Wendy Sternberg was thrilled when the organization she founded, Genesis at the Crossroads, was invited to perform at the eighth annual International Music Festival at Egypt’s Alexandria Library.
She looked forward to achieving the goals of her group, which seeks to bridge cultures in conflict through the arts and prides itself on stellar musicianship and cross-cultural dialogue. Genesis would present master classes to Egyptian musicians and help the Alexandria Library become an established site for Arm Them With Instruments, a program that provides donated musical instruments to war-torn areas. Genesis’s musical troupe, the Saffron Caravan, would close the festival with a piece written by Sherif Mohie Eldin, one of Egypt’s foremost modern composers.
The music festival is hosted annually in Egypt at the library, a major cultural institute built for $220 million in 2002 near the site of the original library of Alexander the Great to revive the ancient library’s symbolism of Egypt’s commitment to learning and world culture.
Yet, despite her dream of the festival as a perfect fit with Genesis’s aims, Sternberg pulled out on June 4, after her group was barred from performing in Hebrew and from describing the religious backgrounds of its members in festival literature.
The more she thinks about it, Sternberg says, the sadder she becomes.
“All of this beauty just never got off the ground,” she told the Forward. “Working together to make it happen got nipped in the bud when this whole issue of omitting religious references came about.”
Sternberg said Genesis was informed a year ago that performing songs in Hebrew would be viewed by the Egyptian public as an extension of a Zionist agenda.
“You can love music and not be a Zionist,” Sternberg said. “The arts are safe. To really embrace the diversity is our greatest asset.”
Even at that, the situation was acceptable but not desirable, Sternberg said. Though the group’s Jewish members were upset, GATC decided to replace Hebrew songs with others in Ladino and Arabic.
“I was extremely angry, actually, like, ‘Why waste my time talking about this?’” said Howard Levy, a Grammy-winning pianist and harmonica player and the Saffron Caravan’s musical director. The main point for his group, he said, is to have the cultures blend and merge.
The real trouble arose when Sternberg received an e-mail May 24, informing her that GATC would be required to eliminate biographical references to members’ religions. This meant that Alberto Mizrahi, cantor of Chicago’s historic Anshe Emet Synagogue, could not refer to himself as a hazan, and GATC could describe itself as comprising only “different musical trends,” not different religious backgrounds.
That demand, Sternberg says, struck at the core of her group’s purpose and identity.
When Sternberg asked American University Islamic studies professor Akbar Ahmed for advice, she said he told her, “Walk away.”
Ahmed told the Forward he reminded Sternberg that moderate Muslims must speak out for dialogue among the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“But if one party or another is not involved, the notion of an Abrahamic dialogue is not realized,” he said.
Sternberg outlined her position in a May 25 e-mail to five staff members of the Alexandria festival: GATC had accepted the restrictions on Hebrew songs out of respect for the current political climate, but would not agree to omit all religious references.
“We welcome a conversation with you to either further pursue this summer’s opportunity with you without diluting Genesis at the Crossroads’ mission and message, or to close this chapter without our involvement in your 2009 festival,” Sternberg wrote in the message.
Eldin’s reply came a few days later, Sternberg said, in just three words: “Thank you. Goodbye.”
Eldin was not in Alexandria at press time and could not be reached for comment.
Levy, who has performed openly as a Jew in Jordan, Syria and Morocco, was disappointed to be judged on his background and not on his musicianship.
The GATC saga is not the library’s first brush with controversy. Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni — a leading contender in the upcoming vote to determine the next head of UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural arm — told the Egyptian parliament in June 2008 that if Israeli books were found in Egypt’s acclaimed Alexandria Library, “I will burn them myself.”
Although GATC’s Alexandria Library saga has concluded, Sternberg said her mission may be stymied for at least a few months as she tries to regroup and move forward from a project she had concentrated on for 18 months.
Contact Alex Weisler at email@example.com
Alex Weisler, a former journalist and Forward Fellow, is the digital content guru at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).