The sun shone through the branches of the trees surrounding the garden at the Oakland Museum of California. People had spread out blankets and gathered around a small stage in one corner of the garden. It was Friday evening, and a diverse crowd had gathered for “April Ful’s Night,” a communal meal during which visitors would reflect on the political events happening throughout the Middle East.
As part of the museum’s series “the Oakland Standard,” the event was designed to experiment with new ways in which the museum can engage with its audience. April Ful’s Night was about “combining cultural work with social dialogue,” Rene De Guzman, Senior Curator of Art, had told Oakland North in advance — the idea was to let the museum host a dinner during which people get to talk with each other, listen to a panel of experts on the Middle East and interact with Middle Eastern art and artists.
On the stage in the garden, seven panelists were preparing for their discussion while the exotic smell of “Ful,” Egypt’s national dish, was wafting over the garden. Anthony Sueuja, a volunteer, cooked mashed fava beans, the main ingredients of the dish, in a huge pot over an open flame. Meanwhile, numerous volunteers cut up roasted lamb, the side dish, on a big wooden countertop right next to the fireplace.
Later in the evening, dancers from the Zambaleta world music and dance school based in San Francisco would perform, and while people ate, the school’s founder, Mina Girgis told the crowd that he would like everyone to have a similar experience to what people had felt a couple of weeks ago on Tahrir Square in Egypt. “We want this to be a place where people who don’t know each other get to talk and find out what they have in common,” said Girgis.
A diverse group of seven panelists soon gathered on stage to share their views on the recent developments. The participants represented different generations and professions as well as cultural backgrounds, from recent university graduates to longstanding professors and business professionals, from former exchange students from the US to citizens of various countries of the Middle East.
Omar Dajani, a Palestinian law professor at the University of the Pacific who moderated the panel, said that the intention of the discussion on stage was to “begin a conversation rather than offer definite solutions.”
Following that approach, the panel covered a huge variety of topics connected to the uprisings in the Middle East: How is the situation currently in Egypt, Syria and Libya? What did it actually feel like to be in Tahrir Square during the revolution? What has been the role of the younger generation during the protests? Are we seeing a “Facebook revolution?” What connects the uprisings, and what differentiates them from each other?
After briefly touching upon these various topics, the panel moved on to hear comments and questions from the audience that addressed more controversial themes. One man in the audience wanted to know how the panelists felt about the recently established no-fly zone in Libya. US intervention in the area was brought up at this point. Panelists were keen to emphasize that they did not wish for a long-term involvement of US military forces in the Middle East.
While the panel continued its discussion, visitors could also discover attractions scattered around the garden. In one corner, students from Berkeley High School assisted visitors in making their own silkscreen prints emulating banners held up by the people in Egypt during the revolution. In another corner; people talked via a live Skype connection to artists based in Cairo.
Inside the museum, in the contemporary arts section, documentaries and online video clips relating to political conditions throughout the Middle East were playing, and spotlight tours of the galleries given by museum staff highlighted art and artifacts relating to historical struggles for independence.
Back outside, children played in front of a video installation by the Cairo-based artist Taha Bela. As the sun slowly set, the projected image of an Egyptian newspaper’s front page slowly gained in brightness, symbolizing the sunrise half way around the world in Egypt.
After an hour, the panel concluded its discussion and made way for members of multiple UC Berkeley student organizations. Among others, members of Students for Justice in Palestine addressed the crowd with remarks and poems related to the uprisings of the last weeks.
Then musicians and dancers from Zambaleta claimed the stage and started to interact with the crowd that gathered around the stage. Tim Fuson and Yassir Chadly played energetic Moroccan Gnawa music and a group of fifty people danced to their deep trance funk grooves.
As the musical performance drew to a close, the last visitors begin to pack up their blankets and wander towards the exit. But many of the night’s over 500 participants agreed that hosting a community conversation at the museum had gone well. “This is the best space to create dialogue and common ground,” said panelist Wafaa Aborashed, who is originally from Jordan.
“It feels good that the conversations are happening,” agreed event organizer Amanda Eicher.
De Guzman praised the panel for its diversity, and said he was glad that some of the most interesting conversational points were raised by the audience. “Everyone had a place in activating the space,” he said.
The next “Oakland Standard” event will deal with sheep and wool and will take place on June 19th. More information can be found on the museum’s website.