Burning Our Cultural Bridges

Sometimes we’re just dumb.

Consider, for instance, the subject of visas. One of our goals in the war against terrorism is to “win the hearts and minds” of the “Arab street” and Muslims around the world. In other words, try to make them hate us a little less and perhaps even engender something akin to mutual respect. Then, hopefully, less of their young people will grow up wanting to achieve martyrdom by killing Americans.

So how do we go about this process of trying to ingratiate ourselves to young Muslims? Why, by insulting their cultural heroes, of course.

Take the shabby way our government treated Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, widely viewed as one of the greatest living filmmakers. Kiarostami was unable to attend the premier of his new movie, Ten, at the New York Film Festival, which began in late Sept., because he couldn’t get a visa to enter the U.S. in time.

His story is far from unique. Scores of artists and pop performers have fallen into this quagmire.

The difficulty grows out of the U.S. Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act, signed into law by the president May 14. Under the act (and related regulations created by the Bush administration), citizens of nations designated as “state sponsors of terrorism” -- currently Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Cuba -- are required to go through lengthy FBI and CIA background checks before receiving visas to enter the country. Citizens from 26 other undisclosed (but thought to be mostly Islamic) countries are subjected to a shorter mandatory waiting period.

Add to this the intensified scrutiny all visa applications are receiving in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and you have an obvious recipe for delay. The end result is that visas that once were issued in a few weeks can now take up to six months.

The idea, of course, is to prevent terrorists from entering the country, plainly a laudable goal. But the 62-year-old Kiarostami would seem an unlikely terrorist threat: An award-winning writer and director of 30 films, he has visited the U.S. seven times in the last 10 years. His 1997 film, Taste of Cherry, was the Palme D'Or winner at Cannes, and his latest film explores the lives of Iranian women living under an oppressive system. There was no indication he ever tried to blow up anything -- except, perhaps, a few cultural stereotypes.

And the snub wasn’t an oversight. Ines Aslan, a spokeswoman for the New York Film Festival, said festival organizers and others tried “very, very hard” to prevail on officials at the U.S. Embassy in Paris to make an exception for Kiarostami. Similar exceptions have been allowed in the past. But they hit a brick wall.

“It wasn’t that they could not make an exception,” she said. “It was that they did not choose to. It is very sad.”

Not surprisingly, this news wasn’t received well abroad. Jack Lang, a former French minister of education and culture, called it “intellectual isolationism and ... contempt for other cultures.” Aki Kaurismaki, a film director from Finland, boycotted the New York festival in protest. “If international cultural exchange is prevented,” he mused, “what is left? The exchange of arms?”

Other cultural figures who have been caught in the U.S. visa squeeze include Iranian pop diva Googoosh, who was forced to cancel a long scheduled concert, and 22 Cuban musicians prevented from attending the Latin Grammys; one of them, jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, won the Grammy for pop instrumental album.

One suspects that George W. Bush is no great lover of foreign language films, Persian pop music and Latin jazz. It probably doesn’t break his heart that cultural exchange, involving these and other art forms, has been hindered by the war on terrorism. But before he writes the whole thing off as soft-headed intellectual nonsense, he might want to talk to Norman Pattiz.

Pattiz is the creator of Radio Sawa, the U.S. government-sponsored Arabic-language broadcasting service. Broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week since its debut in March 2002, Radio Sawa -- which means “Radio Together” in Arabic -- has been hugely successful in attracting listeners in its under-30 target audience. Ha'aretz reports that it is the most listened-to radio station among young people in Jordan's capital, Amman. While the broadcasts include news reports, its popularity is generally attributed to its multi-cultural musical programming that allows listeners to hear their favorite Arab and Western performers in the same broadcasts.

The hope is that the station will improve America’s image among young Arabs. While testifying before the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations in June, Pattiz said, “There’s a media war going on (in the Middle East) and the weapons of that war include disinformation, incitement to violence, hate radio, government censorship and journalistic self-censorship. And the U.S. didn’t have a horse in the race.”

Whether Radio Sawa will be successful in improving America’s standing with young Arabs remains to be seen. But the willingness of the U.S. government to fund it, to the tune of $35 million in fiscal year 2002, demonstrates an awareness of the power of pop culture to help bridge cultural divides.

So why then are we using visa delays to burn down those bridges? Why, when we’re spending good money to promote cultural understanding in the Middle East, are we deliberately undercutting those efforts by belittling their cultural icons? This is not the way to win the hearts of their youth.

Think of it this way: How would Americans respond if another country announced that Steven Spielberg or Bruce Springsteen would have to sit out an awards ceremony so that background checks could be completed to make sure they weren’t terrorists? Would we think that reasonable? Would we assume that no insult was intended against the United States?

What makes this all so sad, of course, is that the problem could be fixed with modest efforts. Developing a system that expedites visa requests from performing artists and similar cultural figures, perhaps combined with some form of grandfather clause for those who have visited here in the past and who have already undergone background checks, would be a snap. And it wouldn’t harm homeland security one iota. But so far, at least, our government has refused to budge.

In a statement released to the press, New York Film Festival director Richard Pena summed it up this way: “It’s a terrible sign of what’s happening in this country today that no one seems to realize or care about the kind of negative signal this sends out to the entire Muslim world (not to mention to everyone else).”

Like I said before, sometimes we’re just dumb.

Steven C. Day is an attorney practicing in Wichita, Kansas.

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