"II feel danger", announced the Cairo-based theatre director and playwright, Ahmed Al Attar. "I have always been an optimist, but now I am frightened." In late December, the British Council convened a debate at the Southbank Centre examining the role the arts and artists are playing in the social and political upheavals of the Arab world. We wanted to ask how, and if, the arts sector in the UK should respond; it was the result of research undertaken by Professor Sultan Barakat, Director of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York on arts and social change in the region.
From the research, we extrapolated a report, Voices of the People, which we hope will stimulate more collaboration in the arts and creative industries between the UK and the region. Our objective is to use this report as an action plan, in partnership with the UK arts sector and artists from the Middle East. A piece of cultural diplomacy if you like, but not on the traditional model of a simple export of arts and artists from the UK.
I was struck by several things during the course of the day: our Arab friends grasped fully the importance of a healthy cultural sector in rebuilding societies where, for so many, injustice, inequality, poverty, corruption and repression have long been the norm. They also understood the need to get the arts beyond the core elites into the wider community and the public space. They are hungry for their compatriots to have the freedoms of expression that we take for granted in Europe. Al Attar again: "In the days of Mubarak, people forgot how to talk to each other. Discourse around the table was reduced to abstract generality, like an Ionesco play." But he and his colleagues are equally keen to be seen as artists and not merely as social activists: "Yes the arts can make a difference, but we are keen to be seen and heard for our artistic expression, as professionals."
From the UK side, there was a palpable desire to engage but a relative lack of known networks in the region. That is probably the single most valuable service we at the British Council can offer all our friends – with our arts network in the region and our links to the UK arts scene, to make the connections, to support emerging artist development, to build bridges, to foster new initiatives in region with partnerships in the UK, and (a demand wherever I go) to build capacity, skills and expertise using UK experience. Not forgetting talking to governments, even the more conservative ones, about the role and value of culture in their newly reshaped nations.
This isn't some exercise in imposing Western operating models, but in genuine enablement and assistance, as well as a spirit of artistic exploration in a region rich both in heritage and new ideas. For example, we heard of an independent Palestinian/UK enterprise that's set up an annual music and arts festival in Gaza from 2014: that would be a positive and inspiring story from a region not renowned for its positive stories.
One can only hope that the Arab Spring remains a Spring, and doesn't turn to Winter, that our office in Damascus can open again, as we were able to reopen in Libya, and that new governments of all persuasions in the region will forge a vision for culture in their countries, recognising the potency of the arts and creative industries in helping to build a stable society, to create employment, to enrich the lives of their citizens, and to define a new and positive national identity. The fear of people like Ahmed Al-Attar is that self-censorship, or worse, will return.
Graham Sheffield is director of arts at the British Council