Cultural Diplomacy and the "Oh, I Didn't Know That" Factor

Measuring success in cultural diplomacy -- the use of education, creative expression in any form, or people to people exchange to increase understanding across regions, cultures, or peoples -- is challenging. How does one quantify changes in attitude, abandoning stereotypes, or feeling empathy as a result of a performance, a film, a book?

One sure way is to observe the "Oh, I didn't know that" factor.

Take the exhibition of contemporary Emirati art on view at the UAE Embassy in Washington, and previewed at the UAE National Day celebration. Versions of "Oh, I didn't know that" could be heard again and again as guests discussed works ranging from digital art to sculpture to watercolor with the artists. Each work of art offers a personal interpretation of a traditional proverb. The artists do not shy away from sensitive subjects. In Ali Al Abdan's painting of a father showering his spoiled sons with money and luxury items, the artist confronts negative stereotypes associated with the wealth of the Gulf. His juxtaposition of a traditional Emirati village with modern symbols of wealth alludes to a common theme in many of the works: the clash -- or integration -- of old and new in the Emirates today.

Other works, such as a digital painting reflecting the proverb "When the soul/heart is broken, it will never be the same again," portray more universal themes, such as, here, betrayal in a relationship. In this case the "Oh, I didn't know that" factor comes from the artist herself, Sumayyah Al Suwaidi, a diminutive 30 year old mother of five who works full time at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH). The thoughtful combination of age-old proverbs with contemporary images and techniques reveals both the artistic talent within the UAE, and the issues challenging a society that is simultaneously engaging modernity and preserving its cultural heritage.

People in the United States desperately need the "Oh, I didn't know that" experience. At a time when borders are dissolving because of economic and virtual connections, the United States, with its insular education system and media (try to find news on international affairs if you live anywhere other than the East or West coast) is woefully unprepared. In addition to the Embassies in Washington, some American organizations are filling the gap through cultural exchange programs.

For example, the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) is teaming up with the Sundance Institute (which almost single-handedly has preserved and revived domestic and international independent film) to tour a collection of five American and five international independent films, plus their the film makers, to destinations in the US and abroad.

For audiences in cities such as Nashville or Jackson, Mississippi, Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue will introduce the daily lives of the people enduring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through films like Afghan Star and Son of Babylon. It is easy to imagine their response to learning that young Afghans compete as would-be entertainers on Afghan Star, a popular American Idol spin off, that draws a television audience of 11 million Afghan viewers (out of a population of 33 million): "Oh, I didn't know that." People who before were an anonymous enemy at worst, or an oppressed population at best, become suddenly humanized as we know more about them. America's engagement in Afghanistan might begin to be understood a little better by learning about the people it impacts. Similarly, foreign audiences might be surprised by the chilling images of rural white poverty in America captured in Winter's Bone.

A non-profit organization I co-direct, MOST Resource, creates opportunities for the "Oh, I didn't know that" response from television and film writers, researchers, and producers. MOST provides information -- at no cost -- on any and everything related to Muslims, Islam, and the Middle East with the goal of facilitating the development of more balanced, nuanced characters and themes related to Muslims and Islam. By providing content creators with access to research and experts, MOST hopes to facilitate the kind of normalization of people and themes from the Middle East or other Muslim majority regions that exposure through popular culture has brought about over time for African Americans, or gays and lesbians.

For those who ask, "Does it really matter how people are portrayed in film and on television," we now have data that speaks for itself. According to the most recent Gallup poll on Muslim-West relations Assessing the New Beginning, 49% of respondents from the Middle East identified the "accurate portrayal of Muslims in films" as a key indicator of respect for Muslims and Islam by the west. Read in the reverse, films and programs that misrepresent these people don't make us any friends. And, the majority of Muslims polled around the world have identified greater respect for Muslims and Islam as essential to improving relations between the west and Muslim majority communities.

In a globalized world where the powers of military might and diplomatic finesse have diminished, "Oh, I didn't know that" moments of cross cultural understanding can make a difference.