Jack Lang praises Saudi Arabia and its ‘magnifique’ reforms

Recently re-appointed president of the Institut du Monde Arabe, Jack Lang speaks to Al Majalla on his attachment to the Middle East, regional changes, and teaching Arabic in France.

President of the Arab World Institute, Jack Lang, attends a Gaza ceasefire demonstration, in the courtyard of the Arab World Institute in Paris on January 27, 2024.
President of the Arab World Institute, Jack Lang, attends a Gaza ceasefire demonstration, in the courtyard of the Arab World Institute in Paris on January 27, 2024.

Jack Lang praises Saudi Arabia and its ‘magnifique’ reforms

A former French minister of culture under President François Mitterrand, Jack Lang’s name is synonymous with some of the cultural projects he initiated. To the public, he is best known for founding the country’s annual Fête de la Musique celebration back in 1982, but he also introduced free museum visits, established theatre prizes, and co-founded a theatres’ union.

Now 84, Lang has been reappointed president of the Institut du Monde Arabe (the Arab World Institute) in Paris. This makes it his fourth term, with his involvement beginning in 2013.

From a family with Jewish heritage who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, Lang’s long and deep relationship with the Arab world is a story on its own. Al Majalla spoke to him in Paris about his first attachment to the Arab world, the transformations of Arab capitals, Islamophobia, the status of the Arabic language in France, and his admiration for changes in Saudi Arabia.

Your relationship with the Arab world is described as intimate. Can you tell us when you first heard the word ‘Arabs’?

I don’t remember exactly when, but I must have been quite young, in high school, maybe 14 or 15 years old. There was a war in Algeria. I supported the Algerians against the colonialists.

For decades, you have visited Arab capitals and cities like Beirut, Damascus, and Sana'a. How do you view the current situation in these cities? How has it evolved?

My first visit to an Arab country was to Egypt when I was 17. I visited Cairo and Alexandria. That same year, I travelled to Beirut, Baalbek, and Zahle in Lebanon. I was amazed by the beauty and grandeur of these cities.

At the age of 20, I formed a theatre group in the city of Nancy, and we presented Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes in the village of Rashaya in Lebanon. There, I met (the singer) Fairuz and the (musician) Rahbani brothers for the first time.

Then, at age 25, I visited Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Later, after assuming the presidency of the Institute du Monde Arabe, I became familiar with the Arab Gulf countries.

You have known these Arab capitals for many years now. What do you make of the wars and damage that they have endured?

Generalisations are possible, but each country has its own unique characteristics. Take, for example, the countries of the Maghreb. The Kingdom of Morocco is currently thriving, both culturally and economically. Algeria—a large and beautiful country with an impressive youth population—also holds great potential.

Tunisia, on the other hand, is experiencing a crisis. I stood in solidarity with the youth against Ben Ali and was very happy with their victory, but the current situation is challenging.

Lebanon is another fascinating country with tremendous potential but faces numerous difficulties. Nonetheless, we should place our trust in the younger generation, whose energy is stronger than the political divisions.

Sudan, unfortunately, has become a victim of civil war. There is hope that Arab countries will work to support it in finding a path to peace.

The Arab Gulf countries seem to be in good shape. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in particular, is one of the most magnificent and amazing countries.

It is a large nation. Its young people are motivated, and its leaders have a smart, strategic vision for development, emphasising support for culture, education, and young people.

While I cannot speak about all the Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates stands out, having undergone impressive changes for many years.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most magical and amazing countries. Its young people are motivated, and its leaders have a smart, strategic vision for the future.

When the Institut was established, Islamophobia was not as prominent as it is now. Why has this phenomenon grown in recent decades?

I don't want to make generalisations. Of course, it can be felt in various places, but on the other hand, there is genuine admiration for Islamic countries. Here at the Institut, we spare no effort to promote the greatness of Islam and Arab countries.

For example, a few years ago, we organised a large exhibition on the Hajj in Mecca and another on the treasures of Islam in Africa, both of which were very successful. The Institut's activities related to Saudi Arabia are particularly impressive due to the country's profound changes.

For the first time, we hosted an exhibition on AlUla. We also collaborated on the 'Perfumes of the East' exhibition, which opened last Tuesday at the Saudi National Museum in Riyadh, where it will run for four months.

Currently, we have an exhibition at the Institut on the future of the Arab world featuring works by remarkable Saudi artists. Last week, we hosted 'Saudi Cinema Night' alongside many other Arab cultural activities.

The Institut raised money for visual artists in Gaza who contributed to your 'What Palestine Offers to the World' exhibition, held in recent months. Could you elaborate?

It was an act of solidarity with Gaza's artists. Thanks to the generosity of friends and supporters, we raised €70,000 for their families. I personally helped get some of these artists across the border.

Your name is synonymous with the Fête de la Musique music festival that takes place on 21 June (the summer solstice) every year. You established this in 1982 when you were Minister of Culture. How do you view the increasing criticism of the lyrics of some of the songs?

I have no specific knowledge about this particular issue.

These songs have spread with modern trends such as rap music.

The festival is not specific to any one type of music. Its original character is that it embraces a wide variety of musical genres, such as classical, baroque, popular music, and others. In fact, rap music is one of the least represented.

Do the artists at the festival have absolute freedom in performing their songs?

Yes, of course.

You wrote a book entitled The Arabic Language: France's Treasure. What are the challenges of teaching Arabic in France?

It's important to remember that the Arabic language has been taught in France for centuries. During the reign of Francis I in the 16th century, Arabic was included alongside Old French and Latin.

Arabists, writers, and intellectuals in France and beyond have established a longstanding tradition highlighting the significance of the Arabic language globally. Today, Arabic is taught as an elective in public middle and high schools in France, alongside other languages, although it varies across regions.

It is encouraging to see many professors recommending the study of Arabic at universities and specialised colleges. This trend, which promotes multilingualism alongside national languages to mitigate the dominance of the English language, extends beyond France. Some languages, like German and Italian, are considered less important today, even in France.

At the Institut, we have achieved a high level of Arabic education. We introduced a new initiative: issuing certificates to assess the proficiency of Arabic language learners. This approach has been met with great success.

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