In September 11’s Aftermath, Connecting Cultures and Creating Trust on the Silk Road
In the summer of 2002, less than one year after the September 11 attacks, 1.6 million people came to the National Mall to witness and learn from 376 musicians, dancers, craft artisans, storytellers, artists, cooks, and scholars representing 22 nations with ties to the historic Silk Road trade network. With a single theme, The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust, this Smithsonian Folklife Festival was one of the best-attended public events in Washington, D.C., at a time when many people were afraid to congregate in large crowds in spaces that could be targets for another attack.
During a time of uncertainty, with xenophobia and Islamophobia on the rise, the sense of celebration found at a Festival featuring living heritage from Central Asia is inspiring. The Festival was possible due only to the thoughtful efforts of staff at the Center for Folklife and Cultural heritage and their partners in the Silk Road Project and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to create a safe, collaborative space for participants and visitors alike. Examining the motives behind the choice of title for the Festival offers the opportunity to explore the impact of 9/11 on cultural heritage events.
Along with his recently founded Silk Road Project, renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma first approached the Center with the idea for the program in 1999. Because the Silk Road is a story of movement and connectivity—the “Internet of Antiquity,” to use the term coined by Yo-Yo—the curatorial team wanted to emphasize the interchanges and connections between various modes of production rather than representing the cultural traditions in isolation. Yo-Yo initially hoped the theme would be The Silk Road: When Strangers Meet, which Cristin Canterbury Bagnall, Yo-Yo’s general manager and board member of the Silk Road Project, explained:
A whole lot of his point was around the tools that we all need to operate in a global world…. The idea is that what happens when strangers meet is a matter of choice, not predetermination.... How the strangers behave and what tools they bring to that interaction is significant…. He was practicing, and encouraging other musicians to practice their own behavior when they met strangers as musicians. And then encouraging everyone else to practice their own behavior in whatever their life’s work was.
However, when Richard Kurin, then Center director, first heard Yo-Yo’s idea for the theme, he felt it might send the wrong message, even though he admired the goal. “My anthropological perspective, my response was, ‘Yo-Yo, when strangers meet, they tend to kill each other.” Would people from nations at conflict with one another along the trade route be able to perform peacefully on the Mall together? After September 11, this concern widened to include how the American public would react to the “strangers” they would meet at the Festival.
On November 14, 2001, two months after the attacks, the Center’s advisory council met to discuss the future of the Smithsonian and the Center and to address these concerns. The notes from this meeting are a roller-coaster of heartbreaking realities and awe-inspiring resiliency shown by the board and staff as they attempt to navigate their new reality. How would they handle security? Would large numbers of people feel comfortable gathering on a potential target like the National Mall? What kinds of questions would visitors ask? Would the celebration of diversity ring true considering the complex changes currently shifting the nation’s understanding of patriotism and nationalism? Would the participants from Central Asia experience racism or misplaced retaliation? Was it possible or necessary to provide a nuanced understanding of the multiplicity of Islamic cultures?
Despite their concerns, the organizers never questioned the need for the Festival to educate and promote communication. Instead, what was clear to all was the need to handle the messaging of the event delicately, in a manner that fostered the sense of security necessary for curiosity.
These concerns, along with the added emphasis on the need for such programming, appear in a Q&A document provided to Smithsonian officials, public affairs officers, Congressional committee leaders, and Smithsonian regents. One of the posed questions reads, “Are you concerned about producing the program in the light of recent events?” While answering in the affirmative, the document explained that the concern was based only on the potential for the Festival to be a target but stressed that “the Festival has provided a place for cultural democracy of a highly visible sort, and should not be curtailed because of fear.” Furthermore, it emphasized the unique opportunity provided by the theme of the program:
Through the Silk Road, people of different religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds came together. East and West met and created beautiful art, music, food, and knowledge. If there is a time when people of different cultures, people from East and West, again have to meet to advance the human condition, it is now.
Fairouz Nishanova, director of the Aga Khan Music Programme, offered the perspective of an organization experienced in working in countries undergoing what she described as “a post-disruptive event environment.” She and her colleagues still “were all newcomers to having such an event occur in the West… [an event] that a lot of people considered a very distant reality or reality that was a reality for someone else.” She also echoed the sentiments expressed by the Center in regard to the involvement of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture as a creative partner with the Festival: “[The attacks] doubled our resolve and showed us how extraordinarily important that event was, and how important it was for us to participate in it.” She spoke further about the Aga Khan’s continued use of the term “Clash of Ignorances” as opposed to “Clash of Civilizations.” For the Aga Khan, “events such as the Folklife Festival, were instrumental in, if not completely eliminating … then shortening the gap in that abyss... helping to remedy [the clash of ignorances].”
Because an emphasis on the term strangers may emphasize people’s ignorance of one another, it became necessary for the subtheme to focus not on the act of strangers meeting, but rather on what the curatorial team hoped would happen through their gathering. In deciding the program title, our staff wished to avoid terms that were too academic and to make it approachable and emotive, but to avoid “it sounding like a USAID organization.” Festival director Diana Parker felt that “Building Trust” was too loaded a statement after the attacks, while anthropologist Tom Kessinger opined that it was also too final, as they hoped that the Festival’s efforts would continue even after its conclusion. Folklorist Pravina Shukla requested terms that were more dynamic. By January 2002, the team agreed on the theme and name The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust.
The Festival proved successful in sheer size, scale, and attendance, but was it successful regarding the intent described in the theme? The answer seems affirmative. Pakistani truck painter Haider Ali still occasionally visits camel breeder Doug Baum on his ranch in Texas. Former intern Mina Girgis used the lessons he learned from the Festival to establish the Nile Project, an effort to foster communication between countries that border the Nile River through musical and academic collaborations. Anthropologist Alma Kunanbaeva founded the Silk Road House in Berkeley, California, to continue to educate others about the diverse living heritage found along the historic trade network.
In a way, this subtheme simply summarizes one of the core values of all Smithsonian Folklife Festivals. Since its beginning, the Festival has been a purely democratic space in which people may represent themselves as a means of fostering understanding in others. Yo-Yo applauded the Center’s ability to create this very special space. “You can turn the other into us,” he said. The events of September 11 exposed the need for this ability, which enabled the Center and its partners to meet the challenge. The Silk Road program allowed more than one million visitors with a multiplicity of perspectives and backgrounds to celebrate their shared humanity together in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event.
Lindsey Bauler is a researcher for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Through interviews, archival research, and other source gathering, her goal is to bring greater awareness of the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust, from its conception to its continued impact twenty years later through a book, website, and more.