Damascus becomes Arab cultural capital for 2008

DAMASCUS - Damascus heads into a new year as the cultural capital of the Arab world for 2008, hosting a year-long series of theatrical and musical events, along with talks by renowned intellectuals.

American linguist and leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, Czech writer Milan Kundera and Lebanon's famed songstress Fairuz are among the personalities coming to Syria as Damascus assumes the cultural mantle from Algiers.

But not everyone welcomes the planned events, with Syrian writer Ibrahim Haj Abdi calling them "ephemeral cultural festivities."

"Syrian intellectuals might have believed these promises (by the organisers) if only they had been accompanied by efforts to free one of the country's most important intellectuals, Michel Kilo," he wrote in Sunday's pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, published in London.

Kilo was jailed in 2006 for being a co-signatory of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, along with nearly 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals. In May this year he was sentenced to three years in prison.

The declaration called for an overhaul of ties between the two states and for Syrian recognition of the independence of Lebanon, where Damascus was the major powerbroker for three decades until 2005.

Twenty years after she last performed in Syria, Fairuz -- the greatest female Arab singer since Egypt's Umm Kalsum -- will take to the stage on January 28.

In May a conference will bring together Chomsky, Kundera and novelist Isabel Allende, the daughter of former Chilean president Salvador Allende.

Another Syrian novelist writing in Al-Hayat also slammed the organisers of the year's festivities.

"My experience with the organisers quickly dismissed any hope... of seeing it revive the role of culture that has been destroyed over decades" in Syrian society, wrote Samar Yazbek.

The cultural year will get under way on January 10 with a fireworks display on Mount Qassiun overlooking Damascus, followed by an official ceremony nine days later.

wa-tac/rm/srm/txw

12/27/2007 14:18 GMT

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