“The West Asia – North Africa (WANA) Forum is a non-governmental, civil society initiative, voluntary in nature, which brings together regional stakeholders from different backgrounds to work towards addressing social, environmental and economic issues facing the peoples of the region.”
The 4th WANA Forum took place on the 29th and 30th of May-2012. The theme: Identity. My skeptical persona shines brighter than ever at times like these and I like to see what things are all about. The event had several panels on Identity and several sessions from “Region in transition and the concept of identity” to “Identity and religion” , “Identity and social cohesion”, “Multi-layered identity”, “Identity and the environment” and a few others. The speakers were from all over the world as were the 150 attendees whom stayed at the Kempinski for the duration of the forum.
The familiar faces were very few, Prince Hassan Bin Talal (Chairman of the Forum), the all too precious Munir Fasheh, Aroub Soubh, Dima Khatib and Raghda Butros. Other than that, to me and I suppose most of us here in Jordan, the rest of the faces and names were very foreign and new. People from Taiwan, Tajikistan, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Malaysia, Bangladesh and a few other countries where speakers. They do not represent the West Asia and the North Africa region the Forum is entirely about, nor do they relate in any way to ‘our’ identity. I’m not sure to what identity the forum was entirely about because it was not in Arabic either. Many Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese and in general Arab speakers spoke in English although there was live translation for foreigners and as far as I recall only 3 speakers insisted on speaking in Arabic connecting their language to their identity. I’m not personally one that is too hung up on the language issue (Hello, i’m writing in English) but I found it a bit interesting that a forum on identity took place when the only things that were identity related were the couple of Indian sari’s, the Omani dishdasha and a Palestinian embroidered dress the attendees/speakers wore. The event was closed to mostly international invited high profile/active individuals from the public, private and civil society sectors around the entire world.
The talks were very varied, many were mostly introduction pieces about the area/background the speaker was from and were mainly not too deep or related to the idea of identity but to the identity of the speakers themselves. I personally expected things to be more on an intellectual level than on an introductory level between different backgrounds.
One of the talks I found most interesting was that of ArabNet founder Omar Christidis on “Identity and social communication”, who went through several quotes that introduced perspectives on identity related issues. He mentioned transitions in identity, how some movements/events challenge our identity and turn us from mere observers or an audience to an agent of change in which identity is redefined into something that we sense we belong to considering we took part in its creation. He talked about altered expectations and about events that get mixed up with their own causes and get linked over time and space to create shared narratives and stories, and eventually identities. He mentioned the ‘arab spring’ but his talk unlike many others did not speak about him or his experience but more about his thoughts which was certainly admirable.
Another was Munir Fasheh’s talk entitled “Identity: A modern invention.” Fasheh connected Identity to our knowledge about ourselves and our lives and to the wisdom gained through our daily life and interactions and not from talks and discussions and dialogue on identity itself. In the war of حوار vs. جوار Fasheh repeats in many of his talks, ‘jiwar’ or neighboring wins every single time over good old dialogue -the concept of the forum itself.
Lebanese Ziad El-Sayegh was one of the most well ordered and straight to the point speakers. He also separated his talk from his own background and story. He talked about “The minority illusion”, how being a minority is more about mentality and perception than about truth and facts. “The distention of the majority”, when the majority ensures its right at full governance and the exclusion of any partnership or pluralism. “The sagging of the Liberals” and “The fragility of social, economic and political justice.” His talk concentrated on the civil state, values and citizenship as an identity.
Kurdish Bakhtiar Amin from Iran talked about “The Kurdish Identity: From Denial to Digitalization.” His talk indirectly made it clear that our identity as Arabs is a collage that is very hard to break apart even if we take it down to the mere geographical factor disregarding everything else.
Many other speakers talked about their mixed identities, others considered themselves to sort of be citizens of the world, another group shed some light on certain -mostly negative- experiences that were caused by their identities and it seemed to me like all talks portrayed how complex it is to find a definition or a measure for Identity.
On a personal level, I found it interesting to interact with and listen to people from across the world, but I failed to see the point, I failed to understand who is targeted with such an event, did the audience really learn anything new? What are the outcomes? How have these random and no so well structured talks helped us find ourselves or move forward at such a critical time. The forum carries itself as an event that facilitates debate and the exchange of ideas whilst the attendees were all from sectors that are well aware of most of the not too deep issues that were brought up throughout the 2 days. The youth were for the most part excluded from the event, the chairman barely stuck around to listen to the speakers and the general atmosphere during the talks was somewhat boring and monotonous.
I’ve come out with a few things to play around with in my head about identity, but the question that remains is how long will we continue on this road of dialogue about things that can not be discussed deeply at this level nor will really give us any push towards actively rising with our communities? If events that directly come from the royal palaces with endless resources and capabilities for real change are sticking to dialogue then what are we commoners to do?