▲ The Algerian folk music group, Fingers of Peace, performing an energetic song as the dancers display their sword fighting skills. Photo by Darryl Coote
Insha’Allah, an Arabic word that means “God willing,” was often heard in the halls of the Seolmundae Women’s Center in Shin Jeju on May 5 as dignitaries from Korea, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates welcomed attendees during the third annual Arab Cultural Festival hosted by the Korean-Arab Society. The event was a first for KAS as in previous years the event was held exclusively in Seoul.
“Other people besides those in Seoul do not get to see Arab culture,” said Kim Hyejung, assistant director of the Korean-Arab society. “Personally, I’m happy to hold this festival, especially in Jeju, because I know that it is not easy for people in Jeju to see Arab culture.”
KAS, a government run organization founded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2008, aims to be the cultural exchange extension of Korea’s diplomatic relations with Arab countries, Kim said. Currently, KAS is comprised of 22 Arabic countries, though only Algeria and the UAE were able to attend the festival in Jeju, and 15 Korean companies.
Jeju is the only local government body affiliated with the foundation.
The festival began at noon in the lobby of the women’s center with henna tattoos drawn on the hands and forearms of excited children, who eagerly showed off their ornamented skin to anyone who passed. Representatives from Algeria and the UAE intermingled with Jeju locals, pressing palms and presenting, for many, their first genuine exposure to Middle Eastern culture.
▲ Pounding out a traditional Arabic rhythm, the UAE troupe entertains at the third annual Arab Cultural festival. Photo by Darryl Coote
During the festival it quickly became apparent that this was not only a cultural exchange but also a celebration of important milestones. “Today, we are celebrating our 20th… birthday of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korean and Algeria,” said Zinou, a member of the Ministry of Culture for Algeria. This celebration also marked 30 years of partnership between Korean and the UAE, who distributed commemorative pins with the countries’ flags joined by the number 30.
Over the past five years, Korea’s economic relationship with the two countries has grown significantly. Hocine Sahraoui, the ambassador from Algeria, said that since 2006, trade with Korea has grown from $500 million to $2.5 billion a year, making Korea one of the top 10 Algerian business partners. Abdulla Mohammed Al-Maainah, the UAE ambassador, noted during his opening speech the importance of Korea’s involvement in constructing nuclear power plants in his country as one example of their solidarity.
Though economic prosperity is an important aspect of diplomatic relationships, Sahraoui emphasized that no bond can be complete without cultural understanding. “Of course the trade is good,” he said, “but if we want to see two people sharing their culture, their minds, they have to have a curiosity of the two cultures. This, I think, completes the relation between the two peoples.”
Sahraoui estimated that only 15 Algerians currently live in Korea, most as students, and this is a number he wishes to increase. “I hope to see Algerian restaurants, Algerian traders here; Algerian societies here,” he said. “I hope to see an Algerian community here and I hope to see a Korean community in Algeria.”
The manifestation of this endeavor to share cultural identities was what most present at the festival were there to see in the form of a 90-minute dance and folk music performance. In fact more people than expected arrived, filling the 400 theater seats and forcing latecomers to lean against walls or perch in the aisles.
The UAE performers took to the stage first dressed in traditional Arabic garb and performed songs that commemorated their history and beliefs. The dancing was beautifully choreographed and the music, which relied mainly on vocals with harmonies, was filled with energy. The UAE troupe then performed a wide range of music, some of which required the entire ensemble onstage, while others only needed two drummers and a man playing an instrument that resembled bagpipes but sounded more like a flute. At one point during the performance, all the children in the audience were invited onstage to dance with the performers, which roused cheers of encouragement from the audience.
▲ Photo by Darryl Coote
After a short intermission, the Algerian dance troupe, Fingers of Peace, gave a frenetic performance against a simple set that portrayed a camp fire in the Sahara Desert. Out of the troupe’s 35 performers, the best eight were chosen to participate in the event, Zinou said. Of that eight, two were solely dancers and mimicked sword fighting during one of the songs, in which their sharp movements caused their long, flowing garments to billow. It was a dramatic sight to see, full of color and impassioned singing.
The Jeju event was only the beginning of the Arab Cultural Festival that will continue until May 24 in Seoul, where groups representing Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait will perform.
Kim said that the other participating countries were unable to perform in Jeju due to KAS’s tight budget, but she hopes that Jeju will have the opportunity to host more groups next year. Insha’Allah.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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