Photo by Tara Aldughaither
Photo by Tara Aldughaither

From Muscat to Zenica

Tandem Shaml participant Tara Aldughaither (based in Muscat) went on her first placement to Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit her Tandem partner Lidija Pisker. Together, they are working on Maujeh/Može Project. Tara now shares her reflections following this visit.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is one of the most culturally diverse and richly historical countries in Europe, with 50% of the population identifying as Muslim.

BiH was considered a secular country where tolerance existed between the very diverse people of its land under Yugoslavia and communist rule. Following the 1992 civil war, both the city and people’s lives have been fractured. While aid from Arab Gulf countries have succeeded in supporting local armies on the front-line, the influence of Salafi (extremist) Islam also took place. Today, Arab Gulf-funded projects like mosques and shopping malls create controversial and xenophobic opinions towards Arab Muslims. It was important for me to challenge these views by presenting contemporary youth and Islamic presence from the region. It was sad to see that there wasn’t much Arab/Islamic cultural representation happening in the country as many people are curious about today’s Gulf citizens who frequent BiH for holidays.

Photo by Tara Aldughaither
Photo by Tara Aldughaither

In my two-week visit to BiH, a significant amount of perspective was gained. Besides facing the usual shock towards myself as a Saudi Arabian woman who is progressive, educated and liberal, I came to learn a lot about the intertwined Muslim and Arab historic identity differences between my home and Eastern Europe.

I consider myself lucky for having met actors, cultural activists, journalists, professors, café owners, waiters, bartenders, hairdressers and elderly people. It was difficult for me to learn that so many people have the same limited views about where I come from as do non-Muslim folks who view the region as an intolerable and shaky one. I wasn’t least to blame for knowing so little about BiH and its history. I also knew very little about its’ unique cultural and architectural heritage which was both rich and astonishing!

Photo by Tara Aldughaither
Photo by Tara Aldughaither

The ignorance from both sides made me realize that this was the goal of a cultural exchange program; to discover new places without judgment or dependency on mass-mediated messages; which often portrays a twisted story about the reality of any place. In this trip and through this program, having met and befriended Arab Muslims from other parts of the world, I was humbled to learn that all Muslim Arabs struggle with representing a holistic and healthy identity including every person’s social struggle in their given context. I felt responsible to shed light on the beauty of the Arab Gulf, especially Oman where I was living, in order to level the knowledge and build bridges and commonality between the beauty of both cultures. What better way to find commonality between places than to look at arts and culture?
While much of the artistic expression I saw in Sarajevo; museums, park sculptures, music festivals, had expressed survival and commemoration of war-time, Zenica, on the other hand, presented an entirely different story.

Zenica’s past communist industry of steel milling has left it as the most polluted city in all of Europe, although internet sources deny this, placing Sarajevo at the top of the polluted city list. This is not true, I can say from first-hand experience that Zenica is the most polluted city I’ve ever visited. After an hour of walking to my hostel one night, I entered my room to smell some sort of gas-like odor, only to find that it was carried to my room through my hair. My eyes and nose were also slightly burning.

The environmental and health issues were pressing, pushing myself and my partner Lidijia into many discussions regarding health care and awareness about sustainable action. I was shocked to learn how the corruption in the city council had led greedy investors from abroad to purchase the factories (which were once the sole source of income for the entire city inhabitants) and to irresponsibly mill without upholding environmental standards. This was appalling. Was nobody looking at this internationally?
The buildings that were built just before the war over twenty-five years ago, now host impoverished neighborhoods, where children play football on bare courts and community centers for the elderly run without heating.

Two years ago, a heavy and thick winter had caused the electricity in these mismanaged factories to shut off. People had no heating and were forced to bundle up in the city mall for body warmth to survive. Some elderly people passed away because of the harsh winter, and others became severely ill. Luckily Zenica’s new mayor had taken care of the heating issue yet others persist – issues that are dissimilar to my context of living and work.
There is a lot to say about the dysfunctionality of Zenica, but I will leave it to those who dare to visit. One would be surprised to see the many expressions of group solidarity through art, music and food in the city. It’s a place where citizens support one another because of the dire circumstances and shared struggles.

The strongest impressions and memories I have of this trip were made during the two nights spent listening to music at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival and the night at the National Theatre of Zenica in which I enjoyed the well-reputed contemporary play ‘Fabrika’. There were also subtle moments of interaction with fellow city dwellers which formed lasting impressions about the maturity, strength and complexity of BiH’s people. During walks I took in the two cities and serendipitous encounters, I interacted with people (who sometimes do not speak much English) without needing any introductions, and without feeling like we were strangers. The conversations were casual and pleasant, forming discourse regarding identity politics and proving the true intimacy of our new mass-mediated world.

I learned through my trip to BiH that many countries take advantage of after-war effects by keeping their hands (and thus their money) off of certain places where strong grips have caused damage. In many ways, this reflects the attitude of entitlement which general patriarchy exercises, passing on the damage to various individual and collective levels. It was an emotionally difficult project to work with considering my background and current state of affairs in the country. It’s also an organizationally challenging project seeing as BiH governments are so mistrusting of NGOs and charities, taking 20% of the funds we will receive from Tandem. The BiH banks also expressed to my project partner Lidija that sending any funds to me would count for terrorist suspicion, because of my identity. I think this was the most appalling and disturbing thing for me to have to encounter in the duration of this project and caused me to want to quit many times. However, at the same time, and with the support of such wonderful colleagues and organizing partners, I was driven to change the perspective the world has on Arab youth and our capabilities – even if on a small level of work.

On a personal and professional level, my presence as an Arab female cultural practitioner has been shown to come with great challenges and prompted me to re-think my communication strategies. Besides the experience of having met wonderful fellow humans in other parts of the world who do such inspiring work, I must admit that I do not like being asked to censor myself nor respond to mass-mediated messages of events that are beyond my capacity, which happened many times during this experience. I believe all these comments were reflections of the miscommunications across borders and people, and a clear example of why continuing cultural work is vital to a healthy future for our ever-shrinking map.

Cultural exchange programs like Tandem Shaml strongly highlight the importance of learning and listening. While individual voices are powerful, collective voices are louder and can have a hugely positive impact when singing the right songs of shared humanity. This is why I decided to produce a podcast to introduce Oman to BiH for this project. Learning that I could do that encourages me to refine my principles so that they are reflected in my voice. The experience has pushed me to take responsibility for my daily actions and learning. Some of the principles that manifested are compassion, response and not reaction, focus on the human aspect of communication, and comprehending the universally positive effects of art on all people. To be a cultural practitioner in this day and age is an opportunity to change the way culture is communicated on a mass scale and bring it to the small stories that matter yet is never shared in media.

Precisely because of the challenges faced, I would say this exchange program was an invaluable learning curve. It took a lot of faith and courage for me to explore a new place outside of my comfort zone during this phase in my life. The most important lesson is that of friendship; I truly couldn’t have had the same experience without Lidija – companions and friends are the most valuable assets in our lives – a necessary reminder.

The Maujeh Project connects artists and cultural practitioners from Oman to Bosnia and Herzegovina and vice versa, in an effort to establish a new wave of exchange and to support the creative economy in both countries.