Dark nights had gone away.
A new world!
A new world!
They were building a new world.
Everywhere sparkled like the skies.
They were building a new world.
After the ceremony, I chatted with a young 12 year-old Albanian youth to congratulate him on his commanding and welcoming stage performance. He simply smiled broadly.
“No English. Me speak no English.” He smiled and held my hand, clutching his Albanian costume in one hand, his proud flag in another, and his infectious energy pouring out. Despite his lack of English skills, he was able to communicate via his open-hearted spirit.
What a festival of cultures and languages! Not essentialized, but harmonized. It was an expression of joyous humanity.
And there we found our God.
But now I think: was he from Albania or Afghanistan? Why do I not know these countries and their foreign flags? But does it matter?
His heart sparkled.
Reflections on the “13th International Festival of Languages and Culture”
“Colours of the world”
18 March 2015
Nelson Mandela Theatre, Braaamfontein, Johannesburg
Michael Anthony Samuel is a professor of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, School of Education, Durban, South Africa.