Khaleeji Museology - Identity and Practice by Noora S. Al Balushi
Our destiny is one,
And our people are one
I am the Khaleeji,
I am the Khaleeji
And I am proud to be Khaleeji
The fluid, flexible and evolving nature of the Khaleeji identity creates a “hybrid cultural form” (Al Mulla, 2017), one that will be important in understanding the trajectory of Gulf museum practices. Directly translating to “of the Gulf” (Abdulla, 2016) or “Gulfie” (Al Misned, 2016), the identity of being ‘the Khaleeji’ had only begun to take its contemporary shape in the 1980’s. The song lyrics above are from a song titled “Our Khaleej is One” which was first performed in 1984 during the Gulf Cooperation Council’s conference (Majlis Al Ta’awun Al-Khaleeji) in Kuwait. At the time, the song had touched the hearts of many. It spoke of destiny, of God’s will, and played on the note of collective pride. As opposed to Arab Nationalism that had based itself on left-wing, anti-monarchical sentiments (Peterson, 2016), to be part of a Khaleeji collective held a more local, sentimental value that people from a more hierarchical, tribal culture relate to. The hereditary and tribal nature of relations in the southern Arabian Peninsula meant that the majority of tribes in the region had intermarried and established alliances that connected them on a more familiar and familial level. The pride in being Khaleeji was thus equally, and easily shared.
The song today could be described as a regional anthem, one that would be played on all state televisions and radios in celebration of, and often as a musical backdrop to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) events or meetings. It also became the symbol for what emerged as a specific artistic ‘Khaleeji’ genre that reached its “golden age” in the 80’s (Al Misyan, 2016). The Khaleeji song, as a genre, manifests itself not only through its rhythms, but also through the deep political and social connotations that are reflected in the lyrics. Those who have worked on the early Khaleeji songs, were known as its “engineers”. This reflects modifications many of the newly written songs as well as the renditions of older folk songs had undergone to fit the Khaleeji listener, and subsequently their perception of themselves. They are pro-Khaleej, using dances, singing styles, and even common colloquial terms that have been homogenized to reflect a mostly imagined Khaleeji identity; the stress is on the term ‘mostly’ because, despite the contemporary emergence of the term, the identity of the Khaleeji is not created from scratch. In reading on the history of the area, specifically on the countries that constitute the GCC, there has been a constant, natural migration pattern all around the region due to environmental, political, religious and social reasons. Since most of the connections between the GCC populations are based on the intermarriage of the tribes, one would find that marital laws in most GCC countries even today, though strict about laws on marriage to non-citizens, place no legal obstacles in marriages between members of the GCC countries, an example is my country Oman(Royal Decree 1985/39). In the recent blockade on Qatar, the main problem facing GCC populations was the fact that many people from across the GCC had taken Qatari husbands and wives. This social exchange in the GCC is what determines many of its politics today. The artists in the GCC, especially those having emerged during the 1980’s and grown up with ‘Khaleejiness’, have begun to connect with their peers across the region to create independent culture and art projects and collaborations to encourage participation and artistic expression. Through the arts, the adherence to the political boycott of any country cannot be controlled.
Figure 1. At Stal Gallery’s Exhibition “Young Emerging Artists” Exhibition in January 2018, Omani artist Mazin Al Harthi’s work titled “Division” was inspired by the Pangea theory as he illustrates the political tensions in the Gulf Cooperation Union following the Qatar Blockade. The artwork depicts the slow but substantial effect of the tensions on the region’s relations. Photo taken by the Author.
The Khaleeji identity has been reclaimed, shifted, and transformed into a more cultural and artistic meaning, rather than a political one. To understand such practices, the example of Stal Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Oman, may be an important way to describe the connection between the artwork, the wall label, and the personal presence of the artist (Figure. 1). As many of the artists are ones who could be described as having more hybridized Khaleeji identities, their presence between the western gallery practices and their own traditional oral culture has led to the allocation of specific days during the exhibition where the artists would be within the exhibition to describe their work and discuss with visitors. This has made their art more accessible, and contemporary art in general appealing to a wider audience. Based on this, it is important to move beyond the approach of collections being “organized into categories and taxonomies that order knowledge scientifically” (Exell, 2016) and begin to incorporate local knowledge and views.
At Stal Gallery’s Exhibition “Young Emerging Artists” Exhibition in January 2018, Omani artist Mazin Al Harthi’s work titled “Division” was inspired by the Pangea theory as he illustrates the political tensions in the Gulf Cooperation Union following the Qatar Blockade. The artwork depicts the slow but substantial effect of the tensions on the region’s relations.
The importance of using the term Khaleeji, instead of the term Gulf, was initially based on the constant switch between the terms ‘Arabian Gulf’ and ‘Persian Gulf’ in the keywords I had used to read on the region’s museological practices. In creating a uniform phrase, future studies could also be more easily accessible, as the term will be able to sync and be adapted into the study of Khaleeji Identity, as well as the new, unofficial term currently being used by anthropologists and researchers in the GCC, which is Khaleeji Studies. In addition to that, the term may be expanded to include museological practices in Iran and Iraq. As we move away from the term ‘Arabian/Persian Gulf’, a more inclusive description of the practice may be attained. Despite Iraq and Iran legally and politically being excluded from the GCC, the historical, social and environmental interactions inevitably shape cultural practices in the region. In the National Museum of Oman, examples of Irani cultural practices, the Persian language, and the presence of ethnic minorities in Oman that have originated from Iran are evident in its galleries. As politically charged as the term Khaleeji is, there is the hope that the term Khaleeji Museology would follow the steps of those who reclaimed the term Khaleeji in the sphere of culture and arts where the top-down influences may be negotiated and challenged, and the political borders may be crossed.
It is also important to expect that when a western cultural institution opens in an eastern context, the practices connected to it will inevitably change and evolve and understanding these changes will help in picturing the future of museums in the region. Many of the current views on the presence of global museums in the Gulf, though, have been highly critical. In their protests regarding the opening of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Gulf Labor coalition usually expressed their objection on the basis of the human right violations of the labor workers building the museums. These criticisms, though, are always accompanied by tapping into what the members of the coalition believe to be an anticipated lack in freedom of expression within museums in the Gulf, alluding to a perceived notion in the West that Khaleeji culture limits artistic expression. In their open letter to the Louvre in 2015, Gulf Labor Artist Coalition question this freedom and ask: “As the first international cultural institution set to open on Saadiyat, does the Louvre have a set of ethical guidelines (beyond TDIC’s EPP document) that will relate to freedom of expression concerns [...]?” (GLAC, 2015)There is an understanding that conservatism in the Gulf region will compromise western ideals, ideals that are built on freedom of speech and expression, especially through the arts.
In a talk at EXPO Chicago in 2017, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation was asked at the end of her talk about how Emirati culture would “interfere” with art (Al Qasimi, 2017). The posed question highlighted the idea that culture in the Khaleej may compromise and even interfere with art has been raised numerous times, not only from western thinkers, artists and academics, but also by Arab thinkers in North Africa and the Levant. The museum, as an institution, is judged as being jeopardized by Gulf Arab conservatism, and any progress the region has in the arts is described as being the product of “money and absolute monarchs”, basing itself on the belief that the Gulf region is a tabula rasa where culture, specifically western culture, is imported and appropriated (Derderian, 2017). In his op-ed regarding this matter, Emirati artist Mohammed Fairouz explains how such an idea takes away from artistic expression and reduces artists in the Khaleej to being products of oil money, discrediting their personal achievements in the arts (Fairouz, 2017). To many artists in the Khaleej, refuting such claims is important. The constant discussion on Gulf museums’ diversion from the western context has taken away from delving into the existing forms of display, and the focus on the fate of western museological practices in the Gulf has interfered with realizing the extent in which the geographical and cultural context has already transformed them.
In American popular culture, the general character representing the Arab man in Hollywood movies as the wealthy businessman is usually the Khaleeji. A long white garb and a headdress tied with a black band are the main traditional clothes of southern Arabia and people of the GCC, not of people from the Levant, nor from North Africa. The negative portrayal of the rich, yet backwards Khaleeji is not only a Hollywood stereotype, but one that manifests itself in the rest of the Arab region as well. To many in the Arab world, the Khaleeji man or woman are desert dwellers who have only accidentally found themselves in a position of authority due to the discovery of oil. Despite the truth in the sudden wealth, the negative association between the recent wealth and the lack of genuine ‘culture’ also permeates this idea about the Khaleeji remaining boorish and uncultured. In response to the author Yousuf Zidane’s lecture in Oman where he indirectly spoke of this notion, Omani writer Huda Hamad shared that “Arabic drama and writing still portray the Khaleeji as someone with a large belly and pockets full of money, a futile creature running only after bodily pleasures.” (Hamam, 2015). The binary Khaleeji/non- Khaleeji or Khaleeji/Northern Arab has become a regular form of identification creating a distinction in many aspects of culture and the arts, with the Khaleeji being part of the society on the periphery, slowly catching up, thanks to oil money, with the central, artistically advanced Northern Arab cultures.
The theory of the Periphery and the Center is one that the Omani author Sulaiman Al Ma’mari finds important in explaining how Khaleeji culture is perceived by non-Khaleejis. In a conversation with the author, he explains that “there is a theory in Arab culture based on the famous phrase ‘Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads’ in that these three capitals, along with Damascus, are considered centers of Arab culture. While other capitals such as the Gulf capitals and some Maghreb countries are on the peripheries.” To the author, this outlook is not far from Orientalism, and is indeed based on it. In 1994, the Omani author and cinema critic Abdullah Habib had coined the term ‘Istikhlaaj’ (Khaleejism), a sub-branch of Orientalism that is a form of prejudice especially directed towards those living in the Khaleej (Hamam, 2015). This Khaleejism may then explain the particularly critical outlook towards art movements as well as museology in the Gulf.
Aside to Khaleejism, the transformation of the Khaleeji identity in the 2000’s has also raised criticism from the Khaleejis themselves towards those who were raised within a hybrid, multilingual environment affected by an Anglo-Saxon historical presence and its effect on education. A couple of years back, a friend was called, in a derogatory fashion, a ‘chicken nugget’. Humorous at first, it was in that discussion that the phrase’s connotation was clear and understood. To follow the history of the term ‘chicken nugget’ as it appeared in the GCC, one must speak of the place from which it was first introduced to the Khaleeji populations: McDonalds.
The first McDonalds in the GCC opened in Kuwait in 1994. It was opened on a U.S army base to cater to the needs of soldiers in the region for the 1991 invasion of Iraq (VICE, 2018). As with the presence of the museum, the presence of American fast food chains like McDonalds had suggested the city was connected to a global network. To eat chicken nuggets instead of the traditional chicken on rice was a sign of status. In the case of my very Khaleeji friend, calling her a ‘chicken nugget’ meant that she was, according to her description “brown from the outside, and white from the inside.” A description that points to her appearance being Arab, while her core, whether her beliefs or ideologies, being western. She was part of the ever- increasing group of Khaleejis who mixed English with Arabic, who used arabized versions of English verbs, i.e. a’charge telefoni (I charge my phone) instead of the Arabic verb ash’ḥen (to charge), a group who attended the ever-increasing international schools that taught the basics in English rather than Arabic. As (Al Misned, 2016) describes it, it is “the phenomenon of the ‘third culture kid’ [which is prevailing] among our children.” In her opinion, it was a result of the western, bilingual educational institutions that were established in the region. A notion that may be carried across to the museum, an equally western institution that will inevitably influence the region’s culture and identity. She continues to describe the threat of “external influences and government pressures” exerted on the concept of heritage and how that would in turn affect Khaleeji identity. This correlates with the concepts of ‘al-ghazu al-thaqafi wa al-fikri’ translated as ‘cultural and intellectual invasion’ from the west (Botz-Bornstein & Hengelbrock, 2006) that are constantly used in the GCC by previous generations to describe the practices of the post-80’s generation, the same generation that was conditioned into the Khaleeji Identity. The same generation that tries hard to legitimize its thoughts, creativity, and its artistic expression to be accepted by the global art community without being hindered by the ever-criticized Khaleeji identity.
According to (Abdulla, 2016), the Khaleeji identity holds significant potential at “[opening] avenues to constructive approaches to the politics of the Gulf” and has “remained an under-theorized term [due to the] overriding influence of oil on the conceptualization of the politics of the Gulf.” In his opinion, the Khaleeji identity is important to be considered “in any project of regional integration in the Gulf.” As the ‘museum boom’ the in GCC continues, and as the collaborations and exchanges between museums in the region increase, with an example of a treasure from the National Museum of Oman on loan at the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Taha, 2017), and art galleries curating joint GCC art exhibitions and shows, an understanding of such an identity in contemporary cultural practices is vital. (Abdulla, 2016)
Noora S. Al Balushi is a researcher from Muscat. Having been raised in a city that combined the native Arab culture, a deep East African presence, and the ancient presence of the Baluch and the Lawati Khoja led to an interest in exploring the notion of identity locally and in the region, and how such identities are shaped by language, beliefs, political history and the environment. Noora is currently Head of Exhibitions at the National Museum of Oman.
This essay is based on the author’s unpublished research titled Representing Women and People with Disabilities at the National Museum in Oman where she attempts to set the foundations for what would be labelled ‘Khaleeji Museology’, museological practices specific to the Khaleej (Arabian Gulf/Persian Gulf Region) as the Arabic phrase is utilized to politically neutralize the term while viewing the various ways through which historically Eurocentric museological practices remain in constant conversation with local cultural practices. If you would like to know more you can reach them via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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