Alif Gallery: A Washington, DC Window on the Art of the Mideast

By Zalatimo, Dima | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 1991 | Go to article overview
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Alif Gallery: A Washington, DC Window on the Art of the Mideast


Zalatimo, Dima, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


A small gallery above bustling Georgetown in the heart of the national capital displays pieces of jewelry and crafts which capture the landscape and essence of the land of the Nile. The room is crowded; filled with Arabs, Arab Americans and American lovers of Arab culture who mingle a little, and browse a little. Waiters dressed in tuxedos offer wine and hors d'oeuvres. The sound flowing from the hand motions of a qannoun player are barely heard above the humming crowd. It is another opening night at the Alif Gallery.

Furthering Arab Culture in the US

Alif Gallery is the exhibition center and headquarters of the Arab American Cultural Foundation (AACF), which was established in 1978 to further greater understanding of Arab culture in the US. The Alif Gallery, named for the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, is the first non-profit organization of its kind in the United States. Since opening its doors in 1983 it has exhibited the work of more than 50 artists, such as Etel Adnan and Kamal Boullata, both prominent in Beirut before re-establishing themselves in Washington, DC. In the course of a year the Foundation normally presents seven art exhibits, hosts one book exhibition and sponsors two performing arts groups.

The Foundation also holds distribution rights for Washington, DC film producer Jo Franklin Trout's documentary "Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians." To acquaint the American public with the plight of the Palestinians, AACF makes the film available to public libraries and educational institutions.

In August 1989, the Foundation brought the renowned Jerusalem theater group El-Hakawati to Washington, DC, where the group presented "The Story of Kufr Shamma," a portrayal of the wanderings of Palestinians expelled from the fictitious village of Kufr Shamma in 1948, as representative of hundreds of actual Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel.

In November 1989, AACF sponsored highly successful performances of the San Francisco Mime Troupe at the Kennedy Center. For three nights the troupe depicted for packed audiences the dilemma of a Palestinian family whose home was to be blown up by Israeli soldiers in a West Bank village.

Among poets who have recited their poetry to Alif Gallery audiences are Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis and Samuel Hazo. Musical performers have included flutist Wisam Boustany and pianist Walid Howrani.

Lama Dajani, who has been AACF projects director for three years, emphasizes cosponsorshp of events with other local and national institutions in order to develop a broad-based audience.

In the summer of 1990, AACF and the Smithsonian Institution co-sponsored the Palestinian dance troupe Sabreen, which performed on the Mall in the nation's capital on July 4th. Dajani said AACF plans to introduce Arabic films in the Washington, DC International Film Festival this spring.

Arab Women in the Arts

In conjunction with the Feb. 18 national conference of the Women's Caucus for the Arts, an organization committed to educating the general public about the contribution of women and minorities to the arts, the Alif Gallery will focus its events in February, March and April on the works of Arab women artists. Alif, one of 50 galleries supporting the conference, will exhibit the paintings, sculptures, prints and jewelry of 12 Arab women artists. The exhibition will include the paintings of Lebanese artist Helen Khal and works by Paris-based Palestinian artist Joumana Husseini. The Gallery will also sponsor lectures and literary readings on the achievements of Arab women in the arts.

In May, the Foundation and the DC Public Libraries will co-sponsor an exhibition of books about the Arab world at the Martin Luther King Library.

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