East-West: The Art of Dialogue is an exchange initiative set up by leading Egyptian investor and philanthropist, Shafik Gabr, to try and endorse greater cultural understanding between the Middle East and the West. It is a programme designed to send emerging young leaders in the art, science, law, media and social and business entrepreneurship world to meet and collaborate with one another initially situated in the United States, and then again in Egypt. It is through this, Gabr believes, that respect for cultural differences will emerge and lifelong friendships and business relationships made. These ‘Gabr Fellows’, the twenty successful applicants, will attend seminars and visit sites of important social, economic and cultural ignificance in both countries, and will be in the fortunate position of being able to collaborate with influential speakers from the wider political spectrum of these nations. In conclusion to their visits, the Fellows will be obliged to develop projects that will give back valuable aspects of their experiences to their wider community, sharing experiences, knowledge, and promoting this incredible opportunity to their peers.
In many ways, this is precisely what Shafik Gabr himself is doing by establishing this exchange programme. As a child born and raised in Egypt, Gabr was given his last allowance from his father aged 16 and henceforth used his entrepreneurial spirit set up a messaging business around Cairo in order to raise funds to travel. $148 later, Gabr took the opportunity to travel to Europe, and it was through this that he considers becoming more culturally aware and understanding of global values. As he grew more successful he developed a passion for Orientalist art, leading him to buy his first painting in 1993 – the beginnings of what is now his extensive collection. It is this that brings the ideology behind this initiative full circle. Gabr was fascinated by Western painters and captivated by why exactly they went to great lengths to travel to his part of the globe to create these masterful paintings. To him, they are a symbol of a time when cultural exchange was possible without fear of prejudice, and of a time with fewer barriers to ethnic integration. He comments that in a day and age where communication has never been easier and more prevalent, particularly with the emergence of social media, the East and the West have never been so deprived at understanding each other. But instead of simply observing this, Gabr wants to make a change. And it is through this exchange programme that he wants to provide tomorrow’s leaders and policy-makers with the opportunity to build a more peaceful world through greater social understandings of each other.
A conference celebrating the launch of this programme was held last week in London, and perhaps a little controversially, was headlined by a conversation with ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Under deeper consideration, however, one realises that it is exactly this sort of dialogue that Gabr is trying to promote within the international community. We have to try and understand one another, irrespective of our differences. “I’ve invited him even though I didn’t agree with him over Iraq. But we have to engage, even with those we disagree with,” Mr Gabr says. He is right, and despite any previous opinions on Blair as a public figure, anyone sitting in on his speech would agree that it was a captivating one. From his own experiences he highlighted the need for greater levels of one to one interaction between Eastern and Western individuals, but at the same time communicated the difficulties involved with getting the two sides with such opposing views to talk to each other. Choosing the Israel-Palestine conflict as an example, Blair accentuated the need to make the prospect of peace a feasible one. According to him, and especially at this current time when tensions between the two states are fierce, Israel believes that Palestine is not serious about a peaceful resolution and Palestine remains feeling like the underdog, their situation hopeless and futile. Without belief on either side in the realistic prospect of peace, how can constructive negotiation be organised?
But Blair points out that the underlying conclusion for a path forward should not be one as ambiguous as it is made out to be. Open-mindedness is crucial and the absence of it is leading to turmoil and demolition, exemplified perfectly by the civil conflict in Syria. But it is only through education and initiatives such as this that
open-mindedness can be achieved. And so it is on this note that I urge anyone with an interest in the field to go forward and research this opportunity. If you are aged between 24 and 30 and have a desire to change the world, I cannot think of a more exciting opportunity.
Further details on East-West: The Art of Dialogue can be found on www.eastwestdialogue.org, Spread the word.
Words: Paniz Gederi Photo:© ArtLyst 2012