Greek philosopher Socrates had asked a question and its impact continues centuries later: “How should one live?” This question requires contemplating in ourselves as individuals, so that we are able to change ourselves.
Anthropologists ask a similar question: “How do we live together?” This leads to plenty and various problems: It’s not about who I am, but who are we? It’s not what should I generally do but how are we connected to each other? It’s not what should have we done but what has happened?
These were the comments of Michael Carrithers in his book entitled Why Humans Have Culture? With that in mind, we ask: How can we as Saudis chart the course for the future of our culture?
Shift in the field of culture
It is an important change that the cultural domain is undergoing with the establishment of an independent ministry, supervised by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud. Literary and cultural institutions have long been lost among ministries— an example of this is that literary clubs have remained under the General Presidency of Youth Welfare until 2003 before getting merged with the Ministry of Culture and Information.
For a long time, literary clubs and cultural institutions did not receive a great interest. For 30 years, the attention was on taking one stream that almost controlled even cultural institutions, watching over literary clubs and intervening in the cancellation of certain activities and the scheduling of others.
I have personally witnessed this in experiences related to lectures that I participated in or attended and to cancelling readings of intellectuals and writers.
The official approach to bringing victories to culture has been weak and biased to a movement against another. Nevertheless, it was more suitable to allow space for free ideas to run independent in society so that modern theories, contemporary approaches and different scientific revolutions can find their way to many cultural institutions and clubs. This may be a turning point where Saudi Arabia can take crucial steps toward its leading cultural course.
Strategy for revival of culture
In 1938, Taha Hussain asked himself and contemplated with Egyptians about the "Future of culture in Egypt," which is the title of his small booklet. On account of its harsh content, the book still raises questions about it. As known, the book came out under a specific set of circumstance after the 1936 treaty between Egypt and the United Kingdom. This burning flame was the reason that pushed the writer to ask this question. He wished Egypt to take on the Western civilization in the realm of philosophy, science (physical and medical breakthroughs) at an early stage instead of following the civilizations of Eastern sorcery. He also talked about Egypt's scientific history and its influence on Greece, and how even if Egypt falls within the Arab culture, it has a closer historical connection to Greece and Italy.
What we hope for is setting up a strategy for the future of culture in Saudi Arabia far from the intention of cloning a specific experience or giving up on the basic values of the society or defying the society and its principles. Instead, the aim is to put in place general ideas that constitute the future cultural approach.Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
The goal of asking this question is to study the future of culture in Egypt and to devise a general path that’s related to resolving the vision regarding the history of Egypt and its culture and civilization.
This made classical writers go riotous. In 1978, Abu Fahr Mahmoud Shaker responded to Taha Hussein by writing A Message On The Road to our Culture, included in the third edition of his book Al-Mutanabbi in which he denounced the modern literary approaches in Egypt, including what Taha Hussein called for.
What we hope for is setting up a strategy for the future of culture in Saudi Arabia far from the intention of cloning a specific experience or giving up on the basic values of the society or defying the society and its principles. Instead, the aim is to put in place general ideas that constitute the future cultural approach. This calls for a number of bases mainly by taking interest in the freedom of thought of Saudi intellectuals and writers, instead of the intimidation practiced by extremist movements, and opening the way for all cultural institutions to put to the table knowledge, cultural and philosophy issues, in the context of a respectful scientific debate and a strict dialogue management. The intention is not to make these institutions follow one single cultural stream but to leave the platforms for the intellectuals and the conflicting views between modernism and classicism. This is the task of the governmental institution, to not be a part of the conflict but to leave the room for ideas and arguments, and it is up for the audience to choose what they are convinced by.
Popularizing high culture
The functions of cultural institutions include spreading the questions that promote thinking and provoke cultural recession in society, in order to move from one stage to another and progress towards a civic life based on individuality, the rule of law and respect for others. These are missions that need administrators to make cultural institutions attractive for all generations, rather than limiting these institutions to intellectuals who lend their time and years to talk about intertextuality, prose poetry or vernacular poetry.
It is important to initiate civil approaches, defuse the dispute with the West in particular, normalize the discipline of philosophy and not feel fear or angst against modern theories and different literary and scientific orientations. This is an important cultural approach for Saudi Arabia and it is in accordance with the major transformations led by the visionary Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The future of Saudi culture has to follow in parallel in the same speed and course with the various major enlightening developments witnessed by the Kingdom.
Herscovitch said: “Culture is static, but it is also dynamic, it is in constant ongoing change.”
This article is also available in Arabic.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.