9/11 and the arts

Artistic expression is a humanizing force we would do well to honor – along with the memory of those who died a decade ago

The arts have always had a humanizing influence — rising above political differences to celebrate the transformative power of creative expression. I find myself reflecting on that as we observe the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

On 9/11 I was attending a culture market, Suk-Ukaz, in Amman, Jordan. Western art and theatre producers and presenters had been invited to Jordan to witness much of the good work in the performing and visual arts being showcased that week in Amman from throughout the Middle East.

The transformative power of the arts was the point of this Suk-Ukaz — to encourage western producers to bring work from the Middle East to their communities and thereby help to demonstrate what unites, as opposed to what divides, us, to put a personal as opposed to a political face on a complex region of the world often portrayed with negative messages by the western media.

That day I had blocked out a few hours with some colleagues to travel to the ancient city of Jerash just outside of Amman. It was an appropriate place given the nature of the Suk-Ukaz. Conquered by General Pompey in 63 BC, Jerash came under Roman rule and preserved a subtle blend of east and west in its architecture, religion, and languages. Two powerful cultures meshed and coexisted — the Graeco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin and the traditions of the Arab Orient. What better physical and historical environment to inspire a similar sense of the possible in 2001, using the arts to gather the momentum for understanding.

As in most historical sites, at the end of the self-guided tour there was a place to buy mementos, books, post cards as well as crafts from the region. While I was paying for a postcard, the proprietor beckoned me to a small alcove hidden from view by some lovely fabrics. He parted the cloth and pointed to the images from CNN on a color television.

I saw a plane crashing into the World Trade Center and immediately wondered what Hollywood action thriller I had missed that summer. The clerk and I were communicating mostly through gestures. I put my hands up as if to say, why are you showing me this? He put his hand to his heart and gestured as if to express sorrow. That was the moment of emerging horror for me. Then the cell phones started ringing everywhere and the world of this little Suk-Ukaz, this cultural market trying to do what it could to promote understanding and humanity, changed.

It took a number of days to get back to Boston. Air space had been closed over Israel, limiting access. Indeed, airports everywhere were fully or partially shutting down. Finally, I got a flight to Rome, the only city I could then reach at the time heading in the direction of home. I still have the candle I was given as thousands of people gathered for a prayer vigil walking silently to a solemn ceremony in the Coliseum. The only sounds were orchestral.

The purpose of the Suk-Ukaz, although aborted in this particular situation, still, and ever more importantly, lives on. To that end, ArtsEmerson’s second season has projects: 

questioning our values; 

demonstrating courage in the face of adversity; 

expressing a better understanding of the post-Katrina landscape; 

examining the effects of diabetes on women of color who are disproportionately afflicted with the disease.

We’re also bringing to Boston a courageous theatre company from Kuwait in a project that uses the scenario of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a starting point to explore events in the Middle East, transforming the Bard’s comedy into a satire on the decades of political inertia that have fed recent revolts across the Arab region and creating a daring theatrical metaphor for the mechanisms of dissent.

Those of us who dedicate our lives to the arts and those who are active participants in what we produce (our audience), know that artistic expression can take your breath away; can rock the foundations of your casual beliefs; can inspire changes in behavior; can invade your subconscious; and through the power of the emotion and intellect it stimulates, can make for a better world.

Meet the Author
That’s why I’m thinking a lot about the arts these ten years later.

Rob Orchard is executive director of ArtsEmerson: the World on Stage.