“Culture is everywhere.” This statement made from The Dot founder Sofiane Si Merabet seems simple at first glance, but the layers of meaning behind it is what a newly opened creative space in Alserkal Avenue aims to unpack. Named because of a dot’s ability to signify a location on a map and transform letters and meanings of words in Arabic, The Dot is a cultural hub in Warehouse 22 of Dubai‘s emerging art district on a mission to delve into understanding the many facets of Arab identities and bring awareness about its diversity to the forefront of everyday conversation.
As the “brainchild” of the digital platform The Confused Arab and cultural agency Karta—both created by Si Merabet as well—The Dot invites members from the community to a rich program of talks, workshops, and performances linked to the Arab world to openly discuss local cultures and challenge preconceived notions about them. The Dot is hosting one such event this Saturday, January 25, with a panel titled “Arab Identities Through Spaces: Are we all “Arabs”?” featuring Emirati film director Abdullah Al Kaabi, French-Syrian journalist Leila Al Aouf, Canadian-Palestinian Nike Middle East communication manager Riham Aboura, and Si Merabet himself. Ahead of the discussion, Vogue Arabia spoke with Si Merabet about the importance of such spaces in society, his advice for people who feel conflicted about their various identities, and his own answer to the often complicated question “Where are you from?”.
How have you seen the Arab identity evolve over the past few years? Do you think the concept of identity has changed or people just became more outspoken about their multifaceted identities?
For a long period of time, Arab identities—not just “identity” as they are very diverse depending on the areas and also different ways of perceiving it—were strongly linked to politics. The difficult events which happened in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa made some Arabs feel stigmatized and not so keen to voice out their identities. On the other hand, the richness and diversity of the Arab identities have been reappropriated by a young generation reclaiming their own narratives in their words and in their language and dialects through music, arts, and fashion. I also personally think that the development of the digital era also allowed us and a larger audience to have greater access to the variety of the Arab world, especially for members of the diaspora like me. Starting in the 1980s, some artists such as Algerian Rachid Taha were already defining non-cliche Arab identities, insisting on being presented as a rock singer!
Why do you think some people have conflicting perceptions about their identity and do you have one piece of advice for those who do?
Identities—always important to allow plurality—are social constructions defined by a particular group. Conflicts around identity often occur when you start questioning who you are (in your way to be self-aware). We have been learning that ‘being a man is like this’, ‘an Arab or a good Muslim should behave like that’. And I would like to say to people questioning their identities that it’s a healthy process. When I started the digital platform The Confused Arab, I had so many questions as I was not satisfied by the narratives presented to me. I have wanted to show that confusion is a good thing as it means that you are questioning and curious about your environment and heritage. In some of my art installations, I also show that you don’t have to choose between your identities; I perceive them as a game where you will use the most adapted card.
Do you think it’s more important to experience living abroad or in your cultural homeland?
It takes us to define what is cultural homeland or motherland. Is it the place where your family is from? Is it just a place or a place and the people? I was born and grew up in France from an Algerian family. I have never lived in Algeria. Weirdly, because culture and traditions were very important for my parents, I don’t feel disconnected when I visit Algeria. That’s why I think people make the homeland. I am very lucid that being French Algerian or Algerian French also means that I have lived specific experiences that a guy born and raised in Algeria didn’t, and the other way around. Living in a diaspora often puts people in limbo, always trying to see what is part of your heritage (and that you might want to keep) versus what is the fruit of several influences around you.
Why do you think it’s important for people to visit The Dot?
To change perception! The Dot will be a place to have discussions with people and personalities from very different backgrounds. We opened the place with the Yennayer celebration (Amazigh/Berber New Year) and people started asking me the relation between Berbers and the Arab world; it was a good opportunity to give more context and information.
What is your personal response to the question “where are you from”?
Because identities are construction, I would say that I can authentically give different answers depending on who is asking. Why? Because instead of using them to put people in boxes, I do think that identities should be used to link people. After all, they are also constructions.
What do you think the future of the Arab world looks like?
I would like to see it brighter and very inspiring. By its location—between Africa, Asia, and facing Europe—such a young population, a rich diaspora, I think it’s time for Arabs to get back to being connectors. As connectors of diversity, we have so many things to share.